A New Approach to Day Camp Tipping?
Three summers ago, in the middle of the summer, my husband and I received an email about staff tips. We did not understand what was being requested, as we were new to Bergen County and the camp, and we had paid the tuition in full. By the time we had a better sense, it was too late for some of the staff who had left for other summer adventures and were unreachable.
Two summers ago, our kids were home due to COVID concerns, and the camp that we had sent to was closed. This past summer, we started with a new camp, and when they sent out a request for staff appreciation in midsummer, I began to realize that there was a community norm for many local day camps centered around requested tips.
My anxiety increased as I began to understand that what was being termed “hakarat hatov” (expressions of gratitude), tips, or staff appreciation, was actually staff compensation to supplement very low staff salaries, and that our tuition was not covering as much as was needed.
Although some camps are more or less explicit in how they ask for this additional compensation and whether they provide non-monetary options, it is often a source of stress for parents who either are not expecting this ask or are spending much time parsing multiple emails from multiple camp divisions to understand how many people need to be tipped (sometimes the camps inadvertently omit names and send updated lists), how much each person is expected to be tipped, and how much the total additional expenditure will be. Then there is the complete time-sink of going to an ATM to withdraw precise denominations of cash, stuffing and labeling envelopes, and hoping that they will reach their proper destinations.
The Challenges of the Current Tipping System
I made the effort to research and prepare this article because my guess is that most parents of preteens, unless they were once counselors themselves at local day camps, are not aware of why tips are being solicited and why they are so appreciated by the counselors and staff. At the same time, the current process is often cumbersome and challenging both for the givers and recipients, and perhaps the process can be retooled.
My goal is not to question the financial structure of our local nonprofit day camps, which are endeavoring to make the tuition affordable, but to try to work within the current framework to see if there might be a better way for everyone’s needs to be met. Of course, it would be an added plus if some modifications also made the process easier for camp administrators and office staff. As much as I am thinking about the counselors and educators who cared for and taught my children this past summer, I am looking ahead and trying to think if there are ways to make the process easier in case my children want to consider becoming counselors at local day camps in their teen years.
In preparing this article, I connected with many parents who told me that their teens were inevitably upset when they anticipated earning a certain amount in tips that did not always materialize or, worse, found out that, for whatever reason, some of the other counselors had earned more in tips for the same job. Conversely, other parents reported how upset their teens were to find out that the tips for the counselors in each bunk had been pooled by the camp office and distributed equally, instead of for the person named on each envelope.
Further, some parents shared that their teens missed out on tips because they were absent (sometimes due to illness or family trips) for the last few days of a summer session or they received very little because they were there for only a few weeks and parents had no idea how much to give a junior counselor or counselor in training (CIT) who attended camp for three weeks out of eight. Most disturbing was hearing that some counselors try to anticipate which families will give the big tips.
I also heard from the spouse of a veteran educator who teaches Torah at local day camps but earned so little (and with no additional benefits such as discounted tuition) that the spouse said they are grateful for every tip, because it’s part of the family’s income.
Although counselors at camps with no-tipping policies know what to expect in terms of their salaries, I did hear from parents of counselors at these types of camps who said their teens regretted not being at a camp with tips, because they could have potentially earned more with the base salary plus tips. (The salaries in both types of camps are often analogous, and on the very low side.)
In contrast, I also heard from parents whose teens were at no-tipping camps who felt grateful that their teens had a place to be where they felt productive and valued, and where they were able to be employed in an age demographic that is often unemployable elsewhere (before being old enough, for example, to work in a retail or food establishment) and also for a few weeks here and there in between summer adventures. Some parents of counselors at camps with no tipping policies feel that these camps make extra efforts to enhance the staff experience in ways that make being there fun for the teens.
My heart went out to parents on financial aid who expressed their guilt at not being able to give the recommended amounts and being worried that their lesser gifts would be considered insults.
There were camp directors who shared that while they felt that their own experiences were almost like apprenticeships in terms of the wages, these counselor experiences in their teens cemented their passion for camp and led them to become camp directors. It was also illuminating to speak to adults in their 30s and 40s who still remembered decades later how much they made at some of their camp jobs in base pay, how much they received from certain families in tips, and yet, as much as they were grateful for the leadership experience and life skills that they acquired, how the monetary calculations impacted on their sense of self-worth as teens.
