Editorial: Push on tipping for maids doesn’t promote a living wage

The job of a hotel maid is grueling, back-breaking and occasionally disgusting work that’s generally underpaid. On average, maids and housekeepers make less than $20,000 a year.

For that reason, urging hotel guests to tip the standard amount, between $1 and $5 a night, to the people who clean up after them is an act of generosity and compassion.

Unless, that is, the urging comes from the person who employs that underpaid, overworked maid.

That’s why there’s something unseemly about the new campaign launched by Marriott, owner of Ritz-Carlton, Renaissance, Courtyard and about a dozen other lodging brands. On Monday, the hotel chain announced it will place tip envelopes in 160,000 of its rooms across America and Canada.

It is part of “The Envelope Please” program launched this week in conjunction with Maria Shriver’s nonprofit advocacy organization, A Woman’s Nation.

Shriver has a noble reason for supporting the campaign: She wants to direct more income to women who aren’t paid enough.

That’s in keeping with her longtime work as a supporter of women’s issues and founder of The Shriver Report, which exposes gender disparity and pushes pro-women initiatives.

Marriott, with $12.8 billion in revenue last year, has a fiduciary duty to shareholders. And passing on the responsibility for maid pay raises to consumers is brilliant strategy. It seems to have paid off; the company’s stock closed up slightly Wednesday, at $71.73.

Consumers have been put off by what seems to be a strong-arm tactic by an industry that’s as notorious as the airline industry for nickel-and-diming customers with things like “resort fees” and $5 bottled waters at the mini bar.

On Marriott’s customer rewards site, some consumers complained, essentially saying that the envelope in the The Envelope Please campaign had been colored black, as in blackmail. Coercion rarely gets good customer reviews.

In the long run, The Envelope Please probably won’t rank up there with the finest moment for Marriott or for California’s former first lady.

On her blog, Shriver said that this is just a first step on the road to economic fairness and livable wages for all. “Every individual should be paid a fair living wage by not just hotels but by all businesses, governments and by anyone who hires someone to help them in their lives whether it’s with children, parents or in their homes,” she wrote.

It’s hard to see how the goal of gaining a living wage is advanced by helping a company avoid having to pay one.