Gratuity in the time of corona

I have this one regular customer who’s been on my mind today. Prior to the coronavirus, prior to the shelter-in-place order, he may or may not have left a tip when he came in to my coffee shop—I, honestly, have no idea because of how we’ve built the payment system into the café’s service model.

My co-workers and I take orders and perform transactions on an iPad, and we turn the screen to the guest whenever a card is used so they can select the tip amount and sign while the cashier performs some other task. It’s a sort of polite idea to help reduce the pressures associated with tipping, but since the County of Sacramento has issued additional guidelines to promote public safety amidst a pandemic, the barrier of the tip screen has been torn down—we ask what amount the customer would like to tip and then sign on their behalf.

To be so involved in the tipping process is strange, to say the least. While the idea of gratuity has been around since the 17th century, there is still an inherent aura of condescension that comes with accepting tips in the United States, where the federal minimum wage for tipped workers is still $2.13 per hour. After waiting tables in Mississippi for several years, I quickly learned to never expect an actual paycheck that was more than a few cents, and I started to feel like a corporate-sanctioned street performer tipping my hat and doing tricks for passersby.

Since moving to California, where the hourly wage for tipped employees mirrors the standard minimum wage set by the state, I’ve been able to shake the feeling of subservience that hounded me for years while working at restaurants in the South. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to earn an actual paycheck, to pay taxes, and earn raises. Gratuities, while definitely welcome and very much appreciated, are no longer my sole source of income.

Over the last week, I’ve served this one specific customer a few times. Each time, after he ordered and paid for his items, I asked him which option he would like for me to select on the tip screen, and, each time, he was overly apologetic about asked me to select the “No Tip” option.

I brushed it off—“It’s all good!”—each time, but I fight myself when I don’t ask him to stay for a moment. I want to tell him that it’s okay, that life is strange right now and that I have absolutely no idea what’s happening in his world. Maybe a cappuccino is a necessary semblance of what life looked like two months ago—maybe he can’t really afford it but he needs it. Maybe he doesn’t think that I deserve a gratuity. Whatever the reason is, it’s okay—it’s all good—and I hope that he can find some happiness in a splurge from a coffee shop without it being marred by the societal expectations of customers having to take care of tipped employees.

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