Several parents said that they wanted expressions of gratitude to be exactly that—gratitude, and not to feel pressured into giving tips for specific sums after having paid tuition, often in full. So many parents said that they do want to express gratitude, because camp counselors do a great job caring for our children. For families with two working parents, single-parent families and families in many other types of circumstances, knowing that the big kids are safe and having age-appropriate adventures in a Jewish environment is a necessity, not a luxury.
Not every kid wants to attend camp, even though some parents need their kids to be there, and so many counselors, from the moment the cars pull up, go above and beyond to be welcoming and inclusive and make each day special for all of their campers, even the challenging ones. These teens are not home bingeing on Netflix, but instead are on their feet, out in the sun for hours, sparking joy and making magic happen for our kids day after day. These counselors are able to take the most basic activities—playing old-school games like tag, red light-green light and duck-duck-goose—and make them fun. These counselors demonstrate so much responsibility, and their efforts are truly impressive.
Especially following a crazy COVID school year, punctuated by unpredictable stints in quarantine academy, our kids experienced such happiness at having the opportunity to attend camp and make new friends, and the counselors facilitated these special opportunities. I feel extra gratitude to the counselors of the youngest campers, who assist our little ones with bathroom needs, food needs and helping them change into and out of bathing suits each day while keeping track of all the sandals and sneakers. When we pick up our younger children at the end of the day (even if they don’t know their counselor’s names) and see them smiling and recounting the day’s adventures, we know our kids have been loved. And so many parents said they want their children to know that they are doing something concrete to express their gratitude.
Some Possible Alternatives to the Current Camp Tipping Policies
Can the current camp tipping policies be reconsidered? If yes, here are some ideas to spark respectful conversation. Even if none of the ideas are tenable in their current forms, perhaps they can be tweaked to become viable, or perhaps someone reading this article will be able to share their own ideas that might be more practical and easy to implement.
Transparency. In choosing camps, it would be incredibly helpful if camps might consider clearly stating on their websites and in their email correspondence whether they require, endorse or forbid staff tips. Parents should not be surprised several weeks into the summer with a list of names and recommended tip amounts or, conversely, be surprised midsummer to find out that tipping is not allowed at a specific camp. For camps that either require or endorse tips, parents should be given an approximate sense of how much the tips will be per camper for the summer before camp starts so parents can know what to expect and how to budget.
Opt-in payment options. It would be incredibly helpful if camps requiring or endorsing tips might consider offering alternate payment options. For many families, the tip process is a headache, and if too much is going on in other areas of their lives, they are not able to give the process the necessary bandwidth, even though they want to do the right thing. Also, not every family attends camp for all eight weeks, and having alternate payment options will help these families demonstrate care for the counselors and staff while also managing the logistics of other summer plans.
Opt-in Roll Appreciation Into Tuition. Parents can currently sign up for optional add-ons by the week, such as lunch, early drop-off, late pickup and bus. For some parents, the current tipping system is the best option. But for those who are finding the current system challenging, can there be an opt-in opportunity for staff appreciation, for parents who wish to roll the tip sum into the tuition? A tax lawyer explained to me that tips, received in cash or via electronic methods, are considered taxable income, even if earned by a teen. A payroll company could factor in the extra amount needed to reflect taxes being deducted so the staff receive the actual recommended amounts. And the parents would trust that the amounts would reach the counselors and staff, in the same way they trust that their kids will receive lunch each day because it was paid for and arranged.
Staff Appreciation Fund. Another alternative is that many camps, as part of their application processes, offer parents the opportunity to donate the camp’s scholarship fund. Maybe there could be an additional staff appreciation fund, to be distributed among the counselors and educational staff. The benefit of such a fund would be to anonymize the gifts, so that counselors would know that the bonus was coming from parents without knowing which ones and without knowing the amounts given per family. This staff appreciation fund could potentially be established even at camps with a no-tipping policy, because of the anonymous nature of the bonus. And again, just as donors trust the camp to allocate scholarship funds, families would trust that the camp would allocate any funds earmarked for staff appreciation.
