INTERVIEW – Does “nobody want to work anymore”?

Capitalism’s “labor shortage” from the perspective of a tipped worker

by Elisabeth Wichser

In recent months, employers, mainly in the service industry, have complained that people no longer want to work and that they are experiencing a wave of serious understaffing. Part of this has been highlighted by photos on social media of various restaurants and fast food locations closed or advertising increasingly desperate sounding job openings. ISG interviewed Shannon Murphy, a socialist and experienced restaurant worker, to get the perspective of a worker on the ground. 

Shannon, what’s your experience like in the restaurant industry?

I am currently a bartender and server on Long Island. I have been in the food industry since 2015, and have been waitressing since 2017. I have experience serving on both Long Island, NY and in Boston, MA.

What do pay, benefits, and hours look like in the restaurant industry?

All of the above suck. To firstly address benefits, there are none. Workers are very purposefully scheduled for just under 40 hours so we don’t legally count as full-time employees, which means companies can avoid paying the benefits that generally come with full-time employment. Workers are expected to work weekends, holidays, and aren’t guaranteed any paid sick or vacation days. We arguably don’t even get unpaid sick/vacation days because I know of many workers who have been fired for taking days off.

Pay is at the mercy of the public. The majority of restaurant workers work off of tips and the federal minimum wage for servers is only $2.13/hour. My exact hourly pay depends on the day and how many tips I got. Once my tips reach a certain amount, though, the bosses are able to claim deductions on my hourly wage. That means that I only walk away with my tips and the restaurant isn’t required to pay me a wage. One week when I worked 39 hours, the restaurant paid me a big fat $0. All I had were my tips from that week. Some days the amount I receive in tips equates to me making $40 an hour, which is great. But then other days, I work only 6 hours and make $25 an hour. Combine that with a less than 40 hours, high cost of living in the area, and paying for all of your own insurance, saving for retirement, etc. and it’s not good money. Not having a stable wage, guaranteed from the restaurant, makes my financial situation that much more precarious. 

What has it been like to work in the service industry during the pandemic? 

Working in the service industry was difficult prior to the pandemic, and with COVID-19, all of its problems were emphasized. The hardest thing service workers face is the lack of respect and empathy from the public, in addition to uncertain wages and hours. With the implementation of mask protocols which differed state by state, many folks were resistant to wearing masks in restaurants, putting workers at risk. Servers had to enforce mask policy with uncooperative customers and were treated rudely in return.

In the summer of 2020 when the pandemic’s first wave was dwindling down, more and more anti-mask guests would come into restaurants, which led to an altercation I personally had with a customer who punched the plexiglass which separated us because I asked him to wear a mask. Many servers can tell similar stories of verbal or physical intimidation for trying to enforce the mask protocols.

Service workers began to be considered “essential” at the beginning of the pandemic. However, when the conversation in the US for increasing the minimum wage comes up, Republicans oppose it and Democrats don’t fight for it, even now that they control the federal government. Even considering those Democrats in power who say they support a higher minimum wage, this still excludes tipped workers. The minimum wage for most tipped food service workers versus other working class folks differs tremendously, and this isn’t right.

Even though we are “essential,” in their eyes we still don’t deserve a living wage. Now that there is a “labor shortage”, suddenly the “essential” workers are lazy and don’t want to work anymore. COVID-19 has exposed major contradictions of capitalism, including the fact that the working class is treated like garbage and like we’re expendable, yet we are essential. Without us, the economy wouldn’t run.

(Editor’s note: In terms of a “labor shortage”, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent data shows unemployment at: “3.8 million in May [and] is 2.6 million higher than in February 2020”)

How are workers treated by management? What are working conditions like? What are some of the worst practices you’ve seen from the bosses/industry?

Some managers try their best, but ultimately they are pawns who act at the whim of the owners. Hours can be cut abruptly with little to no warning from management, based on the business of the season and whatever other factors. When the schedule is made, we are refused “set schedules” and days off can change on a weekly basis. The schedule tells you when to come in, but we have no end time. If a shift ends up getting busy, I will be on my feet taking tables until the rush dies down. The amount of traffic in the restaurant controls my schedule.

