Service Workers Deserve More

They’re all around you, often invisible. Not just the waiters and clerks and hotel desk workers, but the bussers and housekeepers, janitors and phone crews. They’re the people who make the world hum all around you, and they’re supposed to be as unobtrusive as possible while making your life as easy as possible. They are the service workers who make up a huge sector of the economy, and their very invisibility renders them especially vulnerable, because people are rarely confronted with their working conditions or forced to ask themselves what their lives are like.

I’ve worked in service, thankfully briefly, and primarily in retail, which is one of the less onerous aspects of the service industry. I can tell you that it requires long hours, endless cheerful smiling at the public no matter what they are doing, being on your feet constantly even if you’re battling pain, fatigue, and chronic illness. It requires being constantly aware of your surroundings, ready to multitask, and vigilant to the needs of your customers, because the goal is to anticipate needs almost before customers themselves identify them. That’s what makes you ‘good,’ what keeps you employed, what gets you raises.

And, of course, as the public face of a business I had to dress a certain way, maintain a certain level of personal appearance. I had to invest in clothes and hair and other maintenance in order to come to work, just like a lot of service workers, and the standard was especially high for me as a person who looked like a woman. Because no one wants to encounter by a slob behind the till; no one feels comfortable trusting a clerk or receptionist or bakery employee with wandering hair or torn clothes because it looks unprofessional and untidy and makes you worry about the integrity of the business.

In most of my service jobs, I was paid close to minimum wage, with a few exceptions. Even when I was paid more, it wasn’t much more, and it was woefully inadequate considering the cost of living for where I was. Only one of my jobs ever offered benefits, and we paid for much of them; employees had the option of signing up for a group health plan, or of receiving a small yearly stipend for medical expenses. Like many of my coworkers, I worked multiple jobs to get by, sometimes working for 24 hours straight, or more, to ensure that I had enough money to survive.

Our employers struggled with high overhead; for every dollar they paid us, they also had to pay payroll tax, unemployment insurance, and other employment-related expenses. They had to pay high rents in an area with very high commercial leases. They had to cover utilities, stock, and other supplies. While they were better-off financially than we were, many weren’t better-off by much, and we understood that even as we struggled on our own wages and wished we made just a bit more. Many of them were sympathetic to the fact that we had to work multiple jobs, were always ready to accommodate us when we needed schedule changes, for example.

But in the end, it came down to this: We should have been paid more. Service workers in general deserve more. They are locked into a pattern where employers and employees and customers assure each other that yes, everyone agrees they should make more, but it’s just not possible. It’s a tragedy, but everyone acknowledges the high cost of doing business and the particularly high burden of payroll. Everyone nods and smiles and quietly agrees in what effectively becomes a conspiracy to lock people into low wage work with no realistic hope of escape.

The idea that service workers can’t make more because it would ruin business is widespread and it’s predicated on the idea that service workers don’t really deserve more—if we thought the pay for service work was really unacceptably low, as a society, we would push for it to be higher. No one wants to do that, though, because it would require charging more to customers for the services provided, and running the risk of being considered ‘too expensive.’ Not least because a lot of those customers are service workers themselves, and they’re not making enough to realistically pay for more expensive services. It becomes a vicious, tail-chasing cycle where the obvious solutions of cutting costs elsewhere and bringing in more income are avoided because they’re unpalatable.

Small businesses in particular really struggle with paying their employees fairly because they’re dealing with high startup costs, overhead costs, and, in many cases, loans. Their owners may take minimal pay out of the proceeds at the end of the month; in some cases, their employees are actually better-paid. This illustrates that this is a complex problem that can’t be easily solved, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be addressed. Why, for example, is there such minimal support for actual small businesses? (Versus the ‘small business’ touted by the government, which is really more like medium to large.) Why aren’t more grants available? Why aren’t more communities invested in promoting small businesses and helping them get off the ground?

And why is there such a concerted effort to keep consumers in the dark both about the true costs of running businesses, and about the unfairness of their own wages? I was talking with friends recently about local restaurants and one of them made a comment than an establishment was ‘too expensive for locals,’ which was largely true, but the problem lay not with the menu at that restaurant, but with prevailing local wages. Locals shouldn’t be making such a pittance that they can’t afford to eat out now and then when they feel like it, and, for that matter, employees of a business shouldn’t be paid so little that they couldn’t afford to patronise the business as customers.

In all the talk about economic renewal and how to jumpstart the economy, service workers have been left out, and it’s a profound mistake, because they hold the key to shifts in the economy. If you want to see more money flowing, more businesses thriving, more entrepreneurs succeeding, put more money into the hands of the service workers who make the economy happen on the ground level.