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Uber says tipping drivers isn’t expected, but let’s be honest: it is

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Tips are not included 'nor are they expected'

If you've been following the news about Uber's landmark $100 million settlement with its drivers in California and Massachusetts, you may think that tipping your driver is now a thing. After all, Uber said it would now allow drivers to start soliciting tips as part of the agreement. But the company just emailed riders in New York City to clarify that "tips are not included nor are they expected on Uber."

"Nothing has changed," writes Josh Mohrer, Uber's New York City general manager. "As we've said for many years, being Uber means you don't need to tip. Of course, if you want to tip your driver—we estimate riders offer tips on only a very small number of trips—you’re free to do so, and drivers are free to accept."

Mohrer's email isn't an isolated missive. Uber also published a post on Medium that goes into greater detail about the company's position on tipping. "Whether consciously or unconsciously, we tend to tip certain types of people better than others," Uber says. "This means two people providing the same level of service get paid different amounts. With Uber, drivers know that they earn the same for doing the same trip, no matter who they are or where they’re from."

Uber also cites a 2008 Cornell University study that finds "consumers of both races discriminate against black service providers by tipping them less than white service providers." That's right: tipping is racist.

But Uber's assertion that tips are not "expected" is highly questionable. The existence of a mutual rating system makes tips a de facto expectation. You rate the drivers, and they rate you. Many, if not most, drivers would probably appreciate a few extra bucks to say thanks for the ride. The day after the settlement was announced, I wrote a story with the headline "You should probably tip your Uber driver from now on." My reasoning was as follows:

What's at stake if you don't? Well, your rating as a rider could take a serious hit if you start stiffing drivers. And after a while, you may wonder why no drivers accept your trip requests. The answer should be obvious: because you're a no-tip-giving monster and you don't deserve to go anywhere, so good luck catching the bus, I hear it's going to be crowded for the next 100 years.

The story got a lot of comments, and I got a lot of personal feedback, from drivers and others. Shannon Liss-Riordan, the attorney representing the Uber drivers in the settlement, said the story was "perceptive," but failed to include any analysis of drivers' wages without tips.

"I'm sorry if customers find it irritating or inconvenient to tip but the workers who are providing services to them are trying to make a living or pay their bills with this work," Liss-Riordan said in an email. "People may not like tipping waiters either but that's how they make their money. Sure, tipping is not 'cool' for customers but the entire hospitality and service industry depends on it. And if riders are annoyed about not being able to tip drivers on the app, they should all let Uber know that they want the option on the app. If both drivers and customers ask for it, then maybe Uber will listen to that."

A former Uber driver named John also found some flaws in my analysis, especially with the assumption that a rider's ratings will suffer if they neglect to tip. "When the driver gets done, he gets his one and only chance to rate the rider before he accepts his next ride, while the passenger can rate any time they want," John said. "If I only take one Uber, and my rating goes down I know who did it, and I can give a 1* for spite. If my rating gets to [sic] low as a rider I can always get a new account, the driver can't. Uber wants a 4.6 average or they will pull the plug on you [sic] driving."

Still, the fact that Uber felt the need to clarify its position on tipping in the aftermath of the settlement suggests there's some nervousness within the company that riders may flee the service if they are suddenly bombarded with tip requests from drivers. That's unlikely to happen, mostly because drivers are already a trepidatious bunch when it comes to their ratings. That could change, however, if Uber follows through on its promise in the settlement to stop deactivating drivers at will.

If anything, Uber's statements on tipping is an indication of the general murkiness of its relationship with both riders and drivers, post-settlement. And it's an acknowledgment that Uber is no longer the only choice for customers in need of a ride. There's Lyft, which is positioning itself as the driver friendly alternative to Uber, and the upcoming Juno, which is positioning itself as the driver-friendlier alternative to Uber and Lyft.

Lyft includes a tipping option within its app. Uber does not, and if today's message is any indication, the company has no plans to include a tipping option in the future. Also Uber could ultimately backtrack on its agreement to allow drivers to ask for tips. How so? The non-monetary provisions in the settlement are set to expire in two years. By 2018, asking for tips could again become taboo at Uber.


Ordering Ubers with an Amazon Echo