If low-paid staff deserves a raise, who should pay for it? That debate is raging after Marriott (MAR) said it wants hotel guests to pony up gratuities for its housekeepers.
Marriott is joining a campaign called "The Envelope Please," a venture that was created by Maria Shriver and her nonprofit organization "A Woman's Nation," to place tip envelopes in 160,000 hotel rooms. The envelopes are designed to encourage guests to leave gratuities and "notes of thanks" for low-paid cleaning staff.
The campaign aims to reinforce behavior that not all hotel guests take part in, with about one-third of customers failing to leave behind gratuities for housekeepers. But by announcing the plan, Marriott is finding itself in the center of a controversy as some consumers say if housekeepers' pay is such a problem, the hotel chain should give them a raise.
Of course, higher pay for housekeeping staff would likely result in higher room rates, meaning the guests would end up paying more in the end, regardless of who is on the hook. But by putting the onus on guests to make sure they tip during their visits, the company could be seen as unloading the responsibility for providing a living wage onto its customers and staff.
In a statement, Marriott said the campaign is "designed to encourage and enable hotel guests to express their gratitude by leaving tips and notes of thanks for hotel room attendants in designated envelopes."
The initiative was brought to the hotel chain by Shriver, and it appealed to Marriott since many guests aren't aware that they should tip or are confused by the practice, Kathleen Matthews, the chief communications and public affairs officer told CBS MoneyWatch. She said many of the chain's housekeepers make far above minimum wage because the company pays competitive rates and many of its properties are located in cities with high costs of living.
Still, the issue taps into several hot-button topics, such as whether minimum-wage workers can live on their pay and how much responsibility corporations bear for paying decent wages when the federal minimum wage remains stuck at $7.25 an hour.
But the gratuity envelopes pose another question: If workers aren't "tipped" employees, such as waiters and hairdressers, are guests really on the hook for providing tips? According to Good Housekeeping etiquette maven Peggy Post, absolutely. Maids should receive $2 per day in a moderate hotel and as much as $5 per day in a luxury hotel.
Only about 70 percent of U.S. hotel guests leave tips for maids, who certainly aren't pulling in the big bucks. The median 2012 pay for maids and housekeepers was $9.41 an hour, or less than $20,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Still, housekeepers at Marriott's downtown Washington, D.C., hotels make almost double the national median, the Washington Post reports, citing a union official.
The envelope is "a great idea," John Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 25, which represents Washington-area hotel workers, told the publication. "It highlights the hard work that housekeepers do every day. We think it's a nice acknowledgment."
While that might be the case, some guests couldn't be faulted for wondering why Marriott isn't doing more for its own workers.
Editor's note: This story was updated to include comment from Marriott.