I try to keep this blog free of extensive quoting and writing about other people’s writing, but Jennifer Gonnerman‘s brilliant piece on the plight of the city’s food delivery people in this week’s New York Magazine gets a special exception.

If you haven’t read it I ask you to do so now — it’s riveting and you won’t want to put it down. We’ve all seen the protesters outside Saigon Grill. I, for one, have never bothered to look into the specifics of the dispute too much. I’m glad New York did, as it’s one of the most revealing and important situations we’ve recently faced in our food-obsessed city. This isn’t some run-of-the-mill labor dispute. These guys, and several others from several other restaurants around town, are routinely verbally abused, stiffed on their pay (some earning a shocking $1.70 per hour), forced to pay their own medical bills when they’re hit by cars, and forced to pay for their own meals while at work which takes a big cut out of their meager tips.

And yes, I know there’s not much you can personally do about these modern robber baron restaurant owners besides boycott the joints. That’s why I’m writing here today, to talk about what we can do, and that is to aggressively, immediately address the tipping situation.

I find that New Yorkers have a disturbingly inhumane and ignorantly flippant approach to service tipping. Our high-minded and cynical tipping philosophies revolve around an antiquated nostalgic view that we tip to reward good service. This is incorrect. As we all know, tipping is our way of paying for the cheap food and incredible service we have available to us nearly around the clock. That cheapness and availability comes at a cost we never see — the low wages of undocumented restaurant workers. Owners pass on those savings to us, and we greedily accept it while rationalizing our way out of acknowledging and supporting the very people that make it possible.

I know it’s unpopular to think of delivery people as people — they’re faceless, they come and go in the blink of an eye, we see them more often than we see our own families but we never want to know their names. That’s because if we did we would be embarrassed that we give them 10% tips, or just a dollar per delivery, or sometimes nothing at all, and we would be mortified at the excuses we come up with: they make enough money from the restaurant, they don’t do as much work as a server in-house, they didn’t smile, the food was a few minutes later than they promised on the phone.

But when you have an economy that is entirely supported by people who make less than $60 per shift and who literally risk their lives to make it possible for us to have Thai food with our Sopranos DVDs at 1AM, these excuses are exposed for their blatant thoughtless immateriality.

Delivery people work hard — harder than anyone should have to to get by. As a former bike courier I know how taxing that constant up and back is on the body, the knees and back especially. I know how much worse it gets when the weather is bad or when you hit a deep pot hole at full speed, or when you’re doored by some oblivious jerk. But I made solid money at that job — constant work, often with a guaranteed salary from the company if it got slow. These guys however, go through all of that pain with only the hope that they’ll make more than $8 after the 3 miles of biking the next hour will bring.

I also never had to risk being beaten up and robbed. I never had cash on-hand. Delivery people, however, carry hundreds of dollars with them at any given moment and opportunistic muggers know it. The smart delivery guys just hand over all the loot (and the food), and then watch their already hanging-on pay get docked by the robber barons when they luckily make it safely back to the restaurant.

The culture will never change. That’s a guarantee. As long as we want this level of luxury without paying $50 for take-out entrees, then our eating industry will be built on the suffering of others whom we consider less valuable. The least we can do is add that extra dollar to the bill that makes it all bearable for the others. If you put it in perspective, the ratio of the sacrifices is very out of proportion. But it still helps.

I know I will never tip a delivery person less than 20% ever again. I think we all have a responsibility to do the same.

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