How many stars would you give Yelp as an employer? Read on!

I’m sure you’ve all heard by now about Talia Ben-Ora, the Yelp employee who was trying to live in the San Francisco area working as a minimum-wage customer support employee. She wrote an open letter to the CEO about how her pay did not cover her living expenses – and then she got fired.

Yelp denies that she was fired because of her letter, but they haven’t stated a reason, either.

First, I don’t think I would have fired Ms. Ben-Ora for that letter. Complaining publicly about her employer was a dumb thing for her to do, but she’s young and inexperienced. She wasn’t nasty or abusive, either — just thought she should be earning enough to support herself in the manner to which she hoped to become accustomed. Don’t we all?

(I assume the firing would not violate the National Labor Relations Act because it didn’t appear that Ms. Ben-Ora was acting on behalf of a group or preparing for group action. But with our current NLRB, you never know.)

At the same time, I don’t think Yelp was morally obligated to pay its customer support employees a “living wage.” Ms. Ben-Ora was an English literature major* just out of school working in an entry-level job. The expectation is that kids out of school will take low-wage jobs like this, get experience working for a great company, develop a work ethic, acquire some marketable skills, and move up. I have some sympathy for “living wage” arguments — especially for disadvantaged or older employees who may be in their low-wage jobs for life — but not when applied to young college grads who are simply paying their dues.

*Like Ms. Ben-Ora, I had an A.B. in English lit, and had a series of low-paying jobs before I went to law school. Of course, in those days, law school was a better investment than it is now.

Another thing that confused me — I thought Ms. Ben-Ora moved to San Francisco to be near her dad, who lived out there. If so, then why didn’t she move in with her dad, with free room and board, until she’d had a chance to save some money or get a few promotions at Yelp?

In Yelp’s further defense, I liked the response of the CEO, Jeremy Stoppelman, who not only did not attack Ms. Ben-Ora, but he actually admitted that the cost of living in San Francisco was way too high for low-wage workers. The company plans to move its customer support office to more-affordable Arizona.

I’ll give Yelp three stars as an employer based on its treatment of Ms. Ben-Ora. This rating is subject to change if we ever find out the true reason for her termination.

Here are a few considerations for college grads with liberal arts degrees who are looking for jobs:

  1. Will your salary cover your living expenses and give you a little to spare for eating out occasionally and going to a movie? If your expenses exceed your salary, then maybe you can’t afford to take this job.
  2. Could you bear moving to a smaller town — maybe 100,000-some people in the South or Midwest with a few entertainment options and a drastically lower cost of living?
  3. If you must live in New York City, San Francisco, Paris, or London, or any of those “premium” locations, do you have a friend or family member who will let you live with them so your entire salary isn’t sucked up by rent and parking? Could you move there with a group of your buddies, and share an apartment? If not, but if the job is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (like interning for Condé Nast — waitnever mind), can you take out a loan so that you can survive until your ship comes in?
  4. Have you considered going back to school for the roughly two years it would take for you to get a STEM degree?

All that being said, some tech companies are paying subsidies to lower-wage employees who have to live in the high-rent district because of their jobs. Yelp, if you start a program like this, it might get you 3.5 stars!

Robin Shea is a Partner with the law firm of Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP and has more than 20 years’ experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act), the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act, the Equal Pay Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act; and class and collective actions under the Fair Labor Standards Act and state wage-hour laws; defense of audits by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs; and labor relations. She conducts training for human resources professionals, management, and employees on a wide variety of topics.


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