Cleaning a dozen or more hotel rooms each day is grueling work, especially amid what’s being called an “amenities arms race” within the hospitality industry. As customers sleep on super-plush mattresses weighing upwards of 100 pounds, the room attendants who make up those beds and perform other physically demanding tasks are often out of sight and out of mind. That’s why Marriott International, in partnership with the nonprofit A Woman’s Nation, says it is placing envelopes in their hotel rooms along with polite encouragements for guests to tip their housekeepers. The initiative, known as “The Envelope Please,” should be helpful in drawing needed public attention to underappreciated service workers — as long as Marriott’s emphasis on encouraging customers’ generosity doesn’t become a substitute for higher wages and greater opportunities for advancement.
Hotel executives have a responsibility to ensure that housekeepers and other service workers earn living wages and enjoy good benefits, regardless of whether customers tip generously or not at all. Tipping, after all, is an erratic practice under the best conditions. Some international visitors come from countries where tipping is unusual or is even considered rude. And about a third of American hotel guests, according to surveys, don’t even think of housekeeping as a tipped occupation. For these reasons, any tips that hotel housekeepers receive should be treated solely as a bonus. In the restaurant industry, by comparison, servers’ tips are generally treated as part of their compensation. Extending this approach, which carries the potential for abuses and makes waiters too dependent on their customers’ whims, to hotel housekeepers would be a mistake.
Still, Marriott is doing nothing wrong by reminding its guests that tipping the housekeeper is always a welcome gesture. Even housekeepers in unionized hotels who earn $18 or more an hour are struggling to find their way into the middle class. A few dollars each night placed in envelopes by 10 or 15 guests could make that transition a lot smoother.
No guest can reasonably be expected to research housekeepers’ wages, health coverage, and pensions before deciding where to bed down for the night. For anyone so inclined, it is relatively easy to check hotel worker union websites for a list of unionized hotels before making reservations. Not long ago, nonunion hotels discouraged unionization by offering higher wages and better advancement opportunities for workers. But that is changing along with the structure of a hotel industry that commonly includes franchises, management contracts, and investment trusts.
In an uncertain environment, training programs, not tips, represent the best hope for the economic advancement of room attendants. Unite Here Local 26, which represents the Boston area’s unionized hospitality workers, offers such training that enables housekeepers to move into progressively better jobs at unionized hotels. In some cases, they have doubled their salaries as banquet servers.
Yet, as the Marriott initiative shows, the possibility of future reward doesn’t preclude showing hotel workers a level of appreciation now. For guests who sleep better knowing that the hotel workers are treated fairly, it’s always safest to tip.