Editor’s note: This article by Patricia Kime originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.
Each year, as permanent change of station orders arrive, relocating service members are stumped by a series of questions as old as the modern moving industry: Should I tip the movers? Do I provide drinks and snacks? Serve them lunch?
Tucked away in the Joint Travel Regulations -- the Pentagon's guidance on military moves -- is a statement discouraging personnel from tipping or supplying refreshments to moving company workers.
But until this year, Move.mil, the most common resource utilized by military families planning their PCS, has given conflicting guidance:
"Neither tipping nor supplying meals are required. A moving representative should never request this compensation from you. However, it is also not illegal to tip or feed your movers ... the choice to tip and supply meals is at your discretion," the FAQ section said last year.
This year, the FAQs have been updated to reflect the travel regulations.
According to Move.mil, "Tipping and/or supplying meals, snacks, or other refreshments to moving company representatives is discouraged. Providing monetary tips and meals as a 'cost of doing business' sets unrealistic demands on service members and civilian employees least capable of providing this ‘service.’ Please report any [transportation service provider] requesting or requiring a tip to your Joint Personal Property Shipping Office for possible punitive actions."
DoD made the change because the previous response "was confusing for customers," explained André Kok, U.S. Transportation Command public affairs planner.
The policy has not changed, Kok said, but "we listened to our customers and wanted to provide a clear response to this frequently asked question."
Still, the change may not solve this perennial conundrum, family members say.
Megan Harless, a military spouse who sits on U.S. Transportation Command's PCS advisory board, said she wishes the guidance was more succinct.
"The word 'discouraged' -- there's a lot of vagueness, and it leaves things open to interpretation," Harless said. "I would have liked to have seen more specific language, like 'Don't tip,' or 'Do not absolutely do this,' or they should have just left it the same, at your discretion."
Many military families offer meals and drinks to moving personnel as a sign of hospitality, especially during the summer, when temperatures soar and a bottle of cold water or Gatorade offers much-needed hydration.
Military families also believe, however, that if they provide lunch and refreshments, the gesture will entice the packers or movers to be more careful and encourage them to remain on site for the duration of the job, thus getting the work done quicker.
Some also provide tips to their movers as a reward for good service or, in the case of a door-to-door move, to inspire workers to be careful with a family's belongings.
But tipping a large crew can add hundreds to a family's moving budget -- a cost that is not reimbursable from the government. Most companies in the moving industry recommend that customers tip for what essentially is a service. The recommended amount varies, but most companies recommend flat-rate tipping, $20 to $30 per person for smaller moves and $40 for large household moves that take at least an entire day.
Such largesse is often not in the budget of most military families, who face out-of-pocket expenses during moves for household items that need to be replaced or adapted to suit a new home. A 2016 poll conducted by Military.com found that 62% of 5,717 military family members surveyed said they never tip their movers, while 21% said they tip and 18% said it depends on the service and circumstances.
Last year, Transcom facilitated 321,000 household goods shipments. The command anticipates overseeing more than 377,000 shipments in 2021.
"I can understand why DoD wants to discourage it -- in that way you can get equity across the board, and if you think of our younger families ... they don't have a savings account or may not be able to afford tipping or feeding movers," Harless said. "I just think that language still leaves it open for interpretation."
Harless said her family traditionally has fed and provided drinks to those who have packed and unpacked her home. On her most recent move to Texas, workers were treated to individual orders from Chick-fil-A.
"If it means the crew can keep working for another 30 minutes while I go get lunch and then they start working 30 minutes early because they didn't have to leave to go somewhere, that means they're getting out of my house by four or five o'clock," Harless said. "For me, I'm comfortable with the feeding; I've never felt obligated to tip."
The guidance, she adds, is not likely to sway families from what they've done in the past.
"Folks are going to do what they want to do," Harless said. "It's not really the food or the drinks; it's the tips. You certainly don't want people who can't afford it feeling like they are getting the short end of the stick."
Kok said food and drinks never have been required, and DoD specifically discourages monetary tips.
"If a moving company requests either, we want customers to let us know," Kok said.