Service jobs were already underpaid & risky; no wonder workers don’t rush back

My family owned a small business that grew from two to eight stores during my adolescence. By the time I graduated from college, I had over a decade of work experience in retail sales, pulling orders in our small warehouse, and doing the office work supporting such an enterprise.

I grew up grateful for never having to take a job at McDonald’s to gain that first professional experience. My highly intelligent peers attending some of the best colleges in America took summer jobs as hotel maids and washers of cars on auto lots while I was already in high demand with data entry and database management skills by my late teens.

I had the great good fortune of being “the bosses’ daughter” when I took shifts behind the register in our stores, safe in the knowledge that no complaint from a customer would ever get me fired. That didn’t prevent me from seeing how precarious employment could be for minimum wage clerks and servers less favored by nepotism and auspicious birth.Pile of money

Extensive firsthand experience in retail has informed my behavior towards customer service employees ever since.

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve taken pains to tip well as we’ve ordered in our groceries and occasional meals—usually double what I would have paid before March 2020, but always more than any app’s minimum. When I read about the Trader Joe’s employee fired for asking management’s permission to deny service to customers who refused to wear masks indoors, I immediately wrote to the company in support of the worker’s position. I haven’t shopped at Trader Joe’s since.

Though the pandemic may finally be waning, I continue to go out of my way to patronize companies who’ve made firm commitments—and taken more visible steps—to protect vulnerable front line employees against COVID-19 itself and from abuse by customers who don’t believe in science or follow government mandates regarding public health.

Here’s a May 1st Globe article about restaurant employees exhausted by “enforcement fatigue” due to their role as the unofficial police of health mandates for diners.

Last week, after government figures were released showing a reluctance on the part of the unemployed to return to service jobs, every major paper* seemed to run op-eds and articles pondering why workers aren’t flocking back to staff restaurants and hotels. People whom I’m guessing have never worked in service seem to sincerely believe that overly generous unemployment benefits are a primary cause of this phenomenon.

The fact that these jobs pay low wages is usually mentioned, though, as is the reality that many working parents are still required at home due to school and day care closures.

Lower income parents are realistically facing the truth that their children, like themselves, face outsized risks at returning to in-person learning inside overcrowded schools with above average local case positivity rates for COVID-19. People of color are tending to keep their children home and continue remote learning at higher than average rates in my region, probably for this reason. I have yet to see this factor noted in news coverage of the unemployment issue.

What strikes me about almost every article is the near total lack of awareness of just how terrible service work can be. It isn’t just low pay keeping the unemployed away, but the enormous physical and mental costs associated with taking that work.

From the Washington Post:

“‘Employers are hungry for candidates, but job seekers don’t seem to have noticed that yet,’ said Julia Pollak, a labor economist at ZipRecruiter.

But workers are still hesitant to return, partly because they want to wait until they are vaccinated first and partly because they are discouraged after months of not getting any callbacks, says Pollak.”

I find this economist’s lack of insight into the rationale for the choices of these service workers baffling. They “haven’t noticed” job openings? I sincerely doubt that.

Realistically, the unemployed are weighing the risks of exposure to a dangerous virus which sickens them in greater proportion than it does their better-off managers vs. the paltry rewards of minimum wage in exchange for a constant barrage of abuse from the public.

The cost-benefit analysis seems obvious when the choice is below-sustenance wages vs. the risk of long term disability or even death from coronavirus. If I couldn’t afford to be out of work for weeks or months, I, too, would delay—as long as I possibly could—returning to service while persistent infirmity and death strike many thousands** of Americans every day.

Remember, these are the U.S. citizens least likely to have any paid sick time available to them. Only about one third of the lowest paid wage workers do, whereas the majority of those of us earning in the top 50%—sufficient to accrue an emergency fund—also enjoy the financial protection of paid time off.

