Why Don’t We Tip Fast-Food Workers?

Coming to America
Coming to America
Screenshot: Paramount Pictures

I didn’t know you were supposed to tip bartenders until I was 25 years old. And then, I only learned because I was tip-shamed by a woman I was dating.


She saw I didn’t leave a tip on the Long Island iced teas I’d ordered for both of us (again, I was 25) and asked, “Really? No tip?”

I replied, “Why?”

She then raised her eyebrows, tilted her head and squinted at me with an expression that could best be described as the “I can’t believe I thought you were spongeworthy” face and began gulping her untipped drink. I don’t miss my 20s.

In my defense, at that point in my life, I had perfectly justifiable reasons for not knowing that tipping was expected. My parents weren’t drinkers, so appropriate and responsible alcohol-consumption behaviors never came up. When I started going to clubs and bars in college, I was still so broke that my only form of alcohol consumption was pregaming.

I didn’t get an actual drink at the bar until I was in my early 20s, but then I was (still) so broke that I’d get to the club early as shit to catch those “Free drinks before 10:47 p.m. or if you’re wearing a lavender thong” specials. If I did happen to have some extra money and I happened to be out, I was (probably) also eating with my drink, so whichever tip I left was factored into the total bill. I existed in a bubble of not tipping for alcohol and would’ve continued to had I not been shamed.

That in mind, I understand why some adults are so adamantly against tipping. If you weren’t introduced to it as a young person, I can see how the idea of giving a restaurant extra money on top of your bill and having to solve an equation in order to do it can seem wack, like, “I’m giving you more cash AND I have to do algebra? Fuck this.” I imagine it sounds the way tithing sounds to a non-Christian. “I gotta give you money so I can see Jesus? I thought Jesus was free. Bethlehem ain’t have no membership fees.”

To be clear, understanding isn’t excusing. If you’re an adult, you should do the things expected of adulthood. Tipping, regardless of how you feel about it, is one of those things. You don’t get to opt out just because you believe it’s wack. It doesn’t make you principled—just a wack motherfucker with arbitrarily shitty principles. But I understand the reluctance that (some) people possess, especially if it’s a relatively new concept.


What I don’t understand is that, within this tipping conversation and tipping economy, fast-food workers are always left out. And this dynamic exists despite the fact that they probably work harder than everyone.

If you’re working for McDonald’s or Burger King, you’re on your feet for eight hours, you’re dealing with literally all types of people (babies, assholes, teenagers, drunks, Kappas, etc.), you’re dealing with people who expect their food to be ready in 15 seconds and you’re doing everything. You’re not just on the fries. You’re on the fries and flipping burgers and emptying trash and cleaning bathrooms and subduing Samuel L. Jackson and his shotgun. And you’re doing all of this for a tipless minimum wage.

Of course, you could say that some people who eat at fast-food restaurants are eating there specifically because they don’t have enough disposable money for things like tipping. And that’s fine. But what about the people who do—who’d leave a $7 tip on a $30 bill at the Cheesecake Factory but wouldn’t think to tell the cashier at Taco Bell to just keep the change when handing him $10 for a $7.21 bill?


It gets even more absurd when you consider that maybe, if that fast-food restaurant has a register-adjacent jar for a charity—the Ronald McDonald House or the United Way, perhaps—people might put change in there. But why is that better than the cashier’s pocket, or the fry cook’s pocket, or the shift manager’s pocket, or anyone’s pocket behind the counter?

An obvious counter is that while fast-food workers make minimum wage, servers at restaurants make even less, so tipping is more vital there. But I just don’t think that a food worker’s income (or lack thereof) is our primary social and psychological motivation for tipping. It’s less “I need to supplement this person’s income” and more “This person provided me some yummy food and decent service, and I want to thank them.”


Often, when I write a piece asking questions like this, they’re rhetorical. I already know the answers, and I’m either trying to find the rationale or trying to articulate how absurd those rationales are. I have no answers for this, though. I DON’T HAVE THE ANSWERS FOR WHY WE GENERALLY DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT TIPPING FAST FOOD WORKERS!

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)



Tip related question: Do y’all tip on take out/pick up orders?