After a self- congratulatory rollout to rival the ruckus of God’s six days of earth-making, Marriott International has begun leaving envelopes in hotel rooms to encourage guests to tip housekeepers the corporation refuses to pay a living wage.
“Our caring room attendants enjoyed making your stay warm and comfortable,” the envelope reads. “Please feel free to leave a gratuity to express your appreciation for their efforts.”
So cool, says Marriott’s president and CEO, Arne Sorenson.
“Marriott is proud to support The Envelope Please to shine a light on the excellent behind-thescenes work our room attendants do day in and day out.”
Sorenson’s salary is almost $7 million.
The American Hotel & Lodging Association is all for this envelope thing, let me tell you. In a press release, it “suggests hotel guests leave $1 to $5 per night, depending on the hotel class, and recommends tipping daily rather than at checkout to ensure that it goes to the person cleaning the room.”
This is a lobbyist group “representing all segments of the 1.8 million-employee U.S. lodging industry, including hotel owners, REITs, chains, franchisees, management companies, independent properties, state hotel associations, and industry suppliers.”
Note the absence of any employees. For that, you need a union, which represents a teenytiny percentage of the estimated 20,000 hotel housekeepers who work in the U.S. and Canada alone.
What happens when no big lobbying group is fighting for you? As The Washington Post’s Abha Bhattarai reported, in 2012 hotel housekeepers earned a median salary in the U.S. of $19,780, or approximately $9.51 per hour.
Those are U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures.
If that $19,780-a-year housekeeper is supporting a household of three people, she is earning below the poverty line.
That’s a statistic from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
As has been widely reported and is frequently celebrated, this idea for the tip envelope came from Maria Shriver, the former journalist and California first lady who founded the nonprofit A Woman’s Nation.
Shriver, as quoted in the joint press release:
“The Envelope Please was born from having conversations with women I’ve met who have taken care of my room during hotel stays. Their stories of hard work and perseverance inspired and informed me. They told me that room attendants, who are often the primary breadwinner for their families, are often forgotten when it comes to tipping, unlike other front-of-house employees, since most travelers don’t see them face-to-face.”
I do not doubt Shriver’s good intentions. She is right. These people perform a most intimate job for strangers who couldn’t tell you the color of their eyes or how long it took them to clean up the messes they left behind. The work has only gotten harder, too, with heavier mattresses and an increasingly rude public.
However, I implore Shriver to use her considerable influence for greater good.
She has our attention now. This is the perfect time to advocate for what these housekeepers deserve: the right to join a union without employer harassment and to earn a living wage that lets them take better care of themselves and their families. How interesting that Marriott doesn’t see these tip envelopes as proof of a continued injustice.
I want to address the tiresome habit of those guests who gripe about housekeeper tips as if they were being asked to divvy up their kingdoms. “It’s not my job to supplement a company’s lousy wages,” the argument goes.
To which I say: Congratulations for stating the obvious.
OK, so it’s not our job to care. The question is: Who do we want to be as we navigate this world?
How we treat the people we’re allowed to mistreat is the measure of who we are. Most of us who can afford to sleep in a bed we won’t have to make and bathe in a bathroom we’ll never have to clean can afford to spring for at least a $5 tip each day.
On the subject of tips, here’s another: If you think your employer’s refusal to let you expense your tips absolves you of this small kindness, I recommend you never say that out loud. I’ve watched the reaction of people on the receiving end of that little declaration, and it ain’t pretty. Some things you can’t take back, and that moment will define you.
Yes, it’s wrong that hotel housekeepers must depend on us to make enough money to support their families.
Let’s do it anyway.
As is so often true in life, we can be angry that we’re expected to help or grateful that we are able.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine.