'Any Voice Is Better Than Silence': Fired Yelp Employee Reacts to Media Backlash

After Yelp employee Talia Jane posted an open letter criticizing the company's low wages, she got fired and triggered a huge media backlash. We spoke to her about her termination, the blowback, and what she thinks of a living wage for workers in the...

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Feb 25 2016, 2:55pm

Last week, a Yelp Eat24 customer service representative finally had enough. Her job was tough and unrewarding, and the pay—roughly $730, bi-weekly—barely covered her rent, with little left over for groceries or transportation. So Talia Jane, the 25-year old Yelp employee, took to Medium to pen an open letter to Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, alerting him and the rest of the world to the low wages being paid to entry-level employees living and working in San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in North America. She wrote about how her experience at Yelp is hardly unique. "Every single one of my coworkers is struggling," she noted. "They're taking side jobs, they're living at home."

Talia's letter went viral, and in short order she was fired. Asked for comment, a Yelp representative told Broadly, "Talia [Jane] was let go from Yelp Eat24 for multiple reasons, including violations to our code of conduct." Yelp went on to say that Stoppelman in fact agrees with Talia's concerns over the cost of living in San Francisco, and has been "a long-time advocate" for initiatives to lower housing costs in the city.

While Talia's letter has been shared and supported by many, she has also received plenty of harsh commentary. People trolled through her Instagram and Twitter posts, pointing out pictures of expensive bourbon and fancy cupcakes. Many have criticized her coming across as entitled, apparently so emblematic of millennials. Business Insider published a particularly scathing response by another self-identifying "millennial," excoriating Talia's letter and calling her out for not willing to work harder, or more hours, or take on a second job. The response also went viral, with a surprising number of young people taking sides against Talia, shunning her instead of the company paying her an exploitative wage.

Broadly: So, first off, why did you decide to write the open letter?
Talia Jane: I woke up hungry. My stomach hurt and my hands couldn't stop shaking and I was pounding water because couldn't even wait the 15 minutes it would take for my rice to cook. It occurred to me, at the peak of all these things I'd gotten used to dealing with, that it wasn't normal. So I sent some tweets directly to [Jeremy] Stoppelman. Then I realized, These are the equivalent of a fly in your ear. It won't show him that the person reaching out is trying to tell him something important.

Were you prepared for the blowback?
No way. As it started getting bigger, I started having these extremely surreal moments where I'd just be texting a friend and a giant wave of This is happening to you, this is your life would hit me. I got desensitized pretty quickly, but preparedness was definitely not in the cards.

What exactly were the reasons you were given for being fired?
I was told over the phone that my letter violated Yelp's Code of Conduct.

People must not know that poor people, and people who grew up poor (as I did), spend more than rich people during hard times.

What do you make of the criticisms you've received, like the suggestion that you could've just found a roommate, or that you shouldn't have spent any money on luxuries like bourbon that posted to your Instagram?
I made so many plans to find a roommate and to make this work overall.

As far as the bourbon, it cost $17 and that was a splurge. I did for cupcakes I was making for a team bake-off. There was the possibility of cash prizes, so I wanted to win and essentially pay off the bourbon I'd bought. As far as luxuries—do you remember the last time you were broke as hell? You looked at your bank account and thought, You know what? I am going through a lot right now. Why not give myself a little something to keep my spirits up? People must not know that poor people, and people who grew up poor (as I did), spend more than rich people during hard times. Plus, you can do the math and figure out that even from photos I posted, I was still struggling. You've never posted photos of nice stuff to hide from how hard you're struggling? You've never had months when all of your expenses, outside of bills and rent, are being put on a credit card that you can't pay off? And how does any of that negate the issue at hand?

Did you read the rebuttal to your letter published at Business Insider?
Yes, and as one writer to another, I commend her for being able to get noticed as a result of what she wrote. I hope she never finds herself back in the position she wrote about again.

Up until now, how many of the people accusing me of being entitled were actually discussing the living wage issue?