Employers must face the fact that some of the lowest legal wages in America—a pathetic $2.13 per hour for tipped employees—are being offered to people with the highest odds of confronting unmasked customers with no recourse for self-defense: restaurant servers.

Best practices asks diners to cover their faces while staff is nearby; real world conditions never adhere perfectly to best practices. And then, a sizeable minority of Americans refuses to even acknowledge the risk they impose on servers through callous disregard of mask mandates where those rules are even still in force. Disposable surgical mask

Many COVID-19 believers themselves now act with selfish entitlement after receiving vaccines, ignoring the reality that no one knows if they could still infect people around them while basking, unmasked, in their own newfound protection.

Referencing the same Post article I mentioned above, at least one expert came closer to realizing the truth I find so obvious:

“Others say the reason workers without college degrees aren’t flooding back into restaurants and hospitality jobs is because the pay is too low.

‘We should be asking how we got to a place where service sector wages are so low and benefits are so nonexistent and workplaces are so unsafe and scheduling practices are so volatile that a mere $300 per week [on unemployment] may be better than the financial benefits and security of a job,’ tweeted Elizabeth Pancotti, a senior analyst on the Democratic-led Senate Budget Committee.”

(bolded emphasis on the coordinating conjunctions in this quote is mine)

Frankly, I’m gratified to see that an analyst for the Senate Budget Committee appears to have a better grasp on real world conditions for America’s working class clerks and servers than the labor economist at a recruiting company. I see that as evidence that someone in my government is doing her job.

Before the life-or-death threat of a pandemic, the reality was that a clerk in a shop or a server in a restaurant was treated as less than human during almost every shift.

When I last worked retail circa 2003, it was already common for customers to throw items onto the counter at my register, chatting on a cell phone and ignoring my presence except to shove a credit card or a handful of bills in my direction without any acknowledgement that I was there. I imagine the further proliferation of smart phones has made that kind of rudeness even more frequent.

I made the observation to co-workers at the time that these same people are probably the ones who complain if their calls are answered by machines when they try to contact large corporations.Contact phone

If the customers in a purely discretionary, higher end business like ours treated someone like me so poorly, it’s probable that conditions are abominable for those without my advantages.

As a teen selling beauty products, I was relatively well educated, mannerly, protected by a pale complexion and all the obvious signs of middle class economic status, never mind the confidence of being part of the ownership of our family business. At the bookstore, years later, my husband’s secure professional career sheltered me from any cost that could be incurred by protecting my dignity when customers behaved badly.

Let me add at this point that I sincerely enjoy working in customer service!

I get a charge out of delighting someone by finding what they want on my shelves. I like hearing the small stories behind someone’s search for an item in my inventory. I take pride in my ability to cope under the pressure of lines at my register, handling even a Christmas rush or malfunctioning equipment with aplomb.

For those of us who sincerely love people, there’s an instant dopamine hit of reward when you make someone happy, satisfying reasonable customers by furnishing them with what is needed or wanted. I’d always wished to work in a bookstore, and I joyfully recommended titles to interested shoppers while I did. I’ve known many healthcare workers and food service employees similarly delighted to nurture others via “caregiving” careers.

I was very good at front-facing customer service work, but, still, certain aspects of it were always dark and demoralizing.

About weekly, I would encounter a customer difficult enough that my heart would race and my body would enter an adrenaline-charged fight or flight state. And, again, I was a socially privileged person working in a well-staffed chain store in an upper middle class, suburban shopping center or a busy mall. I can’t speak to conditions in mom and pop establishments in rougher neighborhoods.

I was never robbed on the job thank God, but I did experience fear for my personal safety on numerous occasions. I faced decisions about flagrant theft, mentally ill repeat patrons, one of whom began to cross lines of appropriateness in a sexual manner in our store, and many, many customers who felt entitled to raise voices and use crude language, for example, in response to strict return policies though such policies were clearly posted and printed on receipts in accordance with state law.

