Hotel housekeepers have recently entered into the national conversation due a partnership between Marriott International and Maria Shriver’s non-profit organization A Women’s Nation.

The “Envelope Please” initiative is an attempt to raise awareness of housekeepers’ customer service and encourage guests to leave a $1 to $5 tip next time they check out of a hotel. Marriott, the first partner of the initiative, is placing a tip envelope inside hotel rooms across North America to encourage their customers.

Although the global hotel group’s intentions are clean, its actions have raised questions about the salaries of housekeepers, and why they need tips, at hotel chains across the country.

We take a look at the salaries, growth opportunities and schedules of U.S. housekeepers for a clearer picture of the important hospitality workforce.

Critical Proportion of Hospitality Labor

Housekeepers are the largest labor segment in the North American hotel industry, and at Marriott, where 20,000 room attendants make up a quarter of its workforce.

The median U.S. wage for housekeepers is $9.51 an hour, according to labor union Unite Here.

This; however, can vary significantly based on the location of a hotel and whether an employee is part of a union.

Union members make more than non-union workers do at the same job in the same city and often have access to healthcare and a pension. Unionized housekeepers can make as much as $20.94 per hour in San Francisco, reports Unite Here.

According to a separate AH&LA survey from September 2014, 64.2 percent of housekeepers have starting rates equal to minimum wage. Reported average wages are pushed higher due to rates at urban and union properties.

The AH&LA report emphasizes that hourly housekeeping is typically a tipped position, perhaps in an attempt to explain the relatively low wages.

The following chart shows the average wages paid by state to housekeepers, typically an entry-level minimum wage position, for select-service and full-service hotels.

Average pay is above the national minimum wage in the 45 states shown below. The data does not include tip earnings.

StateAverage Wage at Select Service HotelAverage Wage at Full Service HotelStateAverage Wage at Select Service HotelAverage Wage at Full Service Hotel
US National$9.08 n/aMissouri$8.89$9.56
Alabama$8.34$8.51Montana$8.58n/a
Alaska$10.34 n/aNebraska$8.63$8.54
Arizona$8.60$9.80Nevada$9.51$11.39
Arkansas$7.99$8.08New Hampshire$9.21n/a
California$9.49 n/aNew Jersey$9.84n/a
Colorado$8.80$10.57New Mexico$8.63$9.28
Connecticut$9.46$10.21New York$10.58n/a
Delaware$10.17 n/aNorth Carolina$8.60$8.95
Florida$8.68$9.89Ohio$8.94$10.57
Georgia$8.91$9.27Oklahoman/a$8.34
Idaho$7.92n/aOregon$9.17$10.16
Illinois$9.84 n/aPennsylvania$9.76n/a
Indiana$8.41$9.87Rhode Island$8.86n/a
Iowa$8.99$9.50South Carolina$8.28$9.05
Kansas$8.31 n/aTennessee n/a$8.93
Kentucky$8.70$9.13Texas$8.52$9.20
Louisiana$9.11$10.22Utah$8.83$9.86
Maine$9.11n/aVermont$8.85
Maryland$9.65$10.77Virginia$10.07$10.82
Massachusetts$10.32 n/aWashington$9.84n/a
Michigan$9.05$10.13West Virginia$8.06n/a
Minnesota$9.09 n/aWisconsin$8.57$9.92
Mississippi$7.77 n/aWyoming$9.56n/a

Source: WageWatch 2013 National Benchmark Report

As noted, wages are significantly higher in cities.

One significant cause is unions. According to Unite Here, hotel workers earn more money in cities with a higher number of union hotels.

For example, a housekeeper in Miami, with just three union hotels, will make $9 per hour while a housekeeper in Boston, with more than 25 union hotels, makes $13 per hour.

The following chart shows the average wages by state of housekeepers at select service and full service hotels:

CityAverage Wage at Select ServiceAverage Wage at Full Service
San Diego$9.83$13.19
Seattle$11.19$13.89
Los Angeles$11.33$14.61
Boston$11.36$18.38
Philadelphia$12.12$14.98
Chicago$14.26$16.26
San Francisco$17.22$19.58

Source: WageWatch 2013 National Benchmark Report

Marriott’s chief human resources officer of the Americas, Karl Fischer, says that less than one-quarter of Marriott’s housekeepers are part of a union.

He would not share the exact percentage or the average salary of a housekeeper at Marriott; however, another company spokesperson shares that Marriott “pays virtually all room attendants more than $10 an hour plus benefits, which is above the current proposals for a minimum wage increase.”

Job Advancement

In addition hourly pay, housekeeping positions also don’t offer many opportunities for advancement.

“There really isn’t a career ladder [for housekeepers]. Sometimes a room cleaner may be elevated to room inspector or guest request/runner,” explains Unite Here spokeswoman Annemarie Strassel.

Marriott’s chief HR officer Karl Fischer combats that perspective by outlining several positions above an entry-level housekeeper including trainers, supervisors, and assistant managers.

Fischer says about one-third of entry-level housekeeping managers are individuals who have moved up from hourly housekeeping roles. The other two-thirds are college graduates or managers moving from another department.

“Part of Marriott’s culture is to move people up from within,” he says.

Pay Day

Consistency of work is another concern for hourly-wage housekeepers.

Housekeepers are typically expected to clean from 15 to more than 30 rooms in one eight-hour shift, depending on the hotel policy and whether they’re part of a union.

Marriott explains a similar work schedule of eight-hour shifts and five-day work weeks.

Those schedules can be interrupted based on season, room occupancy or even customer behavior.

One housekeeper described how eco-friendly programs that give guests the option of skipping a room cleaning can leave housekeepers without pay for that day.

Fischer says Marriott tries to manage peaks and valleys in housekeeping demand as far in advance as possible. It often uses temporaries to fill in during the busy season or offers overtime to housekeepers, which he describes “as a good thing up until a point.”

Envelope Pushback

Fischer argues the initiative is not an attempt to push the hotel corporation’s fair wage responsibilities onto consumers, but rather to highlight and recognize the efforts of the often invisible housekeeping workforce.

“Marriott sees it as our obligation to pay housekeepers a competitive wage. What we’re trying to say is that if you have a good service experience with the cleanliness of you room, then you might want to consider tipping the housekeeper.”

Critics have questioned why the $20.6 billion company doesn’t just pay their employees more. Others have pointed out that employees might go out of their way to decorate tip envelopes or make towel art in attempt to draw tips.

That is closer to what Marriott is after as a pay raise doesn’t incentive employees quite like tips.

“It is certainly one of the ways of trying to engage our workforce to create a more customized experience,” Fischer said in response to Skift’s questions.

“If a housekeeper does something above and beyond to engage guests’ children then that’s customer service. They’re trying to create a unique experience at the hotel.”

Marriott’s willingness to work with Shrivers’ initiative comes at a time when hotels are increasingly trying to customize their guests’ travel experience. This appears one effective method for encouraging ground staff to do just that.

Photo Credit: A Marriott housekeeper smiles in a corporate photo. Marriott Hotels and Resorts