I am all about giving the devil his due. I feel that people in service industries deserve proper compensation for their efforts. For such people, hair sytlists, masseurs, wait staff, newspaper delivery staff, etc., I assess a reasonable range for a tip based on service and disburse a tip on the high end of that range, wherever applicable.

A point of ambiguity for me was always the US mail carrier. For years, I have gotten mixed answers about whether a tip would be appropriate for mail carrier. What complicates this for me, every year, is hearing that the carrier in my parents’ town leaves an envelope in their mailbox around holiday time, presumably to solicit a tip.

I first consulted Emily Post, which is usually a good resource for the proper thing to do. From this webpage, the rules for mail carrier tipping are rather involved and are extremely specific:

Mail carriers working for the United States Postal Service are allowed to accept the following items during the holiday season:

  • Snacks and beverages or perishable gifts that are not part of a meal.
  • Small gifts that have little intrinsic value (travel mugs, hand warmers, etc…) and are clearly no more than $20 in value.
  • Perishable items clearly worth more (large fruit baskets or cookie tins) must be shared with the entire branch.

Mail carriers working for the United States Postal Service may not accept the following:

  • Cash gifts, checks, gift cards, or any other form of currency.

I corroborated these rules by calling two local postmasters in the capital region. They both cited the above rules almost verbatim.

Let’s stop here and break it down into plain english. In a perfect world, where people get all of their mail on time and are gracious and eager enough to tip and where the mail carriers get compensated for their job in the form of federal salary and benefits, the best you can do for your mail carrier is purchase/bake a tangible item that cannot be cash or be valued as cash. I don’t want to say you shouldn’t bother rewarding the mail carrier, but, unless you have a specific bond with the carrier, finding such a gift that would be appreciated could be difficult. Let’s also agree that a mail carrier providing an envelope is wrong. Since they are not allowed to accept cash gifts, they should not be soliciting cash gifts.

I additionally sought to get an idea of how people deal with and feel about the situation locally, so (full disclosure) I submitted it as a topic to Kristi Gustafson’s “On the Edge” blog, which she posted as one of her “A Reader Asks” features, in which other Times Union blog readers can chime in with their opinions. This has turned into an interesting social experiment indeed…

Through the various forms of social media (mainly twitter and sometimes facebook, since we have still yet to meet in person!), I joke with Kristi about how easily her readers go off topic. Some people provided very good insight, but, as you can see from the comments at the above link, other people really went in all different directions with this question. I’d like to, without getting too specific, summarize and react to a few of the off topic responses.

  • Some people commented on how their newspaper carrier left an envelope for a tip. Sorry people, I get it, it’s a newspaper blog, you want the people writing the blog to know you’re buying their paper, but the question said nothing about tipping your newspaper carrier. If you get your paper in excellent condition on time every day, of course you’re supposed to; they’re not federal employees…
  • Other people used it as a forum to complain about their mail carrier and why they wouldn’t deserve tips. Fair enough, but the question was supposed to be a little universal in already assuming the carrier does their job well and deserves a tip.
  • (Sorry this one is specific, but…) One dude called another woman “ignorant.” Classic!
  • Some people felt the need to remind everyone that the USPS delivers in all weather. I’m sorry, but at some point, the choice to perform a job is the responsibility of the individual. I don’t go to my mail carrier’s house and make them go out and deliver mail; nobody does. It is a free country and that is the profession the person has chosen, in good and in bad. I have plenty of complaints about the profession that I have chosen, but I would never say “you know what, i deserve to be compensated specifically from my customers because I deal with hazardous chemicals every day.” This is why working professionals are given a salary; in exchange for your choice to work every day, you get paid.
  • There were people accusing others of being cheap for not wanting to tip the mail carrier. So why not just tip everybody, then? Am I being cheap when I don’t tip the guy at the deli counter at Price Chopper?

All in all, getting to the bottom of this has been a lot of fun. It’s great to see what people think once you get into their emotions. People say the darndest things…

As for the matter of tipping the mail carrier, tangible items (no cash/gift cards) under $20 are ok. So stick to that, and nobody is breaking the law.

