Invisibilising San Francisco’s service class

One class of workers tends to dominate discussions about class war in San Francisco: Those in the technology industry. By extension, when people discuss issues like displacement, rising costs of living, and other issues that the tech industry contributes to, they reference other workers — but unless you’re reading labour journalism, these workers all tend to blur together in an amorphous mass, the people who don’t work in the industry versus those who do. This creates a mental image of a city brimming with coders, every coffee shop filled with dreams of startups, a vast tech workforce spilling out throughout the city, but the truth is very different, and that truth really highlights the depths of disparity in San Francisco, and why the city is experiencing such stark inequality.

Tech workers occupy just 13 percent of private sector jobs in San Francisco. The industry as a whole accounts for approximately 22 percent of the city’s wages, putting it behind the financial industry — SoMa may be famous for its lavish tech offices, but Market is still suits and ties, banks too big to fail and luxury board rooms. Venture capital is also huge in the city, and that capital is coming from somewhere, with the financial industry diversifying investments by extending tentacles into the tech sector. San Francisco always has been and always will be heavily rooted in money, just like New York.

But what about those 87 percent of private sector jobs that aren’t in the tech industry? Many are obviously in finance, consulting, and related industries, along with skilled professionals like attorneys and doctors. But large numbers of people in San Francisco are actually in the service class: The people cooking, doing dishes, serving food, clerking at boutiques, making coffee, giving massages and facials, running gas stations, cutting hair, and so much more. In San Francisco, there’s actually a huge growth in such industries — often as part of the 1099 economy rather than formal employment — because high-paid tech workers want to outsource everything and are willing to pay money for it. Laundry services, housekeepers, deliverypeople, all of them are a part of San Francisco’s economy, even if their wages are not on par with those in the tech sector.

Those workers are important in the context of a city that has pushed for minimum wage increases as well as required health care — neither of which, it is notable, apply to independent contractors like the vast majority of service workers employed by startups to implement their on the ground operations as cheaply as possible. Even with protections designed to make it feasible to keep pace with the cost of living in the city, they’re falling behind — leaving the city, or opting to live in cramped, stressful conditions as they struggle to eke out a living in a city that surrounds them with immense wealth.

Service workers are the backbone of any economy, and they tend to get the least attention. The notion that the best service is invisible, that the best sign of a well-run establishment is that the service is unobtrusive, means that the service economy largely blends into the background in San Francisco. The tech workers who claim to care about income inequality without doing anything meaningful about it don’t really acknowledge the humanity of the service workers who make their lives possible on a daily basis, viewing them as an abstract that floats across the landscape. They pile into the back of an Uber to go from one launch party to the next, carelessly toss a tip at a delivery person, seek out the cheapest housekeeping service.

These things matter, because you can’t talk about income inequality without actually looking at the people who represent both ends of the scale. We see endless features on the lavish and sometimes bizarre lifestyles of the tech industry, like those expensive apartments (the result of Ellis act evictions and community displacements) or offices with weird features for employees (ball pits and slides and mobile haircut vans, oh my), and we see the peculiar art projects and social phenomena of San Francisco, but one thing we do not see is the army of workers who matter just as much as those at the top. When we talk about the gulf between the two, we have to directly face the living conditions experienced by the city’s low income and working class population.

San Francisco has tenements and horrific public housing. It has people living crammed into tiny apartments infested with pests that landlords refuse to deal with, fighting off mould and mildew. It was buildings with ancient and dangerous wiring, continual plumbing problems. It has people who can barely afford housing and go without food or utilities. It has families wedged into ridiculously small apartments, doing laundry in the sink, hanging it in the air shaft. It has public schools in atrocious condition with students who can’t focus on doing homework because their buildings are too noisy and their homes are too disruptive. People walk rather than taking public transit because they can’t afford it, even in the pouring rain. They work three or four or five or six jobs, teenagers rush from school to work and back again to help support their families. People get splattered in grease behind the stove and their backs ache from cleaning toilets. This is San Francisco too. These people are real people. They need to have faces, names, to be part of the city’s story, because if we ignore them, they fade away into the background, and class war becomes a theoretical — sure, income inequality is terrible, yes, we should do something about that. Yeah. Someday.

Image: TransAmerica Pyramid, KP Tripathi, Flickr