The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of "Temporary Workers"
Service workers are often treated as temporary employees—which turns into an excuse to ignore their needs and make their jobs impossible.
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If you’ve ever been a server, a barista, or other service worker, you’ve probably heard some version of, “When are you going to get a real job?”
The idea that hospitality work is inherently temporary, basic, and low-skilled has prevailed for decades—or at least it did until the pandemic hit. Amidst the dark days of early lockdown, service workers were lauded as heroes and essential workers, and became key providers of normalcy and routine. Even if we couldn’t sit in our favorite restaurants and cafes, a to-go meal or a cup of coffee was still a lifeline—a tether to something familiar and human.
But then, as the pandemic wore on, the tune changed back. Now, in 2023, the going wisdom is that “nobody wants to work anymore” (arguably, every generation has said this about the following generation, but it does feel more pervasive than ever). Even though unemployment is at its lowest rate in half a century, many attribute shuttered fast food joints, “help wanted” signs, or complaints about understaffing to this “wisdom.”
This week’s episode of the podcast features Adam JacksonBey and Valorie Clark, two of the folks behind Go Fund Bean, a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to support, uplift, and defend the hourly coffee worker.” Last year, Go Fund Bean ran an expansive wage survey, asking coffee workers to report data on metrics like hourly wages, average tips, and benefits.
The survey uncovered a lot of revealing information (for example, people who were salaried were more likely to get a raise, and would receive that raise more quickly, than hourly workers) but one of the most important findings was that hourly workers are paid, on average, $14 an hour—but are only scheduled for roughly 26 hours of work a week.
Perhaps that’s not shocking, but it is revealing of the burdens this industry foists on its workers. One is that many people who work on an hourly basis are expected—or required—to have flexible availability. Another is that virtually no hourly employees surveyed worked a full 40-hour work week—even though the numbers used to determine location-based viable wages (including in tools like the MIT Living Wage calculator) are based on a 40-hour work week as a default.
The “nobody wants to work anymore” rhetoric presents an interesting dichotomy: We have normalized feeling entitled to the labor of service workers, but we’ve also long treated these jobs as “temporary,” and these workers as interchangeable and replaceable. A lot of that has to do with turnover, which we explore in the episode:
Adam: ...we think about wages and how people are paid in a very weird way in this country, and especially within the restaurant/hospitality industry ... A lot of owners and managers see hourly workers as temporary and then treat them that way, and then they become temporary because they were treated like they were temporary because they were originally seen as temporary. So it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The mainstream conception of turnover is an idea I feel incredibly strongly about dismantling, and is something I’ve talked about in the newsletter before. For so long, we’ve viewed turnover as the result of personal faults or whims without acknowledging its common, structural denominators. Turnover is much higher in low-wage, hourly jobs, yet we still seem convinced it results directly from the people who work these jobs, and not the conditions they’re expected to tolerate.
Baristas often don’t get full-time wages, a third receive no benefits, and while $14 an hour is almost double the national minimum wage, it’s far under what you’d need to live comfortably in almost any U.S. city. (I researched the living wage for a few mid-range U.S. cities, and $14 isn’t enough to live on in any of them.) Most coffee shop jobs are set up to be unsustainable, so while we lament that our favorite spots are closing or are entirely overwhelmed and understaffed, we have yet to address the root issue.
We’re beginning to see the results of that attitude: Hundreds of thousands of businesses shut down, and more than 57 million people left their jobs, between January 2021 and February 2022. Food workers have also experienced a higher mortality rate from COVID-19 than any other industry. Every now and then, I’ll see someone tweet something like, “Where did all the service workers go?” You need only click through to the responses to find out the grim answer.
Talking to Adam and Valorie brought up a very visceral memory, which I hadn’t thought about in years. In high school, I worked part-time at a store in the mall, and I’d get scheduled for “on-call” shifts, where I’d have to call the store a half hour before the shift was supposed to start and ask if they needed me. I couldn’t schedule anything that conflicted with that time, but if they didn’t need me, I didn’t work—and I didn’t get paid. I think I was called in about 25% of the time.
