THE PROVERBIAL INTERNET QUOTE OF WISDOM:

"Sometimes people use 'respect' to mean 'treating someone like a person' and sometimes they use 'respect' to mean 'treating someone like an authority' and sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say 'if you won't respect me I won't respect you' and they mean 'if you won't treat me like an authority I won't treat you like a person' and they think they're being fair but they aren't, and it's not okay" [sic]

The language of human rights would fit easily in here--but who gets to count as human? Is it "humanitarian" interest that leads Amnesty International to support the continued NATO occupation of Afghanistan? Is the military, symbolically and practically, necessary to ensure--through meted violence--that "human rights" are respected?

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It’s no secret that this is a difficult time to be a working person in America. There’s academic debates about the massive inequality easily visible all around us: boarded up stores are proliferating across the country, people are working two and three jobs, many unemployed are no longer counted as such because they are discouraged (and no longer call in to confirm unemployment). The Supreme Court ruled binding arbitration is legal, unions are not guaranteed, and real wages have been flat since at least the 1970s for most people.

And the service sector has ballooned in size while finance and consulting rake in an ever-growing percentage of gross income.

Like most people, I have worked service jobs. All through college, and indeed at present here in Washington D.C.: I work them because I have to pay 60-70% of my income to rent. I work them because they are easy to find, easy to leave, and relatively straightforward. Nobody bothers you about GPA when you’re carrying trays, mixing liqueur, or foaming lattes. I work them because they are there, they are accessible, and, if I am honest, there is something enjoyable about helping people so directly, there’s a direct sense of accomplishment. Of course the dark(er) sides of retail/service are legion: rude (sometimes horrifically so) customers, antagonistic management, the pay, the hours, the lack of benefits, the precarity.

So imagine my chagrin when, after rotating through several service jobs here due to wage issues (read: not being paid to perform work! Something largely unimaginable in the cushy land of desk-bound employees). I have filed complaints with the State government, I have collected evidence of communications, recorded threatening voicemails, and taken pains to be sure I am within my rights when I request to be paid in a timely manner.

That they are so fungible is, I believe, part of the problem. Why are people who work with their bodies–to perform duties demanded by the public–so denigrated? The hardest jobs pay the least, command the least respect, and somehow this is all the worker’s fault? Give me a break.

Meanwhile at my office job, nobody cares when I take lunch, or what time I arrive, or whether I am really working or killing time between projects. My pay is nearly 80% higher, and honestly I do far less actual work, when measured by “physical reality altered by my will.”

