Blanca Limon cleaned 11 rooms during a recent shift as a housekeeper at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square – emptying trash cans, making beds, cleaning bathrooms in one of the most expensive cities in the world. world – and earned exactly $3 in tips.
She had never seen him like this. While his advice had been drifting downward for years, it seemed to almost disappear during the pandemic. Gone are the days when she could count on tips of $1 to $3 in almost every room she cleaned in her 27 years as a housekeeper.
“Nobody does that anymore,” said Limon, 55. “It’s hard not to be tipped because right now I could use extra money.”
As the pandemic has led to increased tipping for restaurant servers and food delivery people — with the standard gratuity climbing closer to 20% than 15% and increasingly even take-out orders leading to tips — Millions of other tip workers have been largely excluded from this newfound generosity.
These often overlooked workers – hotel cleaners, bellhops, car wash jockeys, airport skycaps and wheelchair escorts among them – have been hit hard by an increasingly cashless economy and the new pandemic work rules that reduce tipping opportunities.
These workers provide services with unclear tipping expectations. Also, they can usually only accept a cash tip.
“People don’t have money these days. It happens all the time,” said John Bragg, 64, who worked for three decades at Washington-area airports, mostly as a skycap providing curbside services.
Ibrahim Sisay, a wheelchair attendant at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, said he had $8 in tips in his pocket after a recent shift that included helping at least a dozen passengers navigate the terminal and to carry out their flights. Some passengers don’t seem to know if they should tip him. And he said he was forbidden to mention a gratuity.
What happens to these workers – many of whom are from minority and immigrant backgrounds – is mostly a mystery to researchers.
Studies on tipping behavior tend to focus on the restaurant industry, such as research that found that customers tip more when a server uses their name. Credit cards and digital payment services like Square have a wealth of data, but it also comes mostly from the restaurant industry. A recent Popmenu study found that restaurant tips of at least 20% are increasingly becoming the norm.
But little is known about the situation of tipped workers such as hotel housekeepers or wheelchair escorts, said Michael Lynn, a professor at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration and a leading tipping researcher. .
“I don’t know of a single study, and I look at it all the time,” Lynn said.
“It’s a real problem,” he added. “We just don’t know how big the problem is.”
Research is difficult because tips for these workers are usually in cash and off the books. Lynn said he suspected they had been hurt by the move away from cash in favor of credit cards and mobile payments.
The days of someone always carrying a bit of walking cash seem long gone.
A lack of money recently tripped up D. Taylor, president of the Unite Here union, which represents 300,000 workers in the hospitality industry in North America. He was leaving a Capitol Hill hotel when he realized he had no money for the hotel housekeeper. He went out one cold, windy morning to track down an ATM. He left $20 in his room. He said he realized that most people might not.
“The cashless society poses a real challenge,” Taylor said.
Tipping is considered by some to be an outdated practice – allowing employers to pay tipped workers a lower minimum wage, in the hope that they will earn more from tips. And there have been calls for restaurants, in particular, to abolish tipping and pay servers a higher salary.
In a well-known experiment, restaurateur Danny Meyer announced in 2015 that his popular stable of restaurants would do just that. Meyer reversed course five years later when his restaurants reopened after the worst of the pandemic.
Lynn, a professor at Cornell, said most servers prefer tips over a fixed salary because they can earn more.
For now, the union Unite Here is pushing to raise the minimum wage for these tip workers.
It has helped Anjannette Reyes, a wheelchair escort at Orlando International Airport, whose base salary has fallen from just over $5 an hour last year to $10.50 an hour. time today.
But she’s also seen her tips drop by $45 on good days, pushing at least a dozen people through the airport down to maybe $20. She’s heard all kinds of reasons why people don’t tip. They had no money — “It’s a plastic world,” she said. Or they tell him they just spent the money they had on unexpected baggage fees.
“So we end up getting nothing,” Reyes said.
The union has also backed new laws in cities such as San Francisco and Las Vegas that require daily room cleaning in some hotels as part of heightened security measures during the pandemic – which has the effect of providing more work. regularly to hotel cleaning ladies.
Tipping workers is difficult to determine.
A discussion board for Fodor’s Travel suggested $5 for wheelchair assistance at the airport. A gratuity guide from the American Hotel and Lodging Association suggests $1 to $5 per night for hotel housekeepers and $1 to $5 per bag for porters. The guide was last updated in 2014.
Tipping standards are unclear, even in restaurants.
Lynn said surveys he conducted of expected restaurant tipping before the pandemic found nearly a third of consumers suggested a number below 15%.
“And that’s where everyone knows how to tip and tip all the time,” Lynn said.
Lack of money has become a problem even in places where everyone knows money is king, like strip clubs. That’s why apparently every club has an ATM. Brandi Campbell, a veteran dancer at a club in the Midwest, said her tips have dwindled because strip clubs seem to be losing popularity as people shift their attention online.
Campbell, who advocates for better job protections on her Stripper Labor Rights site, said she had seen only one dancer experiment with cashless payment systems. This dancer used the Venmo mobile payment system to get tips.
But Campbell said she had privacy concerns doing it herself.
Companies have explored the use of technology to allow people to offer cashless tips to hospitality workers.
One company, Béné, based in Fairfax County, Va., is working with major hotel chains on a pilot project that would allow guests to scan a QR code and tip housekeepers and hotel valets, as well as workers in beauty and nail salons.
InterContinental Hotel, owner of brands such as Holiday Inn and Kimpton Hotels, plans to test Bene later this year, said Brian McGuinness, senior vice president of InterContinental. He’s also testing another cashless tipping app, TipBrightly, at one of his properties in Asheville, North Carolina.
The hospitality company found that its bartenders and servers actually saw their average tip increase during the pandemic, McGuinness said.
But tipping opportunities for hotel housekeepers – already facing pressure from cashless customers – dried up during the pandemic when room cleaning was pushed back from daily to once every three to five days. in some of its brands, he said.
Even after resuming room cleaning, the biggest obstacle remains the need for money.
“The money is gone,” said McGuinness, who noted he’s also dealt with this issue, such as when it comes time to tip car wash workers.
Hotels have been reluctant to tackle the problem since Marriott tried to increase tips for housekeepers with its “The Envelope Please” campaign, launched with Maria Shriver’s group A Woman’s Nation, in 2014.
Guests found a note inside their room suggesting they tip. The backlash has been intense. Critics said the hotel chain felt like it was asking guests to subsidize low wages and, at the same time, turning a courtesy into an expectation.
The campaign – and the envelopes – quickly disappeared.
Today, Marriott is “at the beginning” of researching ways to allow cashless tipping for its hotel staff, company spokesman Ben Gerow said.
Hilton said it is also aware of the issue and is exploring options.
For hotel workers, the lack of tips has only gotten worse since the pandemic.
Jesus Sanchez, who works in room service at the San Francisco Hilton Union Square, said he saw his tips drop from $80 per shift to maybe $5 to $8.
He used to bring food to the room. Meals came on real plates with metal utensils. Now everything is paper and plastic, and he leaves the food outside the door. He never sees the guests.
“We don’t have the same interaction,” he said.
Sanchez, 50, a father of three, also works in the hotel’s take-out market. He’s noticed that many younger customers don’t expect paper receipts or pay with their cell phones. There is not even the possibility of earning a tip.
He wonders if these customers have ever worked in a hotel or in a restaurant.
“I want to tell them that we’re working for extra money for our families,” Sanchez said.