The hotel megachain Marriott and Maria Shriver have announced a campaign to get you to tip the person who cleans your hotel room. The sentiment seems good enough. Housekeeping is backbreaking but invisible service work, generally performed for low wages by women of color and immigrants, and often in hostile conditions. These are precisely the sorts of workers who could use a raise in this economy. But tipping is a terrible, terrible custom, and as such, this is a terrible, terrible way to shunt these workers a little more money.
Why not chip in a few more bucks for a deserving worker at Marriott’s behest? For one, tipping introduces uncertainty to a worker’s income. Does a hotel housekeeper get to keep her tips, or does she have to pool them? What happens if her tips come in unusually high or low? What if the other housekeepers hide their tips, or forget to encourage guests to leave something? On top of that, tipping reduces the incentive for employers to raise wages. If our hotel worker wants more tips, why doesn’t she just work harder and clean more rooms?
As such, there has been a tremendous backlash against tipping in restaurants. So why introduce a new class of workers to the phenomenon at all? Contra Shriver and Marriott, tipping hotel-room attendants is not customary — at least not in the way that tipping a waiter, bellhop, or valet driver is. I never knew that anyone did it until recently. A hotel worker quoted in the above article reports that only one in 15 or 20 customers leave anything. Such workers are compensated with a standard hourly wage, not a tipped wage. Nor should it be customary. Hotel cleaners do a strenuous, difficult job. But hotel guests pay for that job when they pay for their room.
Marriott makes $13 billion a year in revenue, and $626 million in profits. Arne Sorenson — the guy who suggests you leave $1 or $5 a night, depending on rate — makes $7 million a year. If Marriott wants its housekeepers to earn more, it should pay them more, rather than blithely suggesting that their customers do it for them.