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Tipping Etiquette in the Time of Coronavirus: How Much Is Enough?

May 7, 2020

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Delivery workers at restaurants, grocery stores, and other essential businesses provide a lifeline to homebound shoppers while the highly infectious and deadly coronavirus circulates, so you might be wondering: When do I need to leave a tip? And how much gratuity is enough?

From curbside pickup to alcohol delivery, there are many services that could warrant a tip, but the etiquette on tipping during a pandemic isn’t obvious.

“This is the time when we should be generous if we can, but there is no hard and fast rule for how much extra to give,” says Diane Gottsman, author of “Modern Etiquette for a Better Life” and founder of the Protocol School of Texas.

So, what does “generous” mean in dollars and cents? Follow these pointers to avoid an etiquette error the next time you go to leave a tip.

1. Always tip for delivery and takeout/curbside pickup

Whether you’re getting Mexican food delivered for Taco Tuesday or placing an order for delivery from your local cannabis dispensary, right now you should tip at least 15% to 20%, Gottsman says. The same goes for grocery or alcohol delivery.

If you’re picking up from a restaurant that started offering curbside pickup in the wake of the pandemic, leave a tip.

“The people that are outside are probably employees they’re trying to save from losing their job,” Gottsman says. “They’re probably working for gratuity but not a large hourly rate.”

But just how much should you tip for curbside or in-store pickup? That depends. While some etiquette experts suggest tipping the same 15% to 20% that you would tip for delivery, others say it’s OK to go lower.

“There is a difference between curbside pickup and actual delivery, and for delivery there’s more involved,” says Elaine Swann, a lifestyle and etiquette expert. “Anyone coming to your front door should get a little more money.”

Still, Swann suggests tipping at least 10% on pickup orders during a pandemic.

When it comes to grocery pickup, the etiquette is a bit more complicated.

“Grocers normally don’t allow their people to take tips; although in this scenario, they might have altered their policy,” Gottsman says. If you want to tip the curbside pickup person at your grocery store, ask first if a gratuity can be accepted.

Most of us aren’t in the habit of tipping drive-up window workers at fast-food restaurants, and that’s still OK, Gottsman says—those workers earn an hourly rate, and staffing the drive-up window is part of their regular job duties.

2. Tip just as generously regardless of who delivers

Whether you order your lunch directly from a restaurant or through a third-party delivery service like Grubhub or DoorDash, you should tip the delivery driver the same amount.

Gottsman suggests at least 15% to 20% here, too—although you might have noticed some delivery apps have a default tip set to 25%. If you’re able to swing it, it’s a nice way to thank the person facing the health risk to deliver essentials to you.

“Whether you’re ordering through a third-party service or the restaurant itself, the tip is intended for the person delivering it to you, so I think they should be treated equally,” Swann says.

Even if you have to pay extra for delivery through a third-party service, service fees shouldn’t cut into your tip. On that note …

3. A service or delivery fee is not a tip

When you see a delivery fee or service charge on your order total, that money doesn’t go to your driver—so don’t use it as an excuse to pinch pennies with the tip.

“A delivery fee covers other costs for the restaurant,” Gottsman says. “It’s really important not to confuse a delivery fee with a gratuity. They are two different things.”

4. Some workers can’t accept tips, but you can still offer a kind gesture

Right now, you might be feeling extra grateful for postal workers delivering mail and packages every day. But mail carriers aren’t allowed to accept cash tips or gifts worth more than $20 in value.

“What you could do for somebody you appreciate is leave a nice candy in the mailbox or a gift card for a cup of coffee,” Gottsman says.

What about your local boutique that’s started delivering home goods, or the pet supply store that’s delivering dog food? Many small retail businesses don’t expect tips, Swann says, but now is a great time to show gratitude by posting a glowing review online.

“Not only should we be patronizing our businesses, but we should be putting forth an effort to highlight our positive experiences,” she says. “If they can get that virtual high-five during this time, that would be very helpful.”

5. Be cautious with cash

For online or phone orders, you’ll likely add the tip when you provide your credit card information. But what about cash tips at a time when we’re all trying to eliminate unnecessary physical contact?

“If you do have to tip in cash, to put [workers] at ease, put the cash in an envelope in advance,” Swann says. “One of the core values of etiquette is to make sure we’re doing everything we can to put others at ease.”

And of course, if cash changes hands, sanitize or wash your hands before and after the interaction and follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines for maintaining safe social distance.

6. Tip on the total, not the subtotal

It’s the perennial debate: Should you tip on the subtotal before tax, or the total after tax?

“Just tip on the whole thing,” Gottsman says. As essential workers gear up in masks and gloves and take extra precautions to deliver food and necessities so the rest of us can stay home, now isn’t the time to be stingy.

“Do those few pennies matter? I think they matter to that person [you’re tipping],” she says.

7. Consider tipping contractors, fitness instructors, and others who go above and beyond

You probably wouldn’t normally tip a plumber or electrician who comes into your home, but if you can afford it, it’s not a bad idea, Gottsman says.

“If they come out in the middle of the night or they come out all masked and covered up, you might offer to give them some extra gratuity,” she says. “More than likely they will take it. … They aren’t having the businesses they normally have.”

If your favorite trainer or fitness instructor offers free workout plans or streaming classes while gyms are closed, you may also want to send them a tip on Venmo or PayPal.

“If they’re not charging you but just doing it to keep you going, then why not go ahead and send them a little something?” Swann asks.

8. When in doubt, just do what you can

This is a tough financial time for many people. If tipping above and beyond your normal amount feels out of reach, don’t beat yourself up—just do what’s in your budget.

“The bottom line is, we give what we can afford at this time,” Gottsman says. “Some people are not impacted at all financially, and some people don’t have jobs. To say across the board that everyone should tip more would be unfair.”

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