Every once in a while, one of my fellow Americans blows my mind with her assumption that customer service workers get insurance, paid sick days and paid vacation, and at least $10/hour. These assumptions are often of no consequence, but on some occasions they’re offered in justification of why no one should be trying to improve working conditions for minimum and near-minimum wage employees, or why we should feel free to take out our frustrations on $6/hour clerks. That’s when these assumptions do harm.
As we head into this holiday season, during which many shoppers will have more contact with customer service shop and restaurant employees than at any other time of the year, allow me to clarify a few things.
- Most people who work at shops, restaurants, hotels, non-union grocers, etc., do not get any sort of paid time off. If they’re sick and they stay home, they don’t get paid for those hours/days.
- They are forced by law to take vacation of at least one week per year, but employers are not forced to pay them. Many seek temp work during that “vacation” week because they can’t live without every penny of their normal income.
- They rarely have insurance benefits, and if they do, they almost surely pay far more for it than the average office worker.
- They rarely get 40 hours a week, which means many of them need to work more than one job to make ends meet.
- When the store needs to save money, it cuts employee hours. This means suddenly the 25 hours you were depending on may become 16 – or you may even find yourself with an unexpected week off. Not good if you’re living paycheck to paycheck.
- If you are terminated for any reason – including a layoff through no fault of your own – you don’t get a dime in severance pay or anything else. You’re just out of a job.
- There’s rarely any sort of retirement account for these workers.
- THESE ARE NOT EASY JOBS. I can’t stress this enough - these jobs are stressful, they demand true mult-tasking and lots of skills, and very often expose workers to confrontations with customers in which they are expected to somehow uphold store policy without irritating a customer who wants to cheat the system. If you’re not an asshole, you probably have no idea how “wrong” customers can be – they even engage in verbal abuse and various forms of harassment. And in most of these jobs, management will not back up the employee – they will instead let the customer run rough-shod over store policies, even to the extent of cheating the store, or get away with sexual harassment, and perhaps even demand the employee apologize for not kissing the ass of a customer who wanted to, for example, return an item a dog had clearly chewed to pieces 3 years after it was purchased.
- Retail workers generally make no more than a dollar above minimum wage.
- Restaurant workers generally make better money than retail workers, but still far less than most office workers make (excepting clerical workers, who are also paid dismally, but sometimes get some benefits).
- A disturbing trend in retail in the past 20 years has been not to pay commissions – which would inspire healthy competition, but to count each worker’s sales and give more hours per week to the workers who sell more. This inspires stress and panic as people compete for the right to “keep” their hours. Companies who engage in this are trying to get $50k/year salesperson quality out of workers making $6.
- These workers usually get a store discount, which is just not as great as it sounds when you’re working to pay rent and put food in your mouth.
If you think people on the bottom of the job ladder enjoy the same stuff you do, only with less income, you are deeply mistaken. Please at least give them some respect when you interface with them – they’re not getting much else. And if someone talks about raising minimum wage or other measures that might improve the lot of these workers, you don’t have to agree with their proposals (some of which are bound to be useless), but at least come at the issue with the understanding that there is actually a problem when jobs that weren’t designed to be someone’s sole living have become that for too many people. Understand there are regions where these are the only jobs available to all but a select lucky few; that there are disabled people stuck with these jobs because no office employers will make a few minor adjustments to accommodate them; that there are people stuck in these jobs because they needed to earn a living right out of high school and can’t afford to quit the job to go to college and can’t get a better job without college; and so on.
And surely we can agree that no matter what sort of work a person does, they deserve to be treated like human beings rather than enhancement tools for your shopping/dining/traveling experience.