My brother is a service industry worker. He works at a hamburger restaurant doing all sorts of tasks, from taking orders from testy customers who want to order items that don’t exist on the menu, to cleaning up the messes people leave behind on their tables, to cleaning bathrooms and taking out garbage as swarms of flies buzz around his face. All for ten dollars an hour.
Many of the ways that poor and working-class people, as well as immigrants and people of color in general, are demonized also apply to how service industry workers are demonized. Those working in restaurants, in hotels, in retail, and so on are often treated as expendable under capitalism, as deserving of poor treatment and immorally low wages because they’re “unskilled,” or because these jobs are seen as mere stepping stones on the path toward better jobs, despite the reality that most people working in fast food aren’t teenagers working to make a bit of extra summer spending cash.
What service industry workers need, in addition to being paid a living wage with benefits, is to be treated with basic decency and respect, as all people and living beings should be treated. Here are ten things NOT to do when interacting with service industry workers.
1. Don’t commit microaggressions, and DO challenge your own racism and classism.
This is obvious, but in a racist and classist world, committing microaggressions happens far too often. Be intentional and thoughtful about how you engage with people in your surroundings. Don’t tokenize workers. Challenge yourself when you feel pre-existing prejudices creeping into your judgment of a situation—for example, Black women are often incorrectly stereotyped by society as acting angry and aggressive when acting in a similar, or often more civil, manner as white women. And don’t assume that the person of color you see at your white-dominated gala or work environment must automatically be a service industry worker, which occurs with regularity.
Also remember that since Black servers, according to at least one study, are tipped less than white servers, interrupting the anti-Black racism you’ve internalized from society can have a tangible impact on Black workers’ paychecks.
2. Don’t treat workers as if they’re just furniture in the room.
If you’re staying at a hotel and you see a maid in the hallway with a pushcart full of linens, smile and say hello. When you’re buying groceries at the grocery store and your cashier asks how you’re doing, don’t just blankly stare ahead and say nothing, as I’ve seen happen far too appallingly often. If you find yourself at some sort of fancy dinner and someone comes by to refill your water glass or take away your used plate, smile and thank them. Basic manners and empathy will go a long way in helping their work shifts be all the more bearable. This is why President Obama’s efforts to connect with everyone in his presence, from diplomats to janitors, have been heralded as being so important.
3. Don’t be careless about making a mess.
I remember being at a movie theater when I was young and having my dad throw a wrapper on the ground, telling me it was okay to do so because “that’s [the movie theater employees’] job to clean it up.” As a working-class man himself, he should have known better, and when I grew up and was in charge of cleaning up my wealthy college classmates’ dining room messes as part of my work-study financial aid package, I got to experience for myself how soul-crushing and enraging it is to have people who should know better instead take a pass on their responsibility.
If you’re at a restaurant, take care to leave your table reasonably tidy before you leave. If you’re at a hotel, don’t trash your room for fun. Don’t add one more task (or several more tasks) for someone else to do as they work on their feet all day, increasingly questioning the capacity of humanity to behave ethically.
4. Don’t take out having a bad day on workers.
Service industry workers should not be their customers’ punching bags. If you’re upset about something in your day, venting to a friend or therapist is the appropriate course of action. If you find yourself feeling extra irritable or angry as you interact with someone who is performing a service for you, stop and ask yourself if you’re actually upset about your interaction, or if you’re projecting your emotions from a completely different situation onto them. Think about all of the entitled and rude customers one service industry worker has to contend with every day. Don’t add to that mountain of negativity.
5. Don’t hold workers responsible for any frustrations you have about their capitalist headquarters.
I get it—bureaucracies are often enraging to deal with. When we have a problem, we all want to be able to quickly talk to a “live human being” on the phone versus sit through endless touch-tone menus. We all want companies to have reasonable return policies, and we hate corporate rules that exploit loopholes to maximize their profit. However, how likely is it that the person whose unfortunate job it is to work in customer service is actually in charge of those policies? Not only did they probably not have a say in creating the rules, but they’re also probably being constantly monitored by their supervisors to make sure they uphold company policy.