I accepted these terms because I was young, and didn’t understand how manipulative this practice was. When I look at the conditions we place on service workers now, it’s obvious we set people up to fail, which is a shame—in every industry, but in service, particularly coffee, it hits different. If you’re a regular coffee drinker, there are few people you see as often as your baristas. I think Adam captures why seeing them leave their jobs—jobs they love and would want to stay in otherwise—can be heartbreaking:
You want somebody who knows your order, who talks to you, who knows who your kids are and knows that your kid just had a bad spelling test and loves chocolate croissants and gave you extra chocolate croissants so that your kid feels better.
The little things like that, that may go into your coffee shop really special.
Before You Go…
It’s been a moment since I’ve included a “here’s what I’m reading and here’s what I’m publishing” section, in part because I haven’t been reading and publishing much lately. I’d love your suggestions for articles to read or books to pick up!
I am working on a piece on how family language is wielded at work, building on an article I wrote a few years ago. I’m excited to explore the idea of psychology and linguistics further, and can’t wait to share this one with you folks.
Last month, I celebrated six years of Boss Barista … and I’m wondering how to mark the occasion further. Would you be interested in receiving a “best of” list this month, or anything else to mark this anniversary? Let me know in the comments below—or just leave me a comment generally, because I like them, and I like all of you.
I loved the this week's podcast! The discourse around "low-skilled" workers and the self fulfilling prophecy about being replaceable/turnover really hit home with me. I worked in retail for years and on far too many occasions I was berated by customers and told I was wasting my life and I should be in school so I could get a "real job". The reality was that I was in school and interning (for free) and working this retail job and making $12/hr, no benefits. Between the attitudes I would get from customers and the absolute disrespect from our corporate office I was completely beaten down and desperately wanted out.
Funnily enough, I got out of retail when a friend left her reception job in NYC and gifted it to me (so lucky, so grateful). And I remember going to a doctor for a well checkup soon after and they asked what I do, I said reception, and they began berating me about when I planned on getting a real job so I could start a family. Here I thought I finally had a real job and had escaped my lowly position in life and now this person was telling me I was still looked down upon and wasn't good enough. I never went back to that doctor and this whole belief system is absolutely awful.
Wow. Absolutely on the nose here. Across the pond in australia, it's much the same, and with a particular focus on churning through migrant workers. Most places in australia will pay under the table 15-20 an hour, and the lowest I knew of was 4$ an hour. This, in Adelaide. That doesn't include the wage or time theft which is practiced in every echelon of the service industry, including to government. It's scary considering the casual australian wage isn't far gone from the american one for the considered level of work (~27$ to 14$), and that difference is less stark when you consider the exchange rate (27 to ~20) and even less considering how much further a dollar goes in america.
Part of this is entrenched by our laws on student and refugee visas working- student visas are capped at 20hrs/week "on the books" and legally refugees on a bridging visa aren't allowed to work full stop. So they're required by the law to spend 4 years in economic limbo. Or, they take a job paying cash.
You know, the whole 'hey there's this big event, you have to show up 30 minutes-1hr before your shift to sign on, get your clothes, and then walk to your station, but you're only paid from time X to time X.' And there's also that from upper management there was a heavy-focus on sending people home if it wasn't busy.
Moaning aside, I have an unburied hatchet with our food service culture and the cycle of bullshit that impoverishes the workers. From maccas to landlords, business owners can't compete with location costs or food costs, and customers just aren't willing to pay what it -actually- costs to produce a coffee and keep the business sustainable.
In the richest suburb in sydney a lawyer on 200k/year complained that her 16oz coffee was 8$- the basic x.large alt milk latte. Beside the fact that the costs were (rent+staff etc) + milk(2$)cup+lid(40c),espresso(80c) and tax (80c), then how does a business make profit on 4$ to pay out and distribute staff and other costs? Even if it was a 1000/day venue, thats' barely 4k.
Meanwhile, customers are happy to pay 5-10 for a beer/wine poured with no extra specialty knowledge or time impetus- often less, and 20-30 for a cocktail that starts to approach the time outlay needed.
But now because of australia's stuffed housing market (and similarly to the US, no political will to fix it, but additionally being at the whims of america's own financial sector), inflation is so ridiculous that people just can't afford to live. People can't afford to go out and buy coffee or food because that 20$, that 30$ is a third of my weekly food budget. And it's paying for less, because of shrinkflation from businesses, and general price gouging using ukraine or covid as a crutch.
combine this with the other ways the consumer here is price gouged (google the price of electricity in australia, or gas), I am unsurprised if hospitality collapses in this country again.