12 Comments for this entry

  • kriskaten says:

    i read this yesterday, and asked my coworker what she thought. her husband is a mail carrier. she said he is allowed to take whatever tips he gets but would never expect a tip. i inquired again with regards to cash, because i felt it was strange that a federal employee be allowed to accept cash. she said he has in the past.
    so i guess, you ask 50 people, you will get 50 different answers. while the post masters you spoke to might know the real rules, the employees don’t even seem to.
    i wouldn’t think it’s cheap to not leave them a gift at christmas. like you said, i don’t get tipped for doing my job. it’s pc run amok.

    • derryX says:

      I would in the very least like to raise the awareness that not only is it inappropriate for a mail carrier to get cash, it is further inappropriate to solicit cash from unknowing people.

  • Kicknknit says:

    We have had 3 different mail carriers this year. I would have LOVED to tip the guy who was delivering mail consistantly… but I never know who it’s going to be.. it seems to vary by month.. I can always tell because sometimes I actually get MY mail. Sometimes I get my neighbors mail and sometimes I get no mail.. for a week.. which I know is not possible. (plus, sometimes he didn’t pick up my mail for three days and I had to call the post office)

    So am I tipping the mail carrier this year? Only if I spot the good one and have his gift in my pocket. Sad, but true.

    Last year, we had an AWESOME TU carrier.. always on time.. never missed a paper.. Loved my dogs (I’d see him on morning walks) and yah, he left me a “holiday card” which I’m sure was just to give me his address… and I mailed him a gift card. Because he was awesome..

    But we don’t have HIM anymore either. Sad.

  • Kristi says:

    This was the No. 1 post on OTE yesterday, so thank you for the contribution.

    • derryX says:

      No problem. It’s one of those things where people have their hearts in the right place but need to be educated on what’s right. If I’ve educated one person in this whole process, I am satisfied.

  • Valerae says:

    I didn’t wade through all 48 comments over on Kristi’s blog, but here’s what I know from personal experience. My dad was a mail carrier in Illinois and in Arizona. He was not allowed to solicit tips (nor would he). At the time, they weren’t technically allowed to accept money, but management always looked the other way. He was always appreciative and humbled by the generosity of his customers, but he was also a dedicated guy who worked his ass off every day (and so ya know, typically when the mail is late it’s because of mismanagement in the office – the guys on the street are watched, tracked and micromanaged at every step).

    Over the years my dad received all kinds of gifts including cash, gift cards, glove warmers, bottles of liquor, warm handshakes,cookies and even invitations into the house for nog or snacks (I’ll mention again that he carried in a small Midwestern town since that would probably be unheard of in this area).

    Years of working at the postal service really took its toll on my dad. It may pay well but being a carrier is a tough job. Over the years he was bitten by dogs, stepped on a rusty nail, broke his foot, had bone spurs and dealt with endless back problems. Yes, he chose his career path, but it was during the Reagan era when jobs were scarce and his manufacturing job moved overseas. Carriers aren’t federal employees, but they are unionized which at least has secured decent salaries for most, but in recent years they’ve replaced the full timers who’ve retired with part timers who don’t receive near as much in salary and benefits.

    I’ll stop now since I could go on a lot longer after listening to my dad’s stories for the last twenty five years. He may have bitched a lot but he loved his customers and they loved him. I always try to say hi to my carrier when I see him and always leave a tip at Christmas.

    • derryX says:

      Thanks for the first hand perspective. My understanding was that management didn’t enforce the rules, so I think that’s how the whole tipping “convention” propagated. I’m not trying to trivialize the job, but I’m just raising the argument that if the law is no tips, that should be the convention.

      • Valerae says:

        My dad is a stickler for rules…the first year he received tips he tried to return them and people refused. If people want to tip, they’re going to, but I’ve always felt that in situations where tipping isn’t expected, it’s really at the discretion of the tipper and people should do what feels right. So if you want to abide by those guidelines, then don’t give a cash tip. Again, my dad never even expected anything and was grateful just to be thought of by his customers.

        Would you consider a lotto ticket to be a form of currency? He got a lot of those too.

        Oh, and an interesting side note. He received more generous gifts from his lower-middle class customers in the Midwest than he did from the wealthy retirees in Arizona.

  • This presents a puzzle for me… how do I tip the paper carrier, if they leave the paper on a communal stoop? There’s no box or anything to put a tip in. Hm.

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