As I check out of a hotel, various excuses race through my head for not tipping the housekeeper. I’m in a big rush. I don’t have cash. Will the maid who folded my clothes get the money? Why can’t I just add a gratuity to the credit-card bill and expense it?
About 70 percent of hotel guests go through the same mental exercise and end up not leaving a tip. A waiter would have to spit in your soup, and you would have to see him do it, to stiff him. Housekeepers are stiffed every day. I’ve heard every reason why guests treat hotel workers so differently than other service workers, but I’ve not heard a good one.
I have more than a passing interest in the subject. For 10 years, my grandmother, Nellie O’Connor McCreary, was a maid at the Hotel Washington, now the W Hotel. If you lean over the railing of its rooftop bar after a drink or two, you’d swear you could see the Oval Office.
She would never see that bar, and I would never have seen below stairs, if it weren’t for living with her in a two-bedroom bungalow during summers when I was interning in Washington, D.C. It was a perfect situation: I didn’t always get along with my mother, and she didn’t always get along with her daughter, but we got along perfectly well with each other. Besides that, the room was free. So were the stories.
One in particular left an enduring impression. At one of our weekly dinners after work at Reeve’s Bakery near the hotel, my grandmother pulled out some crisp 10s, a tip she’d received after a week’s stay from Clare Boothe Luce, the author, ambassador, and congresswoman, and a regular guest until she moved to the Watergate when it was a building, not a metaphor, in the mid-1970s.
The feminist author of The Women treated my grandmother, a fellow Catholic and a Roosevelt admirer, like an Irish maid from central casting climbing the housekeeping ladder rather than someone making beds for minimum wage. Despite the misconception, and Luce’s admiration for Nixon, they got along.
Luce was opposed to freeloaders and thought others should tip like her. She had an idea: have each maid leave a note on a nice card next to the mint on the pillow, hoping the stay had been pleasant, and wait for the tips to pour in. Luce then jotted down a note Nellie should deliver to management, co-signed by her “colleagues,” asking for a line to be added to the bill for a gratuity, like the one that exists for waiters.
The comparison to waiters was apt; they earn a mean annual wage of about $30,000, and housekeepers, about $25,000. To make her point, the patrician playwright reenacted her daily encounter with room service. The floor waiter (usually a he) rolls a breakfast cart into the room, removes the silver dome, and then dawdles while your poached eggs congeal—unfolding the napkin with a flourish, taking the paper hat off the orange juice, refolding the napkin—to give you time to add a gratuity on top of the automatic one of 18 percent.
He then goes off, leaving behind a mess. On the same principle that no one washes a rented car, few guests clean up after eating. So the housekeeper (it’s usually a she) will stack up the dishes, put the cart in the hallway, clean up the toast crumbs, and then proceed to the rest of her work of stripping the beds, picking up the supernumerary pillows on the floor, wiping the butter stains off the remote, and leaving the bathroom, now with coffee spills, gleaming. Not to begrudge waiters their tips, but why does he get two lines on the bill and the housekeeper gets none?
My grandmother’s reenactment of the reenactment didn’t mean she would do anything about it. You might as well have asked her to scale the Washington Monument and write an essay about it. But her admiration for Luce was less a response to her grand plan than to the attention paid. The hotel job wasn’t necessarily a step down from her prior employment, but it was a world apart from working as a nurse’s aide for 20 years at St. Elizabeth’s, a federal psychiatric hospital overlooking the city. She became invisible, interacting primarily with a mop. There was no one to pull up for a dance, no one to get to sit down, no one much at all. The first rule of Housekeeping for Dummies is, Do not speak to a guest unless spoken to first.
It would take decades before someone else would look at a housekeeper and see a wrong to be righted. Maria Shriver, the founder of A Woman’s Nation, wasn’t inspired by a family member scouring bathtubs but by the sight of housekeepers—mostly minority, many immigrants—working like borrowed mules with an 80-mile or more commute in the several hotels she stayed in after separating from Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2014. There were no Cinderella stories where a maid on the eighth floor was invited to train for a job on the first. It’s a job where a girl could use a tip.
