Ever had a job that drove you to sheer desperation? Many of us have. According to 2013 data from the Department of Labor and Labor Statistics, as many as 2 million people in the United States quit their job each month, and for fairly predictable reasons.
But the lion’s share of us, I would suspect, wouldn’t decide to communicate that frustration in an open letter to the company CEO — at least not while we’re still employed.
Last week’s firing of a Yelp employee after she publicly posted a letter to CEO Jeremy Stoppelman to protest her pay highlights once again the hypnotic and deceptive draw of the Internet, where workers may be lulled into thinking that publicly “outing” their company or boss is going to solve their woes.
But it has also highlighted another, more divisive topic: the question of one’s right to a living wage. It’s a discussion that has, until recently, largely been reserved for the fast-food restaurant sector. This month, however, Yelp — a prominent Bay Area tech company –found itself squarely in the limelight as one junior employee asserted that her $1,500-a-month salary was only enough to cover her rent, not her food.
“Every single one of my coworkers is struggling,” wrote Talia Ben-Ora (aka Talia Jane). “One of them started a GoFundMe because she couldn’t pay her rent.”
As audacious as Ben-Ora’s assertions may seem, this isn’t the first time that Yelp has been outed for low wages. Nor is it the only tech company that pays below the average, although $12.25 an hour in San Francisco pretty much assumes, as Ben-Ora noted, that in most cases the employee won’t be able to afford the rent for an apartment. “They’re taking side jobs, they’re living at home,” she notes of her co-workers.
What is interesting is the level of condemnation Ben-Ora received for speaking out. Okay, the approach left a lot to be desired. But for many of the 1,300 comments she received on the post and a remarkable number of journalists who weighed in to comment on the story, the import of her message became synonymous with her approach.
“You are an able-bodied young woman who speaks English, holds a U.S. citizenship, and had the privilege of receiving a college education and living in one of the most profitable sectors in one of the active business centers of the world … This is embarrassing,” said one poster.
“I have no sympathy whatsoever,” said another. “And for all we know she was terrible at her job, and getting let go was coincidental. If she complains this much in public, and has such poor budgeting and foresight skills, I can only image how good of a customer service rep she is.”
For many who read and commented on the letter, enduring a job that pays less than what is needed to survive is a rite of passage that defines one’s entitlement to promotion. It’s a concept that has helped the fast-food sector to grow as well: the American ideal that struggling in a job (or two) that doesn’t pay a living wage will lead to promotion. According to a study by the National Employment Law Project, only about 2 percent of fast-food employees actually make it out of the ranks to managerial-level positions. More than 80 percent remain as cooks, servers and other minimum- or close to minimum-wage positions. Many of the lowest paid either work two jobs, are encouraged to seek social assistance or must find alternative income sources in order to work for their employer.
Fortunately, the living-wage protests in New York and other U.S. cities have trained our attention on figuring out what our expectations should be for employers to meet a living wage index. But interestingly, we still seem to feel that individuals who are in “entry-level” positions in the U.S. forfeit their expectations that their employer will pay them an adequate wage because they are willing to do a bottom-rung job. And that’s a catch when it comes to changing the mindset of what employers’ obligations are in one of the country’s most expensive cities.
Image: Edward Blake