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Got tipping rage? This barista reveals what it's like to be behind the tip screen

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The rise of so-called tipflation has consumers fuming. People are pushing back against the social pressure of the tip screen on digital transactions and the higher amounts that they're being asked to tip. But NPR's Stacey Vanek Smith wondered about the other side of that screen and how the workers feel. Here she is with more.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Dylan Schenker got his first job as a barista in 2010. It was just a way to make rent.

DYLAN SCHENKER: At first, it was just a job, but then you kind of become passionate about it.

SMITH: So passionate that 13 years later, Schenker is still working as a barista, now at a cafe in Philadelphia.

SCHENKER: I've become kind of a nerd about it. I have some of my own equipment that I'll bring with me.

SMITH: Like Schenker's special portafilter, which lets him see the coffee while it's brewing. Schenker says he knows exactly what a perfect cup of coffee should look like and tastes like.

SCHENKER: A good espresso shot - it has kind of, like, a creamy, full-mouth, just, like, slightly sour, slightly bitter.

SMITH: Also slightly bitter these days - the tipping situation.

SCHENKER: I know tipping with baristas is weird.

SMITH: It wasn't always like this. When Dylan started out, tipping was in cash, and it wasn't much. He took home roughly 10 bucks a day. But tipping gradually became a bigger and bigger part of his pay and has gotten more and more uncomfortable.

SCHENKER: This sort of, like, awkwardness - it's, like, verboten to say out loud anything about tipping in front of the tip screen.

SMITH: And every once in a while things get really weird.

SCHENKER: I remember this one guy. He looks up at me, and he's like, I accidentally tipped. I'm like, what do you expect me to respond to that? I'm sorry?

SMITH: The rise of the tip screen in businesses from fast food to grocery stores has been causing a lot of confusion and outrage for customers.

SYLVIA ALLEGRETTO: I mean, even my own niece called me about this.

SMITH: Sylvia Allegretto is an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

ALLEGRETTO: I became an economist because I was a low-wage worker for a long, long time, and part of that was a tipped worker.

SMITH: Allegretto says being a tipped worker is tough. Poverty rates for tipped workers are more than double that of other workers. Allegretto says we tend to think of tips as a bonus for good service, but in reality they are something else entirely.

ALLEGRETTO: It's a subsidy. It's a wage subsidy to the employer. It's not a tip. It goes to your wage. It's just the amount that the employer doesn't have to pay you. And people don't understand this.

SMITH: And here's where we get to this moment we're having in tipping. With inflation happening across the economy, businesses are dealing with rising costs. At the same time, there's a lot of pressure to keep prices low for increasingly frugal customers. Tipping is a way to get more money from customers without actually charging them more, money that goes to paying workers.

SCHENKER: If there is some means of tipping that's available to you, that should signal to you that they aren't being paid enough. Tipping is sort of an acknowledgment of that fact.

SMITH: Barista Dylan Schenker says tips make up 10- to 20% of his pay, a very volatile 10- to 20% that totally relies on the whims and moods of customers.

SCHENKER: If you aren't tipping them, then you are taking advantage of that labor.

SMITH: Tipping is presented as a choice, a thank-you for great service. But businesses are using tips as a baked-in part of worker pay and a way to attract often hard-to-find workers. More and more companies are doing this, and customers are increasingly resentful about the awkward tip screen moments and the unexpectedly high final bill. But Schenker says a lot of people don't understand the wages service workers actually make. He is 39. He has a decade of experience and expertise, and...

SCHENKER: I've never made more than $25,000 a year. I cannot even wrap my head around the idea of even just making 30- or $40,000 a year. I could just, like, do so much with just that much money.

SMITH: Roughly half of Schenker's customers tip, which is in line with the national average. But data shows customers have an increasingly negative view of tipping. Tips are down from last year by nearly 10% for food service workers. And just in case you were wondering if workers can tell if you've tipped or not from the tip screens, they can.

SCHENKER: There's just something really, really demoralizing about someone seeing that screen, knowing I'm not rich and kind of just not caring about you enough to kind of, like, want to help you make a living.

SMITH: Especially when he is standing there with their perfectly balanced, sour-but-not-too-sour espresso drink.

Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.