There are days where I also am required to be “on-call,” meaning I have to clear my personal schedule just in case my job gets busy and needs me to work. I don’t get paid for it, but they still control my time for that day. All of these factors make it really hard to plan anything. Scheduling doctor’s appointments and planning time with friends or family are basically impossible.  

During the pandemic, management was incredibly tone-deaf. When infection rates peaked, workers began to express concern for their well-being, and this was met with criticism. People would call out if they didn’t feel well, as they should during a pandemic. But management often scorned these employees, saying things like: “In my day, we worked when we were sick, dying, feverish, etc., etc., and we did NOT complain.” This resulted in people coming to work even if they did not feel well because they were afraid of being reprimanded or fired for calling out sick, leading to the spread of COVID-19 and other illnesses despite this being avoidable if workers simply had guaranteed sick time.  

It’s been almost a decade since the demand for a $15 an hour minimum wage started to become more well known. Since then we’ve seen some attempts by unions to organize workers in the service industry, including some strikes of fast-food workers. Is $15 an hour enough? What other changes do workers need? Do restaurant workers you’ve interacted with know about unions or talk about them?

No, $15/hr. is not enough, especially in larger cities like NYC and Boston where rent prices are so high. It is extremely difficult to be a service worker and pay rent. Foodservice workers need a living wage, not based on tips. The federal minimum wage is an insulting $7.25/hr. But the federal minimum wage for servers and others who work for tips is an impossible-to-live-off of $2.13/hr.

We need to see ourselves as workers who produce profit, and as workers who are essential in the running of the restaurant. Owners like to say that workers are replaceable, which is another point we have seen holes poked in because of the recent claims of a “labor shortage” in the US. To organize food service workers, we have to see our value. This is the perfect moment in history to see that and resist the scare tactics which make us afraid to lose our jobs.

Our demands need to be the implementation of a standard minimum wage of $20/hour, which does not get “adjusted” based on tips. Employers should be required to pay a living wage, regardless of what the public tips me. We also demand more control over scheduling. It is essential for us to have set schedules. In terms of making appointments and looking after our physical and mental health, we need set days off to plan for these personal matters. Especially for folks who go to school or have children, it is nearly impossible to juggle those things without set days off.

To address unions, there is little to no talk about them in the workplace. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be trying to start those discussions, though. Other restaurants have successfully unionized and unionizing the service industry would be a sure way to win our demands of a stable schedule and pay. The recent McDonald’s strike opened up these conversations in my workplace, and although not every server sided with the striking workers, it is vital for working class folks to be aware of these struggles. 

It sounds fair to say that unions need a serious strategy to reach out to and organize restaurant workers and workers employed in similar sectors. Have you heard about this “People don’t want to work” thing/propaganda?  What do you think of it? What do you think are the main reasons that these jobs can’t keep workers around?

People are presented with two options: unemployment or work for a horrible job and make the same (or even less) amount of money. A big obstacle I have been facing recently are my coworkers not understanding or condemning the “labor shortage”. I’ve heard many people complain of “laziness” being the primary factor at work here.

I think blaming work ethic for people not wanting service jobs is convenient for the bosses. It reinstates the idea that workers should be lucky and grateful to work for tips, which puts less accountability on the owners to provide a living wage and good conditions. Capitalism loves supply and demand when it works in their favor, but now with some businesses in some places not being able to hire the number of workers they want at the moment, the owners say, “people are lazy.”

Jobs can’t keep workers because of the aforementioned obstacles we face. The unreliability of our pay- how it is dictated by what individual customers are willing and able to sacrifice for tips and not the owners, the lack of a set schedule, and the lack of respect from bosses and customers all make the food service industry undesirable to work in. Our needs and personal lives suffer, and we then have to say thank you. The only solution is socialism through organizing the working class to run these industries democratically and for social needs rather than the profits of the bosses. 

Image credit: vhines200 via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0