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Pandemic, cashless society putting squeeze on tips for nonfood workers

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 — and earned exactly $3 in tips.

She’d never seen it like this. While her tips from her had been drifting downward for years, they seemed to nearly disappear during the pandemic. Gone were the days of when she could count on tips of $1 to $3 in nearly every room she cleaned earlier in her 27 years as a housekeeper.

“No one makes that anymore,” Limon, 55, said. “It’s hard when you don’t get tips because right now I could use extra money.”

While the pandemic has led to a surge in tipping for restaurant servers and food delivery workers — the standard gratuity climbing closer to 20% than 15% and increasingly even carryout orders leading to tips — millions of other tipped workers have been largely excluded from this newfound generosity.

These often-overlooked workers — hotel housekeepers, bellhops, carwash jockeys, airport skycaps and wheelchair escorts among them — have been hit hard by an increasingly cashless economy and new pandemic work rules that chip away at tipping opportunities.

These workers provide services with unclear tipping expectations. They also usually can only accept a tip in cash.

“People don’t have cash these days. Happens all the time,” said John Bragg, 64, who has worked for three decades at airports in the Washington area, mostly as a skycap providing curbside services.

Ibrahim Sisay, a wheelchair escort 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 make their flights. Some passengers don’t seem to know if they should tip him. And he said he’s forbidden from making any mention of a gratuity.

What is happening to these workers — many of them minorities and immigrants — is mostly a mystery to researchers.

Studies of tipping behavior tend to focus on the restaurant industry, such as research finding that customers tip more when a server uses their name. Credit cards and digital payment services such as Square have a wealth of data, but it too is mostly from the food service industry. One recent study by Popmenu found restaurant tips of at least 20% were increasingly becoming the norm.

But little is known about how cash-tipped workers such as hotel housekeepers or wheelchair escorts are faring, said Michael Lynn, a professor at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration and a leading researcher on tipping.

“I don’t know of a single study and I’m looking all the time,” Lynn said.

“It’s a real issue,” I added. “We just don’t know how big the issue is.”

Research is difficult because tips for these workers are usually cash and off-the-books. Lynn said he suspected they have been hurt by the move away from cash and toward credit cards and mobile payments.

The days of someone always carrying a little walking-around money seem long gone.

A lack of cash recently tripped up D. Taylor, president of the Unite Here union representing 300,000 workers in the hospitality industry in North America. He was checking out of a hotel on Capitol Hill when he realized he didn’t have money for the hotel housekeeper. He went out on a cold, windy morning to hunt down an ATM. I have left $20 behind in his room from him. He said he realizes most people might not do that.

“The cashless society poses a real challenge,” Taylor said.

Tipping is seen by some as an outdated practice — allowing employers to pay a lower minimum wage to tipped workers, with the expectation that they will earn more via gratuities. And there have been calls for restaurants, in particular, to abolish tipping and pay waitstaff a higher wage.

In one 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 following the worst of the pandemic.

Lynn, the Cornell professor, said most waiters prefer tips to a flat wage because they can earn more.

For now, the Unite Here union is pushing to boost minimum pay for these tipped workers.

That has helped Anjannette Reyes, a wheelchair escort at Orlando International Airport, whose base pay has jumped from a little over $5 an hour last year to $10.50 an hour today.

But she has also seen her tips plummet from $45 on a good day pushing at least a dozen people through the airport to maybe $20. She’s heard all kinds of reasons people don’t tip. They didn’t have cash — “It’s a plastic world,” she said. Or they tell her they just spent what cash they had on unexpected baggage fees.

“So we wind up not getting anything,” Reyes said.

The union also has supported new laws in cities such as San Francisco and Las Vegas that require daily room cleaning in some hotels as part of beefed-up safety measures during the pandemic — which has the effect of providing more regular work for hotel housekeepers.

How much to tip workers is hard to pin down.

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 a night for hotel housekeepers and $1 to $5 per bag for porters. The guide was last updated in 2014.

Tipping norms are unclear even in restaurants.

Lynn said surveys he did of expected restaurant tips before the pandemic found that nearly a third of consumers suggested a number below 15%.

“And that’s where everyone knows to tip and tips all the time,” Lynn said.

A lack of cash has turned into a problem even in places where everyone knows cash is king — such as strip clubs. It’s why seemingly every club has an ATM. Brandi Campbell, a veteran dancer at a club in the Midwest, said her tips have declined because strip clubs appear to be losing popularity as people shift their attention online.

Campbell, who advocates for better employment protections on her site Stripper Labor Rights, said she has seen only one dancer experiment with cashless payment systems. That dancer used mobile payment system Venmo for tips.

But Campbell said she had privacy concerns about doing so herself.

Companies have explored using technology to allow people to offer cashless tips to hospitality workers.

One company, Bene, 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 hotel housekeepers and valets, as well as workers at beauty and nail salons.

InterContinental Hotel, owner of brands such as Holiday Inn and Kimpton Hotels, plans to test out Bene later this year, said Brian McGuinness, a senior vice president with InterContinental. It is also trying out another cashless tipping app, TipBrightly, at one of its properties in Asheville, NC

The hotel company found that its bartenders and waiters actually saw their average tip go up 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 every day to once every three to five days at some of its brands, he said.

Even after room cleaning resumes, the biggest obstacle remains needing cash.

“Cash went away,” said McGuinness, who noted that he has dealt with this problem, too, such as when it comes time to tip carwash workers.

Hotels have been wary of taking on the problem ever since Marriott tried to boost tips for hotel 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 rooms suggesting they leave a tip. The backlash was intense. Critics said it felt like the hotel chain was asking guests to subsidize low wages and, at the same time, turning a courtesy into an expectation.

The campaign — and envelopes — soon disappeared.

Today, Marriott is “in the early stages” of looking at ways to allow cashless tipping of its hotel staff, said company spokesman Ben Gerow.

Hilton said it is also aware of the problem and is looking at 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 has seen his tips dwindle from $80 to shift to maybe $5 to $8.

I used to bring food into the room. The 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, a 50-year-old father of three, also works in the hotel’s grab-and-go market. He’s noticed that many younger customers don’t wait for a paper receipt or they pay with their mobile phones. There isn’t even a chance to earn a tip.

He wonders if these customers had ever worked in a hotel or in a restaurant.

“I want to tell them that we are working for extra money for our families,” Sanchez said.

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