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Tipping May Be the Norm, but Not for Hotel Housekeepers

The tip doesn’t have to be big — $1 to $5, says the American Hotel and Lodging Association. But fewer than a third of hotel guests leave any money for the housekeepers.

The hotel association publishes a gratuity guide on its website that offers suggestions for tipping everyone from valet attendants to bellhops.

But why are housekeepers often forgotten? A common explanation is that they are out of sight and, therefore, out of mind — that travelers are likely to tip only employees they directly interact with. But another cause may be a simple lack of awareness.

“As a general rule, people just don’t know they’re supposed to tip,” said Shane C. Blum, an associate professor of hospitality and retail management at Texas Tech University. The setting, he said, compounds the problem. “Obviously, when you’re with a group of people, like at a restaurant, there’s social pressure to tip. In a hotel room, you’re usually by yourself and there’s not that social pressure.”

But even when guests are nudged to leave tips for the housekeepers, it doesn’t always work.

In 2014, two longtime housekeepers at the JW Marriott Santa Monica Le Merigot recalled, guests were regularly leaving cash tips when they checked out of their rooms, a result of the hotel chain taking part in “The Envelope Please,” an initiative started by the nonprofit group A Woman’s Nation to make it easier for customers to show appreciation to housekeepers. Envelopes were placed in 160,000 Marriott-managed hotel rooms in the United States and Canada meant to be filled with notes and tips for cleaners.

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Within a few weeks, though, the envelopes vanished. “We heard that some guests felt the hotel was demanding tips for us,” Blanca Guerrero, a housekeeper at the Santa Monica Marriott, said through a translator.

Tipping norms, or the lack of them, may be especially unfair to housekeepers, who arguably do more for guests than park their cars or push the cart containing their dinners. Angela Lemus, a housekeeper at the Wyndham Boston Beacon Hill who makes $19.91 per hour, said through a translator that in addition to scrubbing tubs and taking out trash, she sometimes has to clean blood or other medical waste from rooms. Ms. Guerrero and another housekeeper at the Santa Monica Marriott, Aurelia Gonzalez, who make $15.66 an hour, said their responsibilities include cleaning not just the inside of rooms but also the balconies attached to them.

Most housekeeping workers are women, a disproportionate number of them minorities and immigrants, according to Unite Here!, a labor union that represents thousands of hotel housekeepers in North America. Ms. Gonzalez was born in Mexico, and Ms. Guerrero in El Salvador. Though their wages are above the median hourly wage of $11.37 for hotel housekeepers reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2016, the profession’s earnings are less than the pay for housekeepers in other industries, like hospitals ($12.74 per the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Pay rates vary widely by region. Wage Watch, a company that tracks wage and salary information for the lodging and gambling industries, found that a housekeeper in a New York City hotel can expect to make an average of $29.41 an hour, while one in Charlotte, N.C., may earn an average of $10 an hour.

Nationally, housekeepers’ wages are comparable to desk clerks’, whose average hourly rate the Bureau of Labor Statistics tallies at $11.28. But desk clerk jobs don’t require the flipping of heavy mattresses or exposure to cleaning chemicals that can lead to respiratory and other health problems. Ms. Lemus, for example, developed an allergy to the latex gloves she was required to wear while cleaning.

“It went on for years, and it got so bad my hands started to bleed,” she said. “I couldn’t let people see my hands.”

Yet housekeepers say that, without the gentle nudge of initiatives like “The Envelope Please,” only about 30 percent of guests leave a tip — a figure Professor Blum found as well.

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Marriott tried placing envelopes in its hotel rooms to encourage guests to leave a tip for housekeepers, in partnership with a group called A Woman’s Nation. The hotel ended the program because it proved to be unpopular with guests, a spokeswoman said. CreditA Woman’s Nation, via Associated Press

“Some days someone will leave $5; other days, they leave nothing,” Ms. Lemus said.

“Sometimes we get $2 or $3 in a room, and we get very happy,” Ms. Guerrero said. “It makes us feel like someone appreciated us.” But sometimes, several days pass without a tip.

Carmen Cruz, the manager of the four-diamond, 64-room Casa Madrona Hotel and Spa in Sausalito, Calif., said tipping trends in hotels are changing.

“Millennials travel a lot, and they’re not big tippers,” she said. “It’s because they’re independent, and they like to do everything themselves. They’re not looking for those extra services that an older couple may be, like, ‘Here, take my luggage.’”

Contrary to the situation in other hotels, housekeepers are among the most frequently tipped employees at the Casa Madrona, Ms. Cruz said. In addition to cultural background — Americans tend to tip more than European and Asian guests — length of stay is often a predictor of whether a maid will be tipped.

“If it’s a stay of more than a week, 90 percent of the time they’re going to leave a tip for our ladies,” Ms. Cruz said. “If it’s a one-night stay, 90 percent of the time they won’t leave a tip.”

But said she would never push guests, even those who have booked an extended stay, to leave tips for Casa Madrona’s housekeepers.

“We do leave stationery and envelopes in the room for when you want to write a letter, but we don’t want people to feel forced,” she said. “If they want to leave a tip, it should be from the heart.”

Marriott quickly came to that same conclusion after working with “The Envelope Please.” Connie Kim, a Marriott spokeswoman, said the initiative was scrapped within a few months because “it just wasn’t popular.” (An internet outcry, including an article on fortune.com with the headline “Marriott to hotel guests: Please pay our maids for us,” may have been a contributor.)

But the idea that it is bad form for hotels to encourage the tipping of maids ought to be reconsidered, Professor Blum said. In 2016, one of his doctoral students conducted an experiment similar to “The Envelope Please” at a hotel in Lubbock, Tex. In addition to a larger percentage of tippers, the envelopes left in rooms, which made mention of the hotel association guidelines, yielded a flurry of thank yous from guests.

“People would write things like, ‘Thanks for your hard work,’” Professor Blum said. “You got the sense that knowing the guidelines was helpful to them.”

Still, that is not always the case.

Michael Lynn, a professor of consumer behavior and marketing at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration who has studied tipping extensively, is well aware of the guidelines.

“Tipping etiquette experts have said for 20 years or more that you should tip hotel maids. But even I don’t do it all the time,” he said. “Half the time I don’t have the proper change in my pocket or I forget.”

Both professors recommended a remedy for such cases, which would also work for business travelers who don’t tip because they are unsure they will be reimbursed without documentation of the cash outlay.

“If hotels really wanted to institutionalize tipping, they could do it through electronic checkouts, or an app, or the TV, with a question like, ‘Would you like to leave a tip for your housekeeper?’” Professor Blum said. “We live in a tipping society. Even sandwich shops do that now. Why shouldn’t hotels do it?”