Electronic Tips. For any camp unable to offer either of these alternatives, which would be the easiest and least stressful option for many families, it would be incredibly helpful if camps might consider offering the option of electronic payments via Venmo, PayPal or Zelle for each counselor, educator, lifeguard and bus counselor. To save on administrative time during the summer, a staff application could ask for a teen or educator’s electronic payment handle. If teens don’t have electronic payment options, it would be incredibly helpful if camps might consider sending out estimated tipping amounts before camp starts; that way, parents who like to plan ahead can prepare envelopes and withdraw the appropriate amount of cash early in the summer, so they don’t panic when the camps send out emails on this subject midsummer. For parents who were already cashless before COVID, the advance knowledge would be an extra kindness.
Communication. It would add another layer of meaning if the camps that are requiring or endorsing tips might consider, before the first day of camp, sending an email to the parents of each bunk introducing their child’s counselors, with pictures of the head counselor, junior counselors, CITs, and educational staff, along with a sentence or two about each one, including perhaps some details, such as what grade they are going into, the school they attend, and why they are looking forward to being your child’s counselor or educator. That way, when it is time to consider tips, parents will have a picture to go with a name, and it will be more meaningful to give to this person because you know something about them.
Additional Forms of Gratitude to Camp Counselors and Staff
Monetary Gift / Gift Card. If the camps are successful in giving the option of rolling the tip amounts into the tuition, what are ways that parents can express sincere gratitude and teach this value to their children through action? Yes, for some families, the priority is giving monetary gifts. Some parents remember being counselors and lifeguards and want to pay it back by paying it forward. And some parents want to give monetary rewards to acknowledge extraordinary efforts on behalf of their children—to the lifeguard who helped your child advance to the next swim level, to the teacher who prepared your child so well for Shabbat parsha conversations each week, to the creative counselor who helped your shy child socially thrive. Some parents have expressed that at no-tipping camps, they sometimes wish it were OK to give a cash tip or gift card to acknowledge special kindnesses.
Special Thank You Notes. For other families, writing a heartfelt message is a gesture that is very much appreciated. A camp director told me that teens will sometimes say that these notes are so special to them that they will hang them up in their rooms, and, on some level, are more meaningful than a monetary gift that will be spent and forgotten.
Letters of Commendation. I wonder if camps can create a form to allow parents to write letters of commendation for exceptional care received, which the camp can use for internal rewards, in considering promotions for returning staff or at minimum to store in files for each staff member.
Opt-In Staff Directory for School Year Employment. I also wonder if camps might consider, at the end of the summer, emailing an opt-in staff directory with pictures and contact information for teens who are interested in babysitting, homework help, and odd jobs during the school year and, for the educational staff, a directory for those who are available for tutoring, bar/bat mitzvah preparation, and running birthday parties. I think parents might consider hiring those who made such a special connection with their kids during the summer months if they knew how to contact them.
Creative Acts of Kindness. One camp director shared that on a rainy day many years ago, a parent surprised the staff at the dismissal line with cups of coffee. The camp director said this spontaneous gesture made such an impression that the memory of it still brings a smile all these years later. And although it’s not helpful to have 32 parents have the same idea every rainy day, surely there are other creative ways and meaningful gestures for parents and families to express gratitude. What are your ideas?
Contemplating change needs to be a considered process, and hopefully we can respectfully share our perspectives with those best able to implement policy changes, while acknowledging that rethinking communal norms can take time. The issue of counselor compensation and tipping is incredibly nuanced, and from connecting with so many of the stakeholders (parents of campers, parents of teens, senior staff, former counselors and camp directors), I have learned how many people care and want to improve the situation all around while ensuring that our nonprofit camps remain affordable. Our community has an incredible brain trust; there are so many well-educated people who can collaborate to try to make counselor compensation fair to all involved while also allowing for genuine expressions of gratitude.
Our local Jewish day camps, like our other local institutions, are gems; let’s collaborate to help them shine brighter.
Yehudit Robinson is the founder and director of mytorahtutor.com.
By Yehudit Robinson