How do you respond to people who say you're the wrong messenger for the cause, and that your letter came across as "entitled" or "whiny"?
Who is the right messenger? Up until now, how many of the people accusing me of being entitled were actually discussing the living wage issue? If they don't think I'm the right voice to say this stuff, why don't they find the person who is and uplift their voice rather than bringing down mine? Any voice is still better than silence.

Before moving to San Francisco, did you consider that it's one of the most expensive cities in America to settle in?
Yep! And I planned in every which way possible to make the most of that. The employee who recommended the job to me—we actually looked at apartments together before I had to move up. He backed out, so I had to find something else. Being brand new to an area with no safety net of close friends or family on top of being a young woman, I didn't feel safe just blindly rooming with someone off Craigslist. So my new plan was to take the cheapest place I could find that would accept my application, befriend someone at work, and have a roommate/move somewhere affordable within three months. But none of my coworkers were going anywhere, so I had to find a new plan.

What do you think about the fact that a lot of people your age are criticizing you? Are you disappointed by that?
I'm not disappointed that people my age are criticizing me. I'm disappointed that they're not seeing the context of why the post matters despite their criticisms.

Are you surprised that many people your age simply accept that starting out in the workforce should be a financial struggle?
Why should I be surprised? That's what I did, because that's what I was told to expect. It is ridiculous that our parents could afford to pay for school by working a summer job, and they could buy a house shortly after getting their first post-grad job, but my generation is seen as entitled because we're told by our predecessors (who never had student loans) that a higher education is crucial to economic security later on, so we get saddled with thousands of dollars of debt as a result. We're trying our best, following the footsteps of our parents, and getting ridiculed for it.

So you're going to hire a bunch of people in Arizona. Congrats. What's that doing for your current employees?

Do you believe in the meritocracy?
I believe in people earning their value, yes, but I also believe in giving people the opportunity to grow their value and be able to survive regardless of their perceived value. You shouldn't be punished because you didn't go to college, or you're disabled, or you're part of the QUILTBAG community, or because you accepted a customer support job.

What kind of measures do you think should be taken to ensure employers pay a livable wage?
I'm not an economist, so I don't know if this is feasible, but it seems to make a lot of sense to create a relative living wage. Companies in the Bay Area like Yelp have helped to over-inflate housing costs, and if they can't pay their workers to be here, they shouldn't be here. I can't even imagine what they're doing to small businesses.

Do you believe in collective bargaining, and what would you say to the idea of unions in the tech start-up industry?
I believe we should have the opportunity to be heard and for our concerns to be seriously considered, not just brushed off. There are so many people in the underbelly of the start-up industry who aren't making the means to survive. Why can't we give them a means to speak?

Yelp says they agree with your cause, and that CEO Jeremy Stoppelman supports causes to help bring down cost of living in the city. They also say they will be focusing new hiring for customer support positions in Arizona where cost of living is less. How do you feel about their response?
It's almost hilarious, if this wasn't real life and real lives weren't at stake. So you're going to hire a bunch of people in Arizona. Congrats. What's that doing for your current employees?

I've had a lot of engineers who earn upwards of $100k call me entitled, which has tickled me.

What do you think Yelp should do to improve things? A wage increase? Anything else?
They should definitely look into a wage increase, but as I understand it, it's possible that they like the revolving door. They should, at the very least, create channels for people to share how much they're struggling. It's not en vogue with the start-up vibe, but your lowest-rung employees deserve the opportunity to be heard.

Have you received support from other workers, or even employers, in the tech world?
I've had a lot of people throughout the tech world who work in the same position I had reach out and thank me because they're going through the same thing. I've also had a lot of engineers who earn upwards of $100k call me entitled, which has tickled me.

What do you see yourself doing now, after being fired from Yelp?
I moved here because I wanted to find my voice and work towards the business suit/grown-up version of my dream job. The dream is to write for TV/film, and to me, the business suit version was media. So maybe I'll just work on that dream instead. Apparently business suits don't mesh very well with me.