A few months ago, a survey went out among CEOs of major companies, asking questions about the general lifestyle they live and the day to day business they conduct. One aspect that stood out was that over half reported being “moved to tears” over the stress of the job.
Now, if you’re currently having trouble reading because your eyes have rolled into the back of your head, rest assured you are hardly alone. Savvy observers used the article’s reportage as a springboard to conduct a survey of their own: asking people who currently make $35,000 per year or less, whether the stress of their work had ever reduced them to tears. Unshockingly, the answer was almost universally yes.
There is a lot wrong with how we do work today. Some of it has been around for a long time but other problems have arisen due to the twofold factor that unions are at the weakest they’ve been in decades in the US and that as a result, they have been ill equipped to respond to the radically changing circumstances of the American workplace.
Almost every major sector of work in the US suffers some kind of enormous flaw to the detriment of its workers. The education system is trapped in an archaic vacation system that forces teachers to reserve valuable portions of their already low paychecks to cover a three month period of unemployment. Manufacturing is one of the fastest shrinking industries in the country, leaving thousands who could once count on reliable income adrift as their upper management opens factories in another country or automates the plant. The technology sector is plagued with crunch culture and rampant abuse of overtime and salaried pay. Farmers suffer from record numbers of foreclosures and suicides. The emergence of the “gig economy,” advertised as a way for people to easily make some money on the side, has instead created a new sector of low wage work that drops most of the cost of upkeep on the worker, as well as sacrificing even more free time for the sake of making a tiny bit more cash.
While each of these sectors deserve their own essay, today I’m going to discuss one of the largest in the US, one that I am all too well acquainted with: the service industry.
With rare exception, almost every job I have held since I entered the workforce has been service oriented, and I am not alone in this. The United States economy sits on the two pillars of service and manufacturing. In the latest survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over half of all held jobs involved some aspect of Service, even if that was not their primary job descriptor.
By and large, however, the largest bloc of “service workers,” belongs to the retail industry. As the US recovered from the recession of 2008, and people began buying things again, there was an upswing in job openings revolving around sales. However, businesses were getting wise. People may be buying things more, but they were also buying them from brick and mortar shops less and less; so, while there was a need for bodies, there was also a need for upkeep shrink to maintain profits.
Enter “flex scheduling.” Gone were the days of reliable hours and defined shifts; the new hotness was “availability.” Rather than offer a set amount of positions with set shifts and hours, businesses began classifying employees as part time and setting “minimum hours” they would receive. This in turn placed the onus on the employee to define the times they were available to work. Employees were “encouraged” (read: threatened) not to alter their availability to restrict them to a set time and consecutive weekends, lest the manager be “unable” to find the ability to give them more than their minimum allotment.
Thus, anyone who needed to be working more than 20 hours a week (read: everyone) had to give up the core of their day while counting on the manager to provide them with the hours they needed in a way that didn’t play hell with their sleep schedule or lives outside of work.
Predictably this would not be the case. In my own time working customer service, hour shortages were the norm, or hours would be inequitably shared among employees. “Turn and burns” were common, where one would work until close only to open the next day. Couple this with an evening shift the day before, and one could easily go three days where all one did was sleep and work.
That was if you were fortunate enough to make enough to support yourself on approximately 30 hours a week. For many, the thirty some hours they would be lucky to get would have to be supplemented by a second or even third job. I knew people who would arrive at the store at 6 in the morning, work until noon, try to find some time to relax before starting an evening shift at another job before coming home to sleep before starting over again. I knew people who never had a day off: who had to work a half shift at one of their jobs on the weekends of their other job.
If this sounds exhausting, believe me, it is, mentally and physically. When you are already living paycheck to paycheck, not even knowing how much is going to be in that paycheck only adds to the anxiety. Burnout is constant, depression is common, as are anxiety disorders. This is not just because of the precarity of the work, but also its cultural perception. Retail work is considered to be a “starting” job, one lacking in skills, one whose holders are not deserving of respect – or a living wage.
But as of 2018, the highest number of workers in the retail sector are aged 25-34, with 35-44 in second and 45-54 in third. The largest bloc of people in one of the largest industries in america are the very people who are supposed to have “moved beyond” such an industry.
But ask anyone in such an industry and you will hear the same things: the opportunities to advance are simply nonexistent. As mentioned already, most people working in retail are living paycheck to paycheck. Those that can afford to attend college emerge with ludicrous amounts of debt and no guarantee of a job. In larger cities, rent will often increase by hundreds of dollars yearly, while their pay remains at the same cap established years ago. Even the supposed promised land of “the trades,” as are constantly thrown at people fighting for a living wage for retail workers, is often denied to those seeking a way out. Most trades require a driver's license at minimum, as well as years on a union waiting list and still costly schooling.
Beyond the fact that basic human decency should push us to correct these glaring inequities in how people who provide a clearly vital service are treated, it would also be simple good economic sense. Retail employees make up a huge amount of purchasing power in the US, and if they aren’t able to afford more than the basic necessities, there’s no way for the economy to grow. In upper management’s quest to further tighten their grip and squeeze as much profit as possible from their existing model, they are strangulating the very people that can inject money back into their industry.
If the continuing drop in profitability isn’t enough of a message, a far harsher one is inbound. Recent news is full of a reinvigorated union movement, with record numbers of people engaging in unionizing work at Walmart and the Oregon chapter of UFCW organizing a strike vote and boycott in response to Kroger management’s poor offerings during contract negotiations.
People can only be pushed so far before they take bold action. Contrary to the common conservative and right libertarian talking points, people should not be forced to uproot their lives every time an employer treats them ill or fails to adjust their wage to match the changing times; if someone gives you their day, they deserve to make a wage that they can live off of. If someone dedicates their life to a career, they deserve to be cared for with the same dedication when they retire.
While this commentary was focused primarily on issues in the Service industry it bears mentioning that as I write this GM’s workers have initiated a strike and Chicago’s teachers' union is finalizing their own strike vote. The contradictions of late capitalism grow more and more stark every day, and it is awakening a rejuvenated labor movement in the US and beyond. It would behoove those who sit at the top of the corporate pyramid to pay attention to this rising tide, and consider whether squeezing an extra percent of profit is worth the financial damage a mass strike will cause. Or whether making a few more cents is worth their soul.