The former first lady of California got a meeting with Arne Sorenson, the CEO of Marriott, the largest hotel chain in the world, and persuaded him to promote tipping with a catchy Hollywood name, “The Envelope Please.” Marriott placed packets in 160,000 rooms with space for the housekeeper to write a message next to the hotel’s about how “our caring attendant’s hard work is many times overlooked.”
The effort could be filed under No good deed goes unpunished, a phrase, incidentally, perhaps coined by the playwright Luce. Instead of money, the envelopes were stuffed with notes asking why a multibillion-dollar corporation didn’t pay its help a living wage, memorialized in this Fortune headline: “Marriott to Hotel Guests: Please Pay Our Maids for Us.”
That’s why the second-largest chain would barely touch the subject. The Hilton spokesman Nigel Glennie told me that the Marriott experience was the first thing he was warned about when he joined the company. “The custom and practice of tipping is very local,” he said, “and with Hiltons in 113 countries and territories” there would be no way to standardize it. But, he added, “there’s nothing stopping you or me from leaving a gratuity beside the bed.”
But there is something stopping people, and the hospitality industry knows it. Why else do hotels already have a line for waiters and, at their resort properties, have some added one for housekeeping?
Props to Marriott for effort, but now, like other hotels, it’s going in the opposite direction. The industry has launched a program purporting to save the environment; it has the perhaps not wholly incidental benefit of allowing hotels to slash their spending on housekeeping, their largest labor cost. First, they enticed guests to save the environment with a “green” option, whereby guests could opt to not have their sheets laundered every day. With guests softened up, hotels shifted to a purely self-serving marketing gambit, still with “green” in its name, offering reward points or other perks for giving up housekeeping altogether. It cost the industry virtually nothing. Housekeepers, though, wound up with an estimated 350 fewer full-time jobs, 700,000 fewer hours, and rooms left untended for as long as three days to shovel out.
Enter Unite Here, the largest hospitality-workers union in the country. It hopes for tips and respect for all of its 270,000 workers but gave up counting on that, or a living wage, in 2018. With the motto “One job should be enough,” workers embarked on the largest multi-city strike in history, walking out of 23 properties in eight cities, from the St. Francis in San Francisco to the Ritz-Carlton in Boston.
It was a big risk for the union: It’s always harder to keep workers without a paycheck striking than it is for management filling in for them to make beds badly. One of the tropes that keeps maids down is that we all can do housework, we just don’t want to.
In a matter of weeks, Marriott offered varied settlements, on average about $4 an hour over four years, as well as more full-time jobs with predictable shifts. For a moment, housekeeping gained a priceless degree of public visibility and appreciation, by way of wet towels, funky smells, angry guests, and canceled conventions. It is the industry’s lowest-paid employees who, one day at a time, make a hotel a home.
In 1980, my grandmother retired for a second time, moving to a house in Pennsylvania near my parents. Positions reversed, she visited me (and her great-granddaughter) and only asked that I keep her stocked with the right colors of thread for her project to embroider 50 state flowers on 50 pillowcases, along with Murphy’s Oil Soap and a box for donations to Goodwill. A week and my house looked like Marie Kondo had come for a stay.
When she died in 1985, she left a box in her chest of drawers with postcards from Luce and the letter she composed. My grandmother left me with an appreciation for a well-ordered house, a family who kills at Jeopardy when the category is state trivia, and so much more.
When I checked out of the Sheraton in March, I left a 10, as my grandmother said to do, on the counter in the bathroom and not under the pillow like a piece of wedding cake where it can get lost. I might stiff a waiter if he spit in my soup, but never a maid, no matter that voice in my head as I check out. That’s for management to do. To Nellie and her colleagues: Thank you for your service.
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