Thoughts On The Current Service Industry "crisis"
Published: May 26th, 2021
By: Sarah Genter

Thoughts on the current service industry "crisis"

I'm sure you've all seen the headlines and viral social media posts surrounding the current lack of workers in the service industry.

Restaurant and bar owners are posting signs on their doors that say "closed because no one wants to work." Many are claiming these employees don't want to return to former places of work simply because they are making so much on unemployment. I am here to give you a different perspective.

For reference, I have worked in the service industry for nearly ten years. In that time I have worked at three restaurants, two bars, and two retail establishments. In that time I have made lifelong friends, learned a lot, and established a strong work ethic.

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However, also in that time, I have dealt with an insurmountable degree of stress. I have been harassed, stalked, groped, screamed at, sworn at, and feared for my safety. I developed such extreme anxiety that I needed to return to therapy and medication twice.

All for, at most, ten dollars an hour.

Back in March, I was still a bartender. The world shut down and I was laid off, and you know what my first feeling was? Relief. Now, I don't want to give off the impression that I didn't like my job. I did. I liked my bosses, my coworkers, and a good majority of my customers.

But, I was also extremely burned out. The stress of my job had started to chip away at me. I was planning to take a week off of work to relax and recuperate, and then I was handed government sanctioned vacation time.

Then, only a few weeks later I was given an extra $600 per week in unemployment. For the very first time, I didn't have to worry about paying my bills.

To be fair, when my place of employment reopened in July and I was asked to come back to work, I didn't hesitate to say yes. I knew my unemployment money would run out eventually, and I wasn't about to risk being out of a job completely. I was also ready to leave my house and have a purpose again. So I went back to work, but that brought on a host of new issues.

Enforcing mask wearing, social distancing, and food purchases proved to be the most difficult part of my job upon returning. Some people were great about it, some would forget but were polite when reminded, and others were downright rude.

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Arguments against masks and social distancing ranged from government conspiracy, to lack of actual safety, to infringement on personal rights. No one that gave me trouble about these guidelines ever seemed to stop and consider that I was just doing my job.

No one stopped to consider that these were state mandates that I had to enforce, or risk losing my job. No one seemed to realize this establishment they were so desperate to patronize in a way they preferred could be shut down because of their non-compliance.

So every day that I worked, I had to brace myself for the hours-long argument. With the arrival of each customer I had to mentally prepare for how they may react when I asked them to don a mask. Are they going to scream? Are they going to swear at me? Are they going to storm out?

I am disappointed to say, I have experienced all of those reactions several times over.

And, despite the pandemic having raged for months and everyone being well aware of the regulations, I would still have to deal with these arguments every single day. The information never seemed to sink in, no matter how many times I said it.

I've had customers demand I take my own mask off. A few times I've had to hear the classic "why should I have to wear a mask, there's no one here!" I guess I'm not a person anymore.

I can't begin to tell you how many times I have barricaded myself in the bathroom at work, or snuck down to the basement for a moment so I could cry. Or how many times I have gone home to my fiancé and said "I can't do this anymore."

One particularly rough night on the job, I said to a coworker, "well, it wouldn't be a normal night at work if I wasn't in tears within the first hour." That night I truly realized how deeply wrong it is for service workers to have to deal with this abuse, pandemic or not.

So I'll ask you: if you had to choose between $600-plus a week and the freedom to do what you please with your time, or endure this kind of treatment for a fraction of the pay, which would you choose?

Now, these are unique circumstances. None of us were accustomed to pandemic life when it began, so I can extend a small amount of leeway. But let's take a step back and look at what these jobs were like pre-COVID.

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When I worked retail, I acquired a stalker. This person believed I should date them, and when turned down, took it upon themselves to return to my place of employment several times a month to harass me.

I was also groped by a man at least 40 years my senior. I had to be escorted to the stockroom by a supervisor whenever he entered the store, so I wasn't in danger or further accosted by him.

When I worked at restaurants, I was harassed by far too many customers. Old men liked to say, "Man, if I was just a few years younger." Once, a particularly forward gentleman told me I should break up with my boyfriend and give him a chance. I have had too many comments on my physique to count.

When I waited tables, I had customers come in at three minutes to closing expecting to be served. And they were. But it would undo all of the cleaning myself and fellow staff members had just done, not to mention keep us at work an hour and a half later than we were scheduled.

When I bartended, I had money shoved down the front of my shirt. A customer smacked my butt as I walked by once. One night I was trapped in a corner by a patron and had to shove him away from me to escape.

I've had people ask me where I live, what kind of car I drive. I began carrying pepper spray again just to feel a modicum of safety.

My second week at a new bartending job a customer tried to come behind the bar and attack me because I stopped serving him. There have been several occasions where I have felt so unsafe that I have called people I trust to escort me home, or at least sit at the bar until I close for the night.

What's worse, I've had other customers defend this behavior. They have told me I should expect that kind of treatment because I'm serving alcohol. That I should be okay with it because I chose this line of work.

And these are just my experiences. The list grows exponentially when you add in the horror stories from coworkers. Go to your friend or family member that works in the service industry, and ask them about the worst thing that's ever happened to them on the job. Then I'll ask again:

Would you endure this treatment for ten dollars an hour?

Do not blame the service industry employees who are choosing unemployment benefits over harassment and unsafe situations. Blame the industry that for far too long has paid its employees too little. Blame the customers who don't even try to understand our position.

Again, I don't wish to say that I simply hated these jobs. I have worked with some amazing people over the years. I have had wonderful customers. I was nervous to leave my most recent job because I wasn't sure if I would ever find such great people to work for again.

At my last bartending job, a regular spent months teaching me how to play pool. Another taught me how to play darts. I have met many people that I would consider friends, and a lot of them are even invited to my wedding this year. I still stop in to the bar often to spend time with my old coworkers and the patrons I used to serve. I still go in and bartend occasionally.

These jobs are not all bad, and I honestly believe everyone should work a retail or restaurant job at least once. However, I think there is a pervasive mentality that you can get away with treating service workers poorly because they're service workers. That you don't need to pay them adequately because it's "just a bartending job" or "you're just flipping burgers."

I think there is this mentality that service jobs aren't "real" jobs. And because of that, service industry workers are looked down on, and often not treated with the respect they deserve.

These jobs often do not pay enough to support a family. In my experience, they generally haven't paid enough for me to keep up with my bills and not worry if I was going to be able to eat, too. Many service industry workers must work two or three jobs to make ends meet, because they just don't pay what they should.

People will look down on our profession while simultaneously demanding our services. Now that many service workers are choosing better pay and less stress, and thus not returning to work, there is public outrage.

Where is the outrage at the working conditions? At the far less than adequate pay? Where is the outrage at the harassment and abuse we face on a daily basis?

If you want people to return to these jobs, treat them better. Treat them like human beings. Stop hitting on your waitress. Tip her 20 percent because god knows she's earned it. Wear a damn mask if the business requires it, and stop acting like it's your server's fault we have to live under pandemic-based guidelines. Employers, start paying your employees what they're actually worth.

There will be no change without conscious effort to improve. Take a moment to really think about what servers and bartenders and cashiers put up with every day. We are choosing the easier path because at these jobs we are harassed, assaulted, and dehumanized.

Can you really blame us?