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The controversy over a fired Yelp employee's open letter, explained

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Talia Jane, a 25-year-old former Yelp employee, wanted to start a conversation about living on minimum wage in Silicon Valley. But she didn't hit the nerve she was aiming for.

Her open letter to Yelp's CEO — a letter that got her fired — restarted the endless debate over whether millennials face a particularly tough time in the job market or whether they're just more likely to complain about it online.

How a disgruntled employee started a conversation about living wage

On February 19, Jane, who worked in customer service at Eat24, wrote a scathing open letter on Medium to remind Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman what life in San Francisco on less than $24,000 a year feels like.

Jane's letter tells a harsh – in both content and language – story of poverty, where she lives off only a single bag of rice, unable to buy groceries or pay her heating bill. She said she sometimes can't even pay her train fare to work because Yelp underpays and undervalues its employees.

"So here I am, 25-years old, balancing all sorts of debt and trying to pave a life for myself that doesn’t involve crying in the bathtub every week. Every single one of my coworkers is struggling. They’re taking side jobs, they’re living at home. One of them started a GoFundMe because she couldn’t pay her rent," Jane writes.

Less than two hours after Jane published the letter, she was fired from Eat24. Jane says she was told she was fired because the letter violated Yelp's code of conduct. However, on Saturday Stoppelman tweeted that her firing had nothing to do with the letter.

A Yelp representative told Re/code the company doesn't comment on personnel issues but "we did agree with many of the points in Ms. Jane's post."

Why did she write the letter? Jane told Quartz she "woke up hungry" and wanted to get the CEO's attention.

Then Jane's post went viral, trending on Twitter in San Francisco and sparking a deluge of comments. Supporters saw a post that exposed how bad life can be for the low-wage workers, from Eat24 customer service employees to Uber drivers.

Critics saw an entitled millennial who had mixed up being broke with being poor. Her job paid minimum wage, but it came with generous benefits. Jane's Instagram, critics pointed out, showed photos of prosciutto, Brie, and chocolate — food she told Quartz was given to her for free.

What people said about Jane's letter

Not only did Jane's post go viral, so did its responses.

Stefanie Williams, a 29-year-old college graduate who worked her way from hostessing at a New York bar to writing TV scripts during the recession, responded with "An Open Letter to Millennials Like Talia…" bluntly critiquing Jane's "whining" tone and lack of work ethic.

"Work ethic is not something that develops from entitlement," Williams wrote, chiding Jane for asking for donations from readers to support her job search instead of getting a service job. Williams said:

Had you ended your whole whining disdain about full health coverage and expensive copays by saying you had taken a job at Starbucks, or a waitressing job in order to make money while you were on the search for a new job that requires the basic knowledge most teenagers with a Twitter account hold these days, I’d have maybe given you credit.…

But you are a young, white, English speaking woman with a degree and a family who I would assume is helping you out at the moment, and you are asking for handouts from strangers while you sit on your ass looking for cushy jobs you are not entitled to while you complain about the establishment, probably from a nice laptop. To you, that is more acceptable than taking a job in a restaurant, or a coffee shop, or a fast food place. And that’s the trouble with not just your outlook, but the outlook of so many people your age.

And then there were the responses to the responses, like this one from Medium blogger Emey, who warned against self-righteousness in his own "self-righteous open letter to people who write self-righteous open letters to people who write self-righteous open letters":

If your experiences took place more than a few years ago, they are not useful to recount. Today’s economic and social environment is vastly, vastly different from the ones of the past. And "past" can mean 2008 — you probably didn’t even have a smartphone then, fam. Technology, globalization, capital flight, deleveraging, and further financialization have caused tremendous dislocation and upheaval, and that rate of change is accelerating.

Jane's letter is about a very real problem

The initial letter and blowback ended up focusing mostly on Jane herself – as expected when entry-level employees try to stand up to multimillion-dollar companies. But her letter went viral because of the bigger issues it highlighted.

College-educated students are increasingly coming out of school with higher levels of debt — affecting middle-class minorities the hardest — and entry-level incomes in certain fields have barely moved in decades. According to a 2014 Pew Research study, real hourly wages in the US (the green line below) have been flat or declining since they peaked in 1973.

And the cities where labor markets are booming — San Francisco, but also New York, Washington, DC, Boston, and Seattle, among others — also have skyrocketing costs of living, in part because of their restrictions on building new housing.

Nearly 30 percent of 2012 college graduates ages 25 to 34 moved to San Francisco, DC, New York, and Austin, according to reporting from the New York Times. Those are exactly the cities that are becoming the most expensive to live in. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is $3,200 per month.

Jane pays $1,250 for rent, about $120 for gas and electric, and $11.30 a day to commute to and from work. She said she makes approximately $1,500 a month; according to Glassdoor, Yelp customer service employees make around $12 an hour. Factor in the price of food (and we will put away the idea of eating healthy in this equation), and the numbers don't match up.

Stoppelman, a 38-year-old who has been featured on the Fortune 40 under 40 list, recognized this disparity in his response, tweeting that he acknowledged the cost of living in San Francisco was too high.

Stoppelman's solution is to move Yelp's entry-level jobs to less expensive areas, like Arizona, where $12 an hour is closer to a living wage.

But telling the approximately 115,000 people living below the poverty line in the San Francisco area that they should move to Arizona sounds like a complicated solution.

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