An open letter to that ol’ open letter, I suppose.
A year ago today, I wrote an open letter to my CEO calling out the hypocrisy of a well-established tech company founded on open source commentary refusing to listen to its lowest tier employees’ needs. Two hours later, I was fired. Three days later, the company held meetings with my former coworkers who confirmed the issues I had pointed out, and shortly thereafter changes were made to accommodate these needs — customer support reps got their own desks, improved paid time off and holidays, and, most importantly, a modest raise across the board. The letter wasn’t what changed minds and improved conditions — it just served as a catalyst to getting department heads to listen to their employees, which shouldn’t have been a problem in the first place.
The raise wasn’t dramatic enough to put the company out of business or sink its stocks (actually, Yelp stock rose and has been rising)— or dig its employees out of near- or absolute poverty. But numerous former coworkers talk about how just a $2 raise has suddenly opened up small doors for them: going to the dentist, enrolling in community college, confidently being able to start saving for a car or moving out of their parents’ house. It wasn’t a millennial handout, as some salivate thinking of it as. Just a release of some of the financial pressure that so easily keeps so many from moving forward or enriching their lives.
But this is far from a happy ending. Rather, it’s a small light in a dark tunnel full of an unhealthy tech culture that cuts costs at the bottom and enrichens the top and an obscene cost of living designed to ruin anyone earning less than $100,000 a year. For contrast: Seamless is based in New York, where cost of living isn’t cheap but isn’t insanely unaffordable like the Bay Area, yet Seamless pays its customer service representatives twice as much as Yelp for the same job, in some cases with much less vigorous training, as a Yelp CSR who, until a year ago, only earned $12.45 an hour (before taxes).
And of course, the letter didn’t happen in a vacuum. Conspiracy theories exploded in an effort to deflate the guilt that creeps up when one is confronted with news of anothers’ misfortune. My decision to only post the nicest things in my life online so my friends and family back home wouldn’t notice how much I was struggling was transformed into ridiculous ideas that Actually, Yelp paid me to write that letter to give them some press or Actually, I never lived in/near San Francisco, or — my favorite — that I lived in Louisiana (because I used to live in LA, as in Los Angeles) and had a child that I may or may not have abandoned in Louisiana (because I had posted photos with my friends’ kid who I’d babysat, in Los Angeles, a few times).
Hypocrites still living at home or who had jobs handed to them or who were just mad because I didn’t withhold my sarcasm (the loudest being a combination of all three) tried to say the only problem is me, Talia, and not the fact that anyone living within 30 miles of San Francisco needs to earn at least $35/hour to survive yet an established company worth $2 billion only offers minimum wage jobs smack dab in the middle of the city. Do I even need to explain what “bootstrappers” are?
Regardless, the letter — and my firing — went viral. For about a week, I was the sole focus of a lot of attention, about 50/50 split between supportive and internet mob mentality. I also came down with bronchitis during all of this, and I still hate-chuckle at the thought of me going viral while going viral. Even just reading that line must be so infuriating for you, and I’m sorry but I’m not going to let such an intensely life-based joke just pass me by. I digress.
Shortly after I was fired, I got a Twitter notification from one Anil Dash, who promptly suggested I put donation links at the top and bottom of my letter, some of which I had to google to find out what they were.
Downloading Square, which I now know about, allowed a few folks to immediately send me cash, which in turn allowed me to buy some groceries for the weekend (as my main source of food had been from work, getting fired directly impacted my access to anything beyond rice). A total stranger by the name of Chef Apple reached out and offered to set up a GoFundMe on my behalf, which still completely blows me away. Over a few weeks, the GoFundMe collected $2,755. I was able to deposit most of it — GoFundMe kept a chunk — and Chef Apple’s gesture (plus input from people who’d donated) compelled me to pay it forward. So I made a promise to donate the total sum, in six months, to No Kid Hungry, an amazing organization that provides up to 100 meals for children for just $10. I broke that promise.
By month 6, I had used the GoFundMe donations, a severance check significantly larger than Yelp’s usual, Square/PayPal donations, income from freelance work, plus selling all of my things to put me in the place I’ve always wanted to be but was too scared to move to. I spent those six months applying to jobs, freelancing, and landing both an affordable apartment and a trustworthy roommate who is more like an amazing sister than just some rando housemate.
By month 6, I had also scored two jobs: one, minimum wage that requires both retail and kitchen expertise and the other, writing breaking and trending news for Mic. And now, a full year since my letter, I can proudly say that things have stabilized some, but not completely — the retail job is demanding but not one I can support myself on completely and the news writing job is rewarding and challenging but a contract position that may soon expire. Working both, I average 60 hours of work a week, which prevents me from having any modicum of a social life but plays well with my type-A tendencies toward hyper-organization and time management. It’s not fun in the typical sense — folks love to furrow their brows and express their condolences when I tell them how much I work — but it works for my needs. A year ago, I was struggling for my work to meet my most basic needs.
And there’s one thing I’ve noticed that I can’t shake and that I haven’t shared until now: At Yelp, I worked 40 hours a week (often more) doing a job that was neither physically demanding like my retail job nor as mentally rigorous as my news writing job but expected full allegiance. I’m working more than I used to, have a roommate to split the (much lower) costs, but I might soon only be earning just a few hundred dollars a month and still haven’t managed to lift myself out of the “rent burdened” category. Yet the sheer fact that I currently manage to average out very close to a living wage has had such a profound psychological effect that I don’t feel completely exhausted, even on the days I barely get 4 hours of sleep between shifts for days at a time, like I did working just one full time job for a $2 billion tech company that still refuses to pay its lowest tier employees a living wage. In fact, there’s a spring in my step despite the sleep dust in my eyes and a commitment to the details that often eludes those too stressed to see beyond their immediate needs. In short: Paying a living wage removes stresses that prevent employees from being empowered individuals, and being an empowered individual encourages employees to work hard and be better employees, and it’s bonkers that millionaires who haven’t had to put in real work for years have so easily forgotten this very obvious fact.
Which is why I’m here, to remind folks of the benefits of earning a living wage. Despite the uncertainty and long hours ahead, I am happy and confident and empowered. I’m not criticizing folks who “only” work one job and can’t make ends meet, like some more privileged and less skilled at writing did to me. I’m empowered because I now have the opportunity to choose. I can choose to use the cost-cutting skills I once absolutely had to use, or I can comfortably splurge. I can save, or I can spend. It’s not all spending on just bills and having nothing left over to save. There’s some wiggle room, which I’ve used with a specific focus in mind: making good on a very old promise.
One year since getting fired from Yelp, a company that demands much and gives little, I have done what bootstrappers, in their privilege and arrogance, love to imagine they worked hard to do. I’ve managed to save up enough money to, as of writing, donate $2,755 to No Kid Hungry.
I know the severe negative impacts of an empty stomach intimately, from my childhood and in my adult life, that even if I become a billionaire, the dark hardship of poverty I’ve lived in contrasted against the warm light of this momentary opportunity will never, ever be something I’ll forget. And my hope is that those who have forgotten, who’ve written over the pains of their past, or who’ve never experienced profound need, will see how much good comes from avoiding the urge to be self-centered and defensive and instead open and willing to make small sacrifices — like losing your job or emptying out six months’ savings to hit a self-set deadline — for the benefit of others.
Happy Yelpiversary, folks.
I hope your minds and hearts always stay open and your tummies never go empty.