Editor’s note: Talia Jane, a former Yelp customer service rep was fired mere hours after posting an open letter to the company’s CEO, Jeremy Stoppelman, denouncing the company’s minimum wage pay by spelling out her financial struggles living in the Bay Area. Not surprisingly, many opinions have arisen both in support and criticism of the 25-year old’s soliloquy.
How did you feel about Talia Jane's open letter to Yelp's CEO? See what the RBM team had to say! Click To Tweet
Sometimes at RBM we like to volley subjects like this back and forth between ourselves. It makes for a better, more nuanced discussion and it helps keep us from a kneejerk reaction.
Kerry: The struggle is real. It really is. Making low wages right out of school trying find a place of fit in the working world to gain a little bit experience…and money to pay loans (Class of ‘15 has an average of $35,000 in school loan debt, the highest ever) is not the easiest stage in one’s working lifetime. Many twenty-something workers, call them Millennials, are facing the job market in a very different time from past generations. Add in the most expensive cost of living cities in the country and we find Talia. A “rice-eating”, frustrated customer service rep trying to live in an apartment, work a full-time job and have enough money for real groceries. Is this a reasonable request for a college grad? Or a fantasy of days past in the current rat race?
Maren: I thought I knew what I thought when I first read this story. The mind reeled. When I was one year older than this girl, I had three kids, a husband and mortgage and breastfed my 2-day old through a math final. I had shopped my clips to every paper in the Omaha metro area, learned how to cook rice and beans and live on a salary of WAY less than $35,000 (for a family of five).
Granted that was ten years ago and the economy looked different. But with not one but two sets of school loans to pay back, we sucked it up. Maybe my generation is made of tougher stuff? But on the other hand, why SHOULD I have had to do any of those things? Why should she? So she and I are “even”? Isn’t part of the American Dream a better life for the next generation? Are the “entitled complaints” of this young woman a bellwether for employers…and just all of us?
“I got paid yesterday ($733.24, bi-weekly) but I have to save as much of that as possible to pay my rent ($1245) for my apartment that’s 40 miles away from work because it was the cheapest place I could find that had access to the train, which costs me $5.65 one way to get to work. That’s $11.30 a day, by the way. I make $8.15 an hour after taxes.” -Talia
Location is important in this story. Talia is living (does she have a roommate?) and working in and around San Francisco Bay Area working for Yelp/Eat24. A city with a 1.94% higher cost of living than New York City. The app boom has been changing the landscape of San Francisco fast, further separating the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, making it desperately hard in some cases to live how one would like to.
Culture Spotlight: San Francisco 2.0 HBO documentary exposing the dichotomy between the tech-riche and the sans-riche in the “Counter Culture capital of the world.”
So which is the biggest problem here? The wage set by the city? The wage accepted by the company? Talia’s decision to only work and live there? Yelp’s decision to set a call center position at a wage akin to a fast-food post is probably not the smartest look for their employer brand or retention numbers.
However, they have every right to do so and presumably new applicants happy willing to accept at every turnover cycle. No matter where political agendas and viewpoints lay on controversial issues like these, the reality to Talia, is the current set up was not working.
Maren: Fair enough. I moved from San Francisco when I was 18, and even then, my shared closet of a room cost almost $500 a month. I guess I think, she maybe should have known a little better? But then again, her employer should have as well. In her response to this response from a slightly older millennial, Talia posted that she should be able to live where ever she wants.
But can you though? Is that really a fundamental right that employers (to pay more) or the government (to eliminate school loans or mandate the minimum wage) should have to underwrite? The song New York, New York talks says “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere,” which is reminiscent of what the Bay Area is starting to become. In Talia’s instance (no roommate,– I had FIVE in my Golden Gate flat– one job, not a native) I’m choosing to save my pity for the elderly SF residents getting pushed out of their homes, or the working class in Palo Alto being displaced as their small town becomes a gentrified wasteland wherein they can no longer afford to live. On this count, I think Talia gets it wrong. Sure, take the risk, but be prepared to make some sacrifices for the risk. Especially if you want your life’s work to be memes? WUT?
“Every single one of my coworkers is struggling. They’re taking side jobs, they’re living at home….
…I’ll disconnect my home internet, too, even though it’s the only way I can do work for my freelance gig that I haven’t been able to do since I moved here because I’m constantly too stressed to focus on anything but going to sleep as soon as I’m not at work.”
Acknowledging the financial struggles as Talia did, the question comes into play of “What did you do about it?” Did you continue to only work the minimum 40 hours a week or try to get a string of side gigs?
