Starting at 5 a.m. most mornings, Hector Castellanos gets behind the wheel of his black Tesla sedan and spends the next 12 hours or so ferrying people around as an Uber and Lyft driver.
Making ends meet is tough. The Tesla costs $340 a week to rent, insurance is $350 a month and his cellphone bill is about $100. Whatever he can clear goes to paying the mortgage on his Antioch home and other expenses.
Like other drivers who work as independent contractors for apps like DoorDash and Uber, Castellanos says he hopes riders can tip above the usual 20% during the festive season. Tipping a little extra during the holidays is especially appreciated, he says, so he can buy Christmas presents, such as sweaters and gift cards, for his wife and two college-age daughters.
“If they can give 30 to 40% during the holidays, that’d be great,” Castellanos said. “I know times are tough, but if you can do a little more, that’s really appreciated.”
Luckily, in the nine years he’s been driving, Castellanos has found many riders are indeed more generous in the last month of the year. He says his income from tips jumps by around 80% during the holidays.
Eduardo Romero, a board member of the Rideshare Drivers United union, suggested that people should try to at least leave a small tip during the holiday season when expenses are higher than ever. Romero, an Uber driver, said riders typically tip him between 5% and 10%.
“I think a 10% tip is OK,” Romero said. “Some people leave a tip like 30% or 50%, but that’s the exception, not the rule.”
Romero said overhead expenses such as gas, car insurance and bridge tolls usually add up to around $3,500 a month—leaving little money left to buy gifts.
“[Tips] are a way to compensate for our low salary,” Romero said. “We’re doing a public service—instead of being with our families during the holidays, we’re working.”
Parking tickets can also add up—especially in the city, said Fernanda Machry, a delivery driver for UberEats and DoorDash in San Francisco.
Regarding the ubiquitous practice of double-parking by food delivery drivers, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency recommends that drivers pull over at a legal curb space instead, even if it means going a few doors down.
Machry said that during the holidays—like at other times of the year—tipping varies widely depending on what kind of food is being ordered. She doesn’t expect much of a tip on fast-food orders, which are cheap and usually for restaurants nearby. For fancier fare, however, on which customers might spend north of $100, she expects a bigger gratuity.
“We don’t expect much if you get a delivery from McDonald's,” Machry said. “But from a nicer restaurant, especially if it’s miles away, maybe leave $10.”
The cost of rides has increased in recent years, and many drivers are receiving smaller tips as a result.
Proposition 22, a November 2020 California ballot measure that solidified ride-share and food delivery drivers’ status as independent contractors. Due to drivers' classification as independent contractors, ride-share companies are not required to reimburse them for operating costs like gas and insurance.
Uber has said that Prop. 22 provides a wage equivalent to 120% of the California minimum wage, which is $15.50 an hour. It will rise to $16 an hour in January.
But a 2020 study by the University of California Berkeley Labor Center estimated that after expenses were taken into account, drivers would earn as low as $5.64 an hour.
Still, people appear split on the issue of tipping: While some evangelize its importance as basic decency, others dismiss it as an unfair extra expense that shouldn’t fall on the heads of customers.
"I always tip absolutely ALWAYS!” said one Reddit user, who attributed their largesse to years of experience working as a barista and pizza delivery person. “I say if you can’t afford to tip, then you can’t afford to get delivery.”
Others felt differently.
“Tip for basically doing your job? Doing what you signed up for?” commented another Reddit user in the same thread. “[A] tip is for going above & beyond/exceptional service- not a default payment. Otherwise it’s just like tax."
For its part, an Uber spokesperson said in an email that the company encourages tipping and that “the holiday spirit seems to encourage higher tips,” particularly on Dec. 31, when the average tip goes up for both Uber and UberEats drivers.
For Uber rides, the average tip amount and the share of riders who tip are higher on New Year's Eve. For UberEats, tips spike between Dec. 25 and Dec. 31, and tips on Christmas top 30%.
Uber added that customers can tip up to 30 days after their ride or delivery through the app.