San Francisco is a pricey city. With median rent on a one-bedroom apartment hovering around $3,000 and prices in nearby Oakland, California, climbing, area residents routinely put more than half their take-home incomes toward housing. You might think employees of the tech companies blamed for the rent surge over the past few years would fare better than their fellow Bay Area residents, but even tech has workers who are getting priced out.

When a 25-year-old Yelp employee penned a post on Medium over the weekend detailing her trials working for minimum wage in the customer support section of Yelp food delivery subsidiary Eat24, the piece hit a nerve on social media. Some people said the screed, directed at CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, drew attention to prevalent wage issues in the area; others accused the employee of acting entitled and failing to find better or more work or a place to live that costs less than her current $1,245 rent.

Some people on Twitter wondered how that $12.25-an-hour wage--the minimum wage in San Francisco--compared to the pay at other companies. The answer is that it's below market for customer support positions, but Yelp isn't alone among its peers in paying workers arguably less than they need to live in the Bay Area.

Citing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Glassdoor chief economist Dr. Andrew Chamberlain says in an email that wages for customer service jobs generally "are above the national average in tech-related industries."

Here's how it breaks down nationally, per 2014 BLS data supplied by Chamberlain:

  • The national average is $16.29 per hour, or just shy of $34,000 a year, for customer service positions.
  • Customer service jobs in information and software services tended to fall in the $18 to $21 range (hence "above the national average.")
  • Food related customer services job average wages ranged from $13 to $20 an hour.
  • Business and administrative customer support services fell in the $13 to $14 range.
  • Average wages for customer service positions locally were higher.
  • In the San Francisco metro area, which includes San Mateo and Redwood City, California, customer service representatives averaged a wage of $22.52 an hour.
  • On the other side of the Bay Bridge--Oakland, Fremont, and Hayward, California--the average was $20.78.

Glassdoor provides a window on how Yelp may compare to its fellow Bay Area tech companies on pay:

  • Apple reportedly pays its San Francisco store Mac specialists (a customer service job) around $15 an hour.
  • Eyewear startup Warby Parker reportedly pays $15.32 an hour to its customer experience intern position
  • Yahoo pays customer experience interns $12 to $13 an hour, per Glassdoor.
  • Airbnb pays its Portland, Oregon-based customer experience representatives $19 an hour, per Glassdoor.
  • Bay Area operations and delivery employees for food delivery service Munchery make around $12.55 an hour (the minimum wage in Oakland) according to Glassdoor.
  • Food delivery startup Sprig reportedly pays delivery people, servers, and kitchen managers between about $15 and $17 an hour.

In short, compensation for positions comparable to that of Medium post author Talia Jane (not her full name) is not consistently higher at tech companies other than Yelp. It's important to note that the Glassdoor data provides only a rough idea of pay. Employees report wages anonymously and voluntarily, and for some positions only one or two individuals provided information. On Yelp's Glassdoor page, one report put the position of sales intern at between $12 and $13 an hour. Other positions didn't appear to match Jane's. 

Asked how Yelp's wages compared to the market, a spokesperson wrote in an email, "We are not going to characterize the compensation of this dynamic and evolving market." Asked why the company appeared below market on pay for customer support positions at Eat24, the spokesperson wrote, "Again, we are not going to characterize the compensation levels for customer support in the evolving online food ordering space compared more broadly to customer service positions in general."

"We agree with her remarks about the high costs of living in San Francisco, which is why we announced in December that we are expanding our Eat24 customer support team into our Phoenix office where we will pay the same wage," read a company statement, echoing CEO Stoppelman's comments on Twitter over the weekend that the cost of living in San Francisco was excessively high.

Stoppelman framed Jane's frustration as primarily an issue about cost of living. "I've not been personally involved in Talia being let go and it was not because she posted a Medium letter directed at me," he tweeted Saturday. Referencing his support for housing activists in the Bay Area, he continued, "entry level jobs migrate to where costs of living are lower."

Jane's Medium post, in which she said she ate little more than rice at her apartment 30 miles from work, didn't make surprising new claims about wage distribution by tech companies. Similar controversies have risen over compensation for Uber and Lyft drivers and for drivers of Google buses, all contract workers.

In a conversation with Inc. following the Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco Monday, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield provided an alternative perspective. Describing himself as "not a big free-marketer in the macro sense," Butterfield said issues of workers being able to afford where they live can't be pinned solely on systemic failings.

He declined to share a range for lowest starting wages at his San Francisco-based workplace messaging app startup, but said they were "not even close" to being as low as minimum wage. Only six-figure engineer and developer salaries are listed on Slack's Glassdoor page.

"If you want to hire in San Francisco, you're going to have to pay enough that they can live here," he said.

Published on: Feb 23, 2016