The Value of Work

I recently started listening to the audiobook for Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado. Linda gives unflinching, unapologetic accounts of her experiences as an hourly worker barely living above the poverty line. She narrates the book with a clear and resolute tone and I noticed one thing in particular. She doesn’t sound angry–as she has every right to be–she sounds exhausted.

Hourly work is not respected or valued in this country, often seen as something lazy or uneducated people do. In one chapter, Linda describes working hourly jobs in corporate retail and food service where you show up in your ugly, usually dirty polyester uniform and follow the script they’ve written for you. You’re not a person. You’re a machine who must deliver service with a smile, and don’t you dare forget you can and will be replaced. You are at the mercy of scheduling, and business, and the economy, and the weather, all while making very little money to show for it. The realness of her words burrowed into my bone marrow and took me right back into the days I worked those same jobs.

I paid my rent by way of Applebee’s when I was in college [Insert Applebee’s joke here. No really, do. They’re never not funny to me.] Over the course of three years I was subjected to some of the hardest, most degrading work I have ever done in my entire life. I served mediocre food five days a week while going to school full time, placing my income in the hands of the generosity of others while making $2.65 an hour. That “paycheck” just went to cover taxes on tips so I wouldn’t even consider it one. Tips were great when they were great and bad when they were bad and never once were they reliable. I got stiffed more times than I can count, got paid in counterfeit ten dollar bills, had at least one dine and dash, got lectured about my service by people who forgot they were at a place where we served mozzarella sticks for three bucks after nine, and was left both a piece of American cheese and a strawberry top as a tip.

I worked doubles every Saturday and Sunday from ten to whenever they decided to cut, usually around six, with maybe a break around two or three to shovel some cold food I purchased at half price into my mouth in the stock room among the hissing soda machine lines. Patrons were disgusted if we ate in the dining room. If you aren’t appearing to work, if you aren’t cleaning something or running around like you’re on fire or otherwise appearing servile, you are offending the customer and interrupting their experience.

Calling off was not an option. I drove in some of the worst weather conditions in a not-so-trusty car to walk away that day with thirty dollars in my pocket. I once worked deliriously through a high fever from a sinus infection because they wouldn’t cut me. If we were sick or had an emergency, we had to call someone to cover our shift. If we didn’t find someone, we got written up.

Everyone hustled, maneuvered, competed, and put themselves in personal and emotional peril to make a living. I remember when a cook sliced herself open and continued operating the grill after patching her wound up. I worked alongside pregnant women who were on their feet up until the day they gave birth. I watched a guy get arrested and dragged out of the kitchen when they served his warrant. My coworkers did homework between tasks. Parents fielded calls from their kids in the corner and tried not to get caught with a phone.

The threat of punishment was ever-present. Everybody who has ever worked in hourly retail jobs knows the phrase “If you have time to lean you have time to clean,” words that make me shudder to this day. We could never congregate in groups and talk. Our GM locked Splenda in his office because it was expensive and we were “giving too much out.” Same guy also shut off the lemonade fountain for reasons I can’t remember. If we lost a credit card slip, or the customer took it with them, you could kiss that tip goodbye. They cut hours without warning or made us work unpaid overtime. One manager got so furious about the second shift refusing to wear party hats during a special event he refused to cut the floor, meaning the closers couldn’t acquire more tables and make more money and those of us on doubles worked over twelve hours.

I was written up twice for bad secret shops. For those of you who never experienced retail hell, secret shops are when a person comes into the restaurant or store and grades you on your performance based on what the corporate office wants you to say. Remember that script Linda talked about? I was always so distressed by the lurking promise of a secret shopper that ten years later I still remember it. Here’s how went:

  1. Greet the customer within 30 seconds of being sat.
  2. Suggest two specific drinks.
  3. Suggest two specific appetizers.
  4. Explain the specials and ask if they have any questions.
  5. Suggest an upcharge, loaded mashed potatoes or a side of shrimp skewers.
  6. Make sure their plates are promptly cleared and drinks are never empty.
  7. If they ordered an appetizer, the small plates had to land on the table immediately.
  8. Food should be delivered in a certain period of time depending on what was ordered, no matter how busy the kitchen was.
  9. Check back with the customer in two bites to ask them how everything is.
  10. Plates cleared within a time window.
  11. Offer a specific dessert.
  12. Drop their check within a certain period of time, cash them out promptly, and cheerfully wish them a pleasant day.

No matter what, you had to perform. Even when life was hard. Even when it was busy or you were worried about how to make ends meet. Even when your feet were swollen through your worn out shoes–the nonslip kind that had to be purchased out of your own pocket and weren’t cheap. I cut the frayed bottoms of my pants off or stapled the hem to preserve them a little longer. I got told to smile more. I was asked if I was old enough to work there. I got creeped on by dudes and yelled at for items no longer on the menu. I put in a ton of emotional labor to give good service only for that person to leave a crisp five on a sixty dollar check. I felt like I wasn’t part of regular society, laughing to myself in my car when radio DJs celebrated it finally being Friday and the weekend while my work week was just beginning. It made me tough, resilient, inventive, able to juggle many demands at once and prioritize them.

I was fortunate to have those jobs. They put life in perspective, especially now that I have a cushy work from home gig where my opinions and input are crucial, I get sick and vacation time, and maintain a work-life balance. Those I worked with in retail and food service were always looking for better, and they were some of the most interesting and determined people I’ll ever know. I’ve been lucky to advance, but I’ll never forget where I started.

Hourly workers deserve better. And while we can’t change the corporate structure, though it should be burned to the ground and rebuilt, we can always show gratitude. Leave a good tip, clean up after yourself in a fitting room, don’t expect someone making minimum wage to cater to your every whim. Don’t forget there’s a person with a story behind that polyester uniform, and they might be leaving this job and going to the next, or at the very least waking up and doing this all again tomorrow.

It costs nothing to be kind.

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