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Take a moment to breathe deeply, cultivate some empathy for how much negativity they must take on every day while being paid a pittance, and broaden your perspective.
6. Don’t get frustrated with workers if English isn’t their first language.
A great rule of thumb when interacting with someone who isn’t a native English speaker is: how many languages do you know?
I took six years of French and it was still a nerve-wracking challenge to actually visit France and be dependent on my limited French communication skills for many important interactions. If you, like me, are only able to speak one language fluently, think about how much worse this would be in daily life, trying to make enough money to survive, having the grit and determination to learn more than one language while constantly being judged, condescended to, and raged at by strangers due to your second-language skills and/or accent.
Remain humble when you interact with your fellow human beings. And remember that while it can at times be challenging to communicate across language barriers, your response should be one of patience and empathy, not arrogance and entitlement.
7. Don’t make unreasonable demands on workers’ time.
Service industry workers do not live to serve you. They are working to make a living and they’re not simply hanging out at your poolside bar as a permanent fixture of your surroundings. What does this mean in concrete terms? Don’t show up at a restaurant at 10:55 and expect to be seated when they close at 11. If you showed up at 10, make sure to wrap it up by closing time or not long thereafter. Everyone wants to get home to their families or simply put up their feet and rest.
8. Don’t use workers as a “teachable moment” about why kids should stay in school.
Please don’t look at a McDonald’s employee and scold your child, “Do you want to be saying ‘Do you want fries with that?’ in ten years? Study hard!” It is condescending, dehumanizing, wrongly implies that service industry jobs are just for those who “failed” to do anything else with their lives, perpetuates classist stigma against poor and working-class people, and ignores the fact that over 30% of people in fast food jobs have at least some college experience.
But regardless of a worker’s level of college attainment or not, they deserve to be treated with respect. And I’m sure you like being able to eat out at restaurants and be served, so show workers some consideration.
9. Don’t assume that workers’ labor is “unskilled” or that they deserve low wages.
Firstly, no one deserves low wages. No one deserves poverty and no one deserves to work all day only to come home and barely be able to feed or clothe themself or their family. Remember that major corporations’ low wages are a deliberate and unethical choice when they make millions or billions in profits off the backs of their service industry workers each year.
As for “unskilled labor,” writes Alana Massey, “Handling customers requires skills that we reward with higher wages in numerous sectors outside of food service and retail,” such as receptionists and bank branch officers. “But,” Massey argues, “these jobs often require ceremonial educational degrees that retail and food service don’t.
“Considering [service industry] jobs ‘unskilled’ … is a way of de-valuing labor that is only accessible to people with fewer socioeconomic and educational opportunities,” she concludes.
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Every worker is skilled if we define skills by those tasks needed to accomplish their job. And we all know that people are not always fairly paid for their skillsets even when accounting for educational attainment. If that were true, adjunct professors with Ph.Ds wouldn’t be sleeping in their cars.
10. Don’t forget to tip workers, and tip them as well as you can!
Perhaps most importantly, stand up for the dignity and rights of service industry workers by putting your money where your mouth is. Reconceptualize how you dine out: if you can’t afford to tip 20%, you can’t afford to go out that night. Leave some money for the workers cleaning your hotel room as you go to check out. Learn about the racist history behind tipping, how workers have had their wages intentionally deflated so that many of them continue to rely on tips for survival, and the fact that the federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 an hour, which 18 states still use.
Overall, treat service industry workers how you would want to be treated if you were working a grueling, thankless, and poorly-paid job. If you are indeed working a grueling, thankless, and poorly-paid job, show some solidarity with your fellow worker.
Remember: making each other’s days a bit brighter is the first step in creating a sea change of respect and fair compensation for all workers.
[Featured Image: A person standing to the right of the photo. They have long brown hair and are wearing a pink shirt and a blue jacket. Behind them is a McDonald’s restaurant. Source: cool revolution]