Urging tips for hotel maids ushers in debate

Tiffany Hsu
Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles – — Sonia Rosales pushes a cart laden with hundreds of pounds of soiled linen, shampoos and cleaning supplies through the JW Marriott hotel at L.A. Live, wrangling 20-pound inserts out of duvet covers, cleaning bathrooms and folding towels.

The 45-year-old housekeeper has done this in 14 rooms a day, five days a week, for five years. The repetition left her with carpal tunnel syndrome, two surgeries on her wrists and a long scar on her forearm where she had a metal splint inserted.

"It's hard work," Rosales said of her $16.50-an-hour job. "First, we depend on God, but next, we depend on the job."

What she doesn't depend on are tips. Unlike bellmen or bartenders, maids are lucky if customers leave a few dollars twice or three times a month. Some of Rosales' co-workers have gone six months without a tip.

Now, her employer, Marriott International, is actively pushing guests to tip housekeepers. The company announced in September that it would adopt a tipping initiative spearheaded by former California first lady Maria Shriver.

But the program, marketed as an appeal to guests' benevolence, has sparked a wider controversy about the abysmal pay of hotel maids and other workers. If maids deserve more money, some critics ask, why doesn't Marriott just pay them instead of shifting the burden to guests?

Others suggest such efforts may be a ploy to re-classify maids as tipped employees — so that employers can pay them a smaller base salary.

Hotels, like any business, should take responsibility for paying workers a living wage, said Patrick Burns, a senior researcher with the Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit research group in downtown Los Angeles.

"When you start to divide workers into different classes, there's more of an opportunity for inequities and for workers to be unfairly treated," he said. "We shouldn't see tipping as something workers can rely upon to stay above poverty."

The Marriott program, dubbed the Envelope Please, encourages hotel guests to leave tips of $1 to $5 for housekeepers in dedicated envelopes placed in more than 160,000 rooms throughout North America. Housekeepers make up the largest group of employees within Marriott, which said in a statement that it offers "opportunities for job growth, strong training programs and competitive wages and benefit packages."

The tipping initiative was designed to encourage recognition of maids' hard work, not as a strategy to pay them differently, said Marriott spokeswoman Angela Wiggins.

The U.S. hotel industry has enjoyed strong demand, with occupancy rates expected to reach pre-recession levels this year, according to industry analysts.

In fact, economic indicators for the industry are so good the nation's hotels are expected to spend a record $6 billion this year on capital improvements, a 7 percent increase from 2013, according to a New York University study.

Maids in Los Angeles earn an average of $11.46 an hour, or $23,830 a year — higher than the U.S. mean but less than most other hotel workers in the city and many peers nationwide.

Union organizers worry that creating a tipping culture at hotels could damage their prospects for negotiating for higher wages.

Hotel clients, meanwhile, are torn.

Of 3,700 Americans surveyed recently by travel site TripAdvisor, more than two thirds said they tipped hotel housekeeping employees. Far fewer said they do the same for the valet, concierge, pool staff or gym employees.

But a third of respondents said they would prefer tips to be included in their bill. Comments left on guest forums online have referred to the Marriott program as emotional blackmail. Housekeepers have reported envelopes torn up and left in the trash with pennies inside.

Some, including Rosales, say they appreciate the program but think it's "a little too pushy."

Her co-worker Rosario Alfaro, 50, welcomes the push for tips. She said she's received $50 within a week of the Marriott program's launch, after many weeks of no tips.