It was in spite of the regular—though, admittedly, perpetrated by a small minority—dangers and degradation of dealing with the public that I opted to return to retail sales when I left my last engineering role after 9/11 but before I had my first child. Even occasional angry or violent agitators can wield outsize influence on an employee’s sense of well-being

Those of us who could step behind a counter to avoid grabby customers with wandering hands have always enjoyed more protection from unwanted sexual attention than waitresses required to come within arm’s-length of their patrons as they set down plates of food. When you’re close enough touch a diner’s tabletop, you are also within range of any airborne virus, not to mention those “Russian hands” and “Roman fingers” attempting to cop a feel.

Safety goggles, cloth face mask, and disposable gloves

Reports abounded throughout 2020 of customers ignoring health restrictions such as mask mandates, berating and even becoming violent with service employees for asking them to comply with rules designed to protect everyone. These new insults must be added to the already poor working conditions that have always afflicted servers and clerks.

Partisan politics prevented some police departments from enforcing health mandates even when staffing levels did not, yet customer-facing service workers were already subject to dehumanization and harassment before health-related risk mitigation tactics became politicized. Even shoplifters and aggressive customers didn’t guarantee a timely visit from the authorities in my experience over a decade ago.

Employees will return to vacant jobs when the conditions and wages offered meet or exceed the risk of illness and harassment inherent to each role. There’s no mystery. Anyone who’s worked in service could explain the situation to those confused journalists and politicians, yet most of those would be amazed how rarely anyone thinks to lend an ear to the ubiquitous essential workers catering to us all.

Researching this post, I discovered a Business Insider article stating that the Trader Joe’s employee in question was rehired about a week later, possibly due to the furor on social media that ensued from his firing. I might shop there again in the future, but am personally unlikely to revisit this decision until pandemic restrictions have been lifted. As of April 27, hundreds of Americans per day are still dying of COVID-19, and tens of thousands are being diagnosed with it. Offering your employees safer working conditions only when public pressure forces you to do so does not speak to corporate values I want to support.

* Further examples from Boston Globe and the New York Times

** My reasoning for assuming thousands per day risk long term disability and death is as follows: For 29 April 2021, the New York Times reports 51,465 new COVID-19 cases and 697 deaths. A study reported in February 2021 that the percentage of coronavirus sufferers who go on to experience long term, debilitating symptoms is about 33%. One third of 51,465 new cases would suggest 17,154 “long COVID” (a.k.a., post-acute sequelae SARS-CoV-2 infection or PASC) are likely.

Screen shot of calculatorOne reason I’ve avoided working in food service—since a mandatory stint in my college dining hall as part of my financial aid package—or in health care is that those products are actually essential for life. The stakes, therefore, can be sky high, potentially justifying extreme behavior on the part of the guest. I’m unaware of anyone every dying due to a lack of professional brand shampoo.

Similarly, when I took a job at a bookstore, it helped me to keep my cool in the face of irate customers to acknowledge that their desire to buy a particular book was simply not a life or death situation… except, perhaps, if they sought a first aid manual!

The best “Thermos” insulated food jar is a LunchBots brand Thermal

My search for a replacement insulated food jar when Thermos dropped the ball

I bought Thermos brand food jars in 2010, then again in 2015. These 10- and 16-oz jars have interchangeable lids and have served me well enough for a decade. After 10 years, however, I’m down to six jars and four lids having purchased seven in total between the two sizes.

Thermos insulated food jars, 10 and 16 ozYou can find reviews out there by people who have done scientific measurements of heat retention over time in this type of container, but my requirements are very simple. To wit, if I send a hot meal to school or work in the morning with my loved one, does the food stay warm and enjoyable until lunchtime?

Venerable Thermos brand no longer signifies quality

My first choice would’ve been keeping my existing jars in service with a few new replacement lids. Thermos in September 2020 replied to my email query, however, saying that I was out of luck. Thermos discontinued my jar model(s), and they have no replacement lids to offer.