38% of millennials are freelancing, compared to 32% of all others, according to a national survey conducted last year by Freelancers Union and Elance-oDesk. Which….doesn’t seem like a huge difference to me?
Supplementing an entry-level income is anything but an original idea. Serving, bartending, barista-ing, dog-sitting, house-sitting, baby-sitting, uber driving, or using your degree to book freelance jobs can all be accomplished on your two days off a week and weeknights. Home internet costs, stress and sleep are not valid excuses for finding work outside the minimum of 40 hours of week you are working. Work-ethic comes into question in situations like these where millennials complain about their situations, yet don’t take steps to remedy the situation.
Maren: This 29-year-old had MUCH to say about Talia’s open letter to the CEO. I do too. The fact that Talia was surprised that she got fired makes me worry a little more about what she learned in university than anything else. Why didn’t anyone tell her this was a supremely terrible idea? Bottom line: She should have gotten a second job.
I think almost everyone at Red Branch Media started with a second job, because at the beginning they earned just $10 an hour. They did it in a place with lower unemployment, lower cost of living and because they felt a job here would take them places. I think that might be what’s missing in Talia’s story. It’s hard to be inspired to make crummy wages when you think your career has stalled at the ripe old age of 25. Here I have a little bit of empathy for the most famous Talia…since Shire.
One of the most interesting parts about this saga, is Dear Jeremy’s response to the letter. Taking to twitter in a 5 part response, Co-founder and CEO Jeremy Stoppelman comes across as more sensitive than expected (while also denying culpability for the termination) and quasi-empathetic. He continues his monologue with a recognition of the cost of living along with the realities of staffing a customer service job in a place of such high cost of living.
“Two sides to every HR story so Twitter army please put down the pitchforks. The reality of such a high Bay Area cost of living is entry level jobs migrate to where costs of living are lower. Have already announced we are growing EAT24 support in AZ for this reason.”
San Francisco’s current minimum wage is $12.25 per hour; it will increase to $13 per hour effective July 1, 2016.
What does this mean for other jobs like customer service for all other types of industry?
“The number of middle-income households may be shrinking because “people are getting forced out of the Bay Area because of the cost of living or a decline in middle-income jobs.” Jon Haveman, author of the study and a principal at Marin Economic Consulting.
Maren: So I’m not a big fancy CEO, but I am a CEO and I can tell you, I would fire anyone who came at me like this. In public, with this big ol’ bag of melodrama. I genuinely cannot believe she was surprised she got fired. That said, what kinds of feedback systems exist within Yelp in order for her to let her supervisors (and yes ultimately the CEO..but privately please) why she was compelled to take her gripes public.
As for the early Twitterati who claimed the letter and subsequent it was a branding fail, I wholeheartedly disagree. One of the largest part of having an employer brand is transparency to ALLOW prospective employees to OPT OUT. In this case, I’m sure many did that. This very real depiction of a job that had zero business being in the Bay Area (evidenced by the fact they are moving it to Arizona) will hopefully cause other millennials with similarly unrealistic dreams to just not move there and apply to customer service positions? This is a REAL employer branding fail.
“Let’s talk about those benefits, though. They’re great. I’ve got vision, dental, the normal health insurance stuff — and as far as I can tell, I don’t have to pay for any of it!”
Wages aside, Talia received very nice compensation in the form of benefits. Medical, dental and vision are not defaults in an onboarding package anymore. Benefits many hourly workers making minimum wage do not have any access to.
31.6% of total employee compensation costs in were accounted for by benefits, according to the 2015 SHRM employee benefits study.
Something to think about at least.
Maren: My question is, does this young woman think that stuff costs nothing? I HAVE health benefits for my family (at the cost of $1200 per month) and I just paid $874 for an eye exam and glasses. I have a cracked tooth in the back of my head that has been that way for half a year, so…no sympathy here. I’m jealous of her benefits. I don’t have them now and I didn’t have them at her age.
Kerry: Where is the fine line between reasonable work compensation and personal gumption? Is it an employer’s responsibility to look after an employee’s well-being? Or an employee’s responsibility to hustle as much as necessary given circumstances?
Maren: You know…I initially judged this girl, and as a CEO I would have fired her for this. But I also do empathize with her obvious idealism being shattered. As a mother, that’s never easy to watch. Sure, life is hard sometimes, but it doesn’t sound like this young lady was prepared for it. For that, I am sorry. What I think she did was open a conversation around all the things we’ve discussed here. Rather than dismiss her, or send her money, I think I will thank her woefully misguided open letter and hope it’s given her as many reasons to reflect on the state of work today…as it’s given me.