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!

College cheats: getting in is nothing; learning is everything

The most obvious truth revealed by the recent college admissions cheating scandal that has ensnared Hollywood celebrities and other rich fools nationwide is that typical Americans have completely lost sight of the purpose or value of education.

Paying bribes to be admitted to university is frankly moronic for most of us. All of the real value of the college experience comes as a direct result of studying—and learningtherein.

Graduation cap and degree captioned University of DeceitRich kids will continue to stumble into lucrative careers because they have the right connections. Average kids, and the less well prepared, will take on massive debt for less and less substantive rewards when we devalue our universities by sending kids with no direction or purpose simply to fill seats.

Naturally, those who steal and cheat to get into college go on to cheat while attending college. I wouldn’t want to work with or hire that kid!

Businesses already decry the lack of qualified applicants for job vacancies though the percentage of Americans attending college has been increasing for decades. Being admitted to college confers zero qualifications. Learning—at a university or anywhere else—actually builds skills.

So, too, does honoring oneself and one’s community by behaving with honesty and dignity.

True scholarship also enhances one’s life in less quantifiable ways. The cheaters are too cowardly to risk realizing this fact for themselves.

Pile of moneyEarning a college degree has held, thus far, as a predictor of higher pay, but for how long? When students are enrolled only because “college is the next step after high school” vs. following an interest in deeper, more focused study of something specific, the automatic pay bump for a bachelor’s degree will disappear.

We ought not mold our colleges and universities into the image of our less and less functional compulsory K-12 system. Academia is not the right fit for everyone. All students are not the same. Disparate careers benefit from differing methods of preparation for new workers. Human beings have different learning styles.

Jobs go to people who can do the tasks required. College, in and of itself, teaches no specific skill save mastering the “admissions game.” That’s defined as test taking and/or bribery and fraud, apparently.

Children should be encouraged to do their best academically, but honor their unique selves by accepting both their strengths and weaknesses. Don’t let them fall victim to the patently false modern myth that admission to “the right college” is a golden ticket to happiness, prosperity, or success.

Consider trade schools, sampling classes at a local community college, internships, or self-directed online study if there is no perfect path to a four year degree right after high school.

Life is so rarely perfect! Why would one person’s education be?

One of the most compelling stories by an alumna of the small women’s liberal arts college I personally attended came from someone who went on to attain an MBA from an elite American business school. This woman was committed to attending that particular institution for her advanced degree, but had to apply three times before she was finally accepted. They were eventually persuaded by her passion and dedication.

Her message to us: persevere when you know what you want. This particular woman of color had reached her own definition of personal success by working hard and refusing to take no for an answer. She was a CFO at a startup at that time.

Education is not a zero sum game, though seats at a particular university may be. Focus on attaining the skills required by a career suited to your personality and strengths, and do realize that “where you went to college” becomes irrelevant very quickly after graduation for the vast majority of people.

“Steal,” yes, because cheaters have taken, through fraud, a slot at an institution where another scholar might benefit and contribute honestly to the campus experience for the entire community.