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!

DuoLingo rank in top 3% explains how I passed pandemic time

Perhaps because the pandemic gave me fewer distractions, I stuck with DuoLingo for most of 2020, primarily studying German and Spanish this time. I practiced there more than ever before, and I earned my longest continuing streaks.

I believe I created my DuoLingo account sometime during DS1‘s first year of home schooling, which would put that half a dozen years ago or so. My history with the platform is therefore fairly long, but my use has been sporadic. I come and go with all of my language studies, often in preparation for a trip, but I also use Pimsleur tapes and other resources, and I jump around between languages including those I started in school (Spanish, German, Japanese) but also occasionally French, Russian, or any other language I’ll be encountering in my travels.

Books foreign language learningI’ve tended to view DuoLingo as a game, a dabble, or a linguistic lark. I’m already on record on this point: I am a dilettante.

According to the 2020 Year in Review report Duo sent me this December, I ended up in this year’s top 3% of users. Who would’ve thought it? Yay, me!

DuoLingo 2020 Year in Review analysis

Whether these reports are a new feature, or if I’ve simply been “inactive” by winter in the past, this is the first time I remember receiving such a summary.

2597 minutes of language learning only averages out to about 7 minutes per day, roughly 50 minutes per week, so my minor obsession with the platform over the summer wasn’t too pathological. Nor is such a commitment sufficient, really, for anything except a nifty end-of-year ranking worthy of a self-congratulatory blog post.

Am I great at German now? Na ja, I’m afraid I still require subtitles to watch Nailed It! Germany or Dark on Netflix. Fluent, I ain’t!

Then again, the power of spaced repetition for retaining knowledge is undeniable. I’m hardly fluent in any language but my first, yet I have certainly cemented additional vocabulary in German and Spanish in 2020.

DuoLingo’s tag line is something like: “Learn a language in just 15 minutes per day.”

Analog wall clock showing 12:06The reality is that few will actually commit to the process, and almost no one can achieve fluency using any single tool. Even if you do commit 15 minutes per day to DuoLingo, you’ll be unlikely to be ready to address the United Nations without a whole lot of “something else” under your belt.

Also, the CEO is the person who invented CAPTCHAs, so there’s that working against DuoLingo’s place in my heart, too. I despise those stupid things.

Screen grab from DuoLingo showing 129-day streak achievementMany of us are susceptible to game-ification, however, so I encourage langauge learners to give DuoLingo a try. Extrinsic motivation isn’t such a bad thing for a necessary—yet repetitive—task like vocabulary study. I jealously guard my months’ long streak of continuous* days’ use of the platform. No stack of flash cards has ever kept me on track so continuously; not even the fear of low grades in college courses was as compelling as hoarding an imaginary currency called Lingots.

I’m 21 topics away from completing Level One of every available topic in German, the language I study most often on the platform. I’ll earn a completely meaningless Achievement dubbed “Conqueror” when I make it to that lofty(?) goal.

I’ve only topped out at Level Five on a single topic, Basics1 before the castle icon indicating Checkpoint One. It’s interesting, actually, recognizing from perusing the DuoLingo chat boards how some of us approach a language breadth-first, whilst others prefer a deeper dive, completing each topic up to its max in turn before moving on to the next.

I suppose the choice to do otherwise feels as obvious to other learners as mine does to me!

German has five Checkpoints or collections of topics, whereas Spanish has seven. Some languages are more popular than others, and the platform seems to offer more content for the languages users demand. Rational of them, I suppose.DuoLingo screen shot showing one more Topic to complete before Checkpoint 3 Castle is reached

I’m just shy of Checkpoint Three en español.

DuoLingo is free, so it is well worth its price. Ads are a significant annoyance when using the iOS app, but I don’t see any in the web version running on my desktop though I do employ multiple ad blockers.

The number of ads shown seemed to increase with total usage on the iOS app; I might not have kept up with it if I’d seen ads after every lesson from the beginning like I do now.

It’s worth noting that the ads in the app occur only at the end of each topic lesson, so I can and do cover my screen with my hand until the close button becomes available, and unwanted screeching video noise pollution can be silenced when it does occur. Moderately annoying still ads outnumber intensely annoying video ads on DuoLingo in my experience, but the ads to which you will be subjected are no doubt dictated by some algorithm outside my ability to predict on your behalf.Calculation of 41 weeks + 3 days times minutes per day = 417,600 minutes

I appreciate DuoLingo’s year end report for an accounting of how I spent 2597 minutes of pandemic isolation. Now if only I had such complete records for the other 415,003 minutes of it. I have some doubt that the balance was spent in so edifying a manner!

* Full disclosure: I have used a “Streak Freeze” save at least twice, so my current 129 day streak is somewhat less impressive than it looks.

FYI French has nine, Russian has five, and Hebrew has seven. You’ll have to do the resources yourself for any of the other 32 languages available to English speakers that are not in my DuoLingo queue.