12/23/2011 04:29 pm ET | Updated Dec 23, 2011

White Glove Indicator: Doorman Bonuses Mirror Brightening Economy

NEW YORK, N.Y. -- If holiday tipping is one indicator of where the economy is headed, then the doormen of Greenwich Village have good news: Tips are up this year.

Bolivar Morales Jr., a 26-year veteran doorman at a faculty apartment building for New York University, said the tips were still coming in on Friday morning. The envelopes contained an average of $200 to $300, which was better than during the Great Recession. "I got an empty envelope a few years ago," Morales said about the lowest point he experienced for a year-end bonus. "I accepted it and I didn't say anything."

Other apartment building workers in the area reported receiving healthy cash tips in the last week. "[Tenants] are being very generous," said a handyman at the Brevoort East, a large, white-glove building near Washington Square Park. Around the corner at 45 Fifth Avenue, building superintendent Carmelo Buttigieg said, "I can't complain."

This slice of the informal economy underscores news on Friday that the overall economic picture in the United States appears to be brightening. The latest unemployment figures from the Labor Department reported on Friday showed that unemployment had edged down slightly and new requests for unemployment benefits have dropped to their lowest levels in three and a half years.

More than five million workers in the United States depend on tips as part of their income, according to statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Gratuities account from anywhere between 5 percent of income for dog walkers to nearly 70 percent of income for waiters, according to PayScale, a firm that keeps track of pay and salary information.

For New York's doormen, many of whom are unionized, holiday tips can add up to $5,000 of additional income. Annual salaries for New York doormen range from around $25,000 to $32,000, according to New York. Residents in various neighborhoods reported giving a holiday tip of anything between $20 and $100 on average, with some as high as $500, depending on the relationship and length of service of the building employee.

"Tipping is something between a doorman and the tenants, as it should be," said Matthew Nerzig, a spokesman for local union SEIU 32BJ, which represents residential building service workers, security officers and other service industry employees.

But for many apartment dwellers, it's not just about the money to say thank you. Annual tips are the cost of keeping the packages delivered and the plumbing fixed. "I am afraid [if] I don't [tip], they will mess my stuff up," said Jodi Sh Doff, a writer who lives in Astoria, Queens, and who gave her doorman $20 and each of her two handymen $15 this year.

Household workers tend to get more than other workers in service-related industries. A survey from Consumer Reports after the holiday season last year found that housekeepers received a median tip of $50, compared with $20 for teachers. Other service providers tended to get tips between $10 and $20, the survey found.

Raul Bertrand, a personal trainer at New York Sports Club, said he doesn't typically expect year-end tips, but he appreciated the gesture. This year, his haul has been about average, with four holiday tips, including a gift certificate for sneakers and a $50 gift card.

Jeff Bartholomew, who has been the barkeep of Manhattan's historical watering hole McSorley's for more than 40 years, said in the past more regulars would stop in with holiday cash than they do these days. He added, however, that counter tips -- a buck or two per drink -- were generally a little more generous this time of year. "We fall in the middle of the bell curve."

At the far end of the bell curve was one disgruntled aesthetician in Manhattan who argued that a 20 percent tip -- or $2.40 -- on a $12 manicure was peanuts. "Tips never grow because of the holidays. Your hands are worth more than two dollars."