Kempner: Once a tip-free zone, Uber caves on gratuities. Now what?

Passengers load their luggage into an Uber driver’s car at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

Passengers load their luggage into an Uber driver’s car at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

Uber apparently wants to do right by its drivers and be a real pal to them.

Which it plans to do by putting pressure on customers. Once a gloriously guilt-free, no-tip-expected zone, Uber now wants us to give its drivers tips.

Will the shifting, confounding world of tipping ever settle down? If Uber can't hold fast, who can?

Uber announced it now will include a gratuity option in the app customers use to set up rides. The change goes fully into effect throughout the nation this month.

The ride-hailing company’s drivers have endured years of rate cuts and complained loudly about pay. Tips had been their number one goal for change. (They weren’t barred from accepting cash tips, but with Uber’s system of setting up payment through an app in advance of rides, gratuities weren’t standard, drivers tell me. I’m told they are more common with rival Lyft, which has long included the option to give a tip through its app at the end of a ride.)

Uber famously wanted to make getting from one point to another as frictionless as possible for customers. It was the anti-taxi. It let us believe early on that the equivalent of tips were already included in its rates.

No need to worry about having enough cash in the right denominations to show your appreciation. No uncomfortable pauses trying to figure out what gratuity makes sense. Are they like a waiter or a valet? Or like one of those folks with an annoying tip jar beside the to-go counter?

On an Uber ride you never have to carry a wallet or purse. Oh, sweet freedom!

Of course, you gave up a little something in the process. If you want to reward an exceptional Uber driver with a tip, the seamless setup develops some cracks.

“I don’t carry cash. I couldn’t give a tip if I wanted to,” Kayce Ryan of Duluth told me. So when drivers sometimes went out of their way to take her through a McDonald’s drive-thru, she’d buy them a meal with her debit card.

Thanks, here’s a six-pack

Other riders came up with their own tip alternatives. I read on an online Uber drivers forum about passengers who had given a six-pack of Coors Light, a bag of gummy bears, a bottle of vodka and a pair of used shoes.

Recently Ryan switched from being an Uber rider to a driver. I caught up with her on her second day on the job. On her first day she made $37 in six hours, before expenses.

Tips? Zero, though she told me she had gone out of her way to put on makeup and stock her Chevy Equinox with bottled water and candy for her passengers.

I assume it will get better with experience.

Kayce Ryan of Duluth recently started working as an Uber driver. She tried adding extras — like free bottled water and candy — to make passengers comfortable. She hopes it also leads to gratuities. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

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“I got a hundred dollars on Father’s Day,” Samuel Howard of Norcross told me.

The big tip, he said, came from a woman he drove to an address in a rough neighborhood of Atlanta. “We just had a good conversation about life.”

He retired from a food safety job with Whole Foods and now drives about five days a week for Uber. Howard doesn’t leave the opportunity for tips up to chance. Besides an immaculate car and extra service, he installed a seat-back sign that thanks passengers, offers use of a charger, encourages them to rate him with five stars and reminds them that “tips are not required but are greatly appreciated.”

Try ignoring that a foot and a half away from your face.

In a perfect world, companies would actually pay their workers for the value they provide. Instead, a host of businesses pay part of the freight and then expect their customers to search their souls and guess how much more waiters, drivers, to-go counter helpers, hotel housekeepers, buffet staff, valets, grocery helpers, delivery people and others deserve.

This is inherently flawed.

Most of us don’t know exactly what workers at any particular business are paid in wages or commissions. And we have little visibility into how much they’re making in tips from other people, some of whom are certainly cheapskates.

Anyone who has worked in a service job that’s tightly tied to tips knows how volatile and uncertain tipping practices can be.

And then there is the obvious illogic of the system.

Waiters at high-end restaurants can pull down serious money, thanks to tips. Good for them. But do they actually sweat any more than great servers at less illustrious restaurants who may be less doting, but often juggle more tables and walk away with far less in gratuities?

How much should you tip an Uber driver? Some rides are like $3.50. I can’t picture giving a 70-cent tip, which would be 20 percent.

Uber drivers are likely to see more tips from passengers now that the ride-hailing company is changing its app to include the option to give a gratuity. Samuel Howard, an Uber driver from Norcross, already uses a sign to encourage giving. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

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Struggling for answers

Even some Uber drivers I spoke with struggled to answer that question.

“I have no idea,” Howard told me. (Even with the addition of a tip-option in the app, he said, “I’m not expecting a big windfall.”)

Uber’s app offers tip options of $1, $2, $5 and an amount set by the rider.

Harry Campbell, a full-time L.A.-based blogger on ridesharing ( and part-time driver for Uber and Lyft, told me he doesn't expect Uber tips to become as common as tipping restaurant waiters and waitresses.

“Asking every single rider to automatically tip is unreasonable,” he told me.

Instead, he suggests leaving a 10 to 20 percent tip for drivers who provide above average service.

Without the tip option in Uber’s app, only about one out of every 10 or 20 riders give a gratuity to drivers on average, Campbell said.

Drivers who get great ratings from passengers should have an easier time being rewarded for their efforts, he reasons. “I like the good karma but I also like to be financially rewarded.”

Of course, I got the sense that even The Ride Share Guy gets my concern about the creep of tipping into more of our consumer life. He related to me the uncomfortable stare down when at a coffee shop counter getting a cup to go.

“Everywhere you go now,” he said, “someone is asking you for a tip.”

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AJC Unofficial Business columnist Matt Kempner offers you a unique look at the business scene in metro Atlanta and beyond. You'll find more on, including these columns:

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