I made it clear I would purchase lids if necessary, and that I was not asking for extended warranty coverage for old products. Thermos customer service appeared to give little attention to the details of my query; they don’t seem to care about my business.

I got a boilerplate email response indicating only that one item of the two I’d mentioned with model numbers and dates of purchase was out of production, and welcoming me to peruse their current offerings to find my own replacement. No notice was given to my specific question about sustainability or offering replacement parts in the longer term. No attempt was made to point me to the closest current model that might meet my needs.

Total customer service fail by Thermos!

Lids without plastic inside may be a healthier choice

Seeking a totally new product, I discovered that there was no Thermos food jar listed on their consumer site that day with stainless inside the molded plastic lid where it will touch the heated food therein.

BPA free plastic is a red herring; all plastic in contact with warm food should be viewed with caution, but not paranoia. The health effects of plastic use with hot food remain dubious yet suspect. Read up on this case of regrettable substitutes in National Geographic.

Instead of focusing on quality or innovation, Thermos seems to be competing with no-name international brands offering cheap products designed to fail and be quickly replaced. Today’s Taiyo Nippon Sanso* owned Thermos brand is obviously a poor fit for my eco-conscious, health-conscious consumer preferences.

I looked to a pair of modern, sustainable food container brands that I already trust for a suitable replacement to these insulated staples of my lunch-packing arsenal: LunchBots and U-Konserve.

LunchBots Thermal is the best insulated food jar for my family as of 2020

The best insulated food jar for my family turned out to be a LunchBots Thermal. I bought two, in September, 2020—one 12 oz and one 16 oz—from Amazon. I paid retail price, but I did use an Amazon coupon to save a few dollars off the order.

Amazon invoice for LunchBots order including Thermal food jar and insulated stainless steel water bottle Continue reading

Costco Executive Member swap of paper Reward Certificate for online use

Today’s tip will apply to a fairly narrow audience.

  • Are you a Costco Executive Member?
  • Do you still have your annual Reward Gift Certificate that was mailed out in 2020?
  • Are you avoiding shopping in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

If all three of those points apply to you, you may appreciate something I found out last month after a bit of searching. You can submit your paper Reward Certificate to the Costco home office by mail, and they will send you a Shop Card* redeemable for online purchases as well as in person, for example, at their gas pumps.

Costco Wholesale club Executive Membership Reward Gift Certificates dated 11/01/2019 and 11/01/2020As it happens, I hadn’t even gotten around to using my November 2019 certificate when I made my last in person visit going inside a Costco back in March 2020. The arrival in November 2020 of the next one brought the matter to my attention.

I was actually a few dollars shy of the break even amount for 2019—regular membership costs $60/year while Executive Members pay $120/year but earn back 2% of their spending in the form of this Reward Gift Certificate—and the $59 coupon in my wallet had completely slipped my mind.Costco Executive membership card in black leather wallet

My shopping habits changed a lot in 2020, however, and my two figure Reward from 2019 was more than doubled this year. In addition to regular orders of 2 Day Delivery shelf stable staples and household goods, I also bought Mountain House freeze dried meals and other long term storage foods, exercise equipment, and an expensive new vacuum cleaner from my favorite big box store.

While I frequented the Costco warehouse and gas station far less often during the pandemic, I did try to order as much as possible via Costco.com. I appreciate Costco’s consistent appearance on “America’s Best Employer” lists like this on from Forbes, plus their emphasis on value for dollar vs. lower prices on lesser quality goods matches my own preferences as a consumer. I feel much better shopping there than giving more of my money to Jeff Bezos over at Amazon.

With two Reward Certificates in hand, I found this page on Costco’s web site that explained how to redeem them for an equivalent amount of online-use-eligible gift certificates. I encourage you to follow the instructions on the official site at the link above, but here are the details on how to make the swap for yourself.

Mail your Executive 2% Reward certificate to Costco at:

Costco Wholesale
ATTN: Executive 2% Department
1455 11th Ave NW
Issaquah, WA 98027

Number 10 (business size) envelope with stampMake sure to include the following in a cover letter:

  • Member’s name
  • Membership number
  • Address to which you’d like the Costco Shop Card sent
  • Phone number in case they need to reach you
  • Executive 2% Reward certificate(s)

I took the precaution of photocopying my Reward Certificates before mailing them to Costco, and I’d advise anyone else to do the same or snap a readable photo. For good measure, and because my printer also works as a scanner, I captured an image of my membership card to the same document lest a foolish typo on my part prevent me from getting my money back!

I didn’t put the date on which I mailed my Certificates on my calendar, nor did I note receiving the replacement Shop Card, but the process felt pretty quick. I’d estimate that I had gift card in hand within a couple of weeks, even with the widespread postal delays of this past holiday season.Costco Shop Card gift certificate - 1

I was given no guff about submitting two annual Executive 2% Reward certificates, and the Costco home office combined both dollar amounts onto a single Shop Card gift certificate as I’d indicated was my preference in my cover letter.Pile of money

If, like me, you are sitting on a couple of hundred dollars or more in Costco IOU’s due to COVID-19, consider taking these simple steps to gain access to the money you’ve earned via your patronage. You might also want to express your appreciation for the opportunity as I did. Once again, Costco’s commitment to customer service has made me happy to continue my patronage of the chain, and I made sure they were aware of how their effort affected my feelings about my membership.

* Costco’s name for their gift cards

LunchBots stainless containers for life, even lids lost 10 years later

It can be hard to splurge on expensive items designed to last a lifetime when cheap, semi-disposable alternatives abound in our stores. Their ubiquity makes them seem like the obvious choice.

For parents preparing to pack daily lunches for school, stainless steel and glass containers are a perfect example. I can buy a week’s worth of plastic sandwich boxes for the price of a single stainless steel one.

Screen grab shows $17 for stainless sandwich box vs $8 for 3 plastic ones

Kids lose things. Kids break stuff. Kids aren’t necessarily careful with something just because Mom paid more for it.

And, after all, they are just children! While I want mine to grow up to be careful stewards of their possessions, I’d also like for them to be able to enjoy a meal without fretting about my reaction if the fancy new lunchbox gets dented or scratched.

In spite of such obstacles, the LunchBots brand proved to me this week that I was wise to invest a bit more cash in their products vs. the cheaper plastic competition in 2010. They stand behind their products, even 10 years after purchase!

LunchBots is one of a few companies I’ve personally patronized that opened for business c. 2008. That’s when plastic-as-poison was gaining mainstream steam, leading suburban moms like me to look for non-toxic alternatives to plastic food containers laced with BPA and other endocrine disrupting* compounds that may or may not leach at dangerous levels into what we eat and drink from them.

In 2020, LunchBots replaced a ten year old lid that my child lost. They didn’t charge me a cent, not even the actual cost of mailing it!

Replacement LunchBots Pico lid next to well worn 10 year old version Continue reading

10 hour airport layover teaches me: respect for DFW Ambassadors

DFW Ambassadors are airport information employees well qualified for their customer service jobs.

How often do you think about modern air travel and equate it with kindness, respect, patience, and professionalism? Speak to a few DFW Ambassadors, and you might begin to lean in that direction.

That was my experience when I sought airport information in Dallas-Ft Worth in July of 2018.

airport information display boardIt’s more popular to spread videos of Airlines Behaving Badly and Flight Attendants Gone Rogue, not to mention Passengers Punching Each Other, but that stuff just makes for salacious headlines.

My blog will probably never garner millions of views, in part because I’d prefer to highlight useful DFW airport employees who staff information kiosks and answer questions for average travelers who never go viral. Without a 10 hour layover to attempt to fill with meaningful activity, I probably wouldn’t even have spoken to any of these folks. I’m happy that I did engage with a few. Continue reading