Yelp minimum wage row shines spotlight on … broke, fired employee

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Comment Long before its customer service rep Talia Jane wrote a blog post about how her monthly wage wasn't enough to live on, Yelp has enjoyed a reputation for unethical behavior.

The publicly listed ratings company is reported to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on average every two days, typically by small business owners who see Yelp ratings as a valuable business tool but are then amazed to find that unless they take out advertising with the company, their positive reviews magically disappear – along with their customers.

After years of complaints about extortion, the company received an extraordinary boost from a San Francisco appeals court in 2014 when it was told it was not illegal for it to manipulate ratings according to its business needs, ie, to boost ratings for companies that pay it, and reduce them for business that don't. If the continued complaints are anything to go by, Yelp took that decision to heart.

The company has defended the anonymity of aggressive reviewers and kept their reviews live regardless of evidence that the reviews are completely untrue. And it paid $450,000 in an out-of-court settlement after it illegally gathered personal information on children under 13.

Perhaps it should not be surprising then that when publicly called out in the fact that Yelp pays its employees 20 per cent less than the industry average, its response is to fire the person that complained and then claim the two events were not related.

Meet Talia Jane

It's easy not to like Talia Jane: she wrote her blog post in the slightly whiney first-person it's-not-fair style that is the hallmark of people in their early 20s. But that doesn't mean that she is wrong.

Despite the aggressive, critical responses that her post has inspired, there is no evidence to suggest that she didn’t work hard at Yelp or that she wasn't prepared to go on working hard. Her issue was that she wasn't paid enough to live on.

The Bay Area, and San Francisco in particular, has become very expensive, in significant part due to the financial success of companies like Yelp. But that success is not filtering down to its employees.

Talia complained – with some justification – that she was given free food at work but was unable to afford it the moment she left the building. Likewise the restocked flavored coconut water that, according to her, no one liked but the company offered anyway at great cost.

Yelp employees get pretty good healthcare benefits. But even with a $20 co-pay (lower than the typical $30), her monthly wage meant she couldn't afford to go to the doctor. There is something perverse about a billion-dollar company proudly offering Silicon Valley perks and then paying Wal-Mart wages.

Here's how her monthly finances break down:

  • Wages: $1,466 (after taxes)
  • Rent: $1,245
    • leaving $221
  • Travel: $226
    • leaving $-5
  • Heating: $120
    • leaving $-125
  • Food...

Talia said subsequently that it was waking up hungry again because she had no money for food that prompted her to tweet the CEO of Yelp and then write her post addressed to him as a way of raising the issue.

Publicly embarrassing your employer is never the smartest thing to do but here's the rub: the backlash has been mostly focused not on Yelp and how it treats its employees but on its broke, hungry and now unemployed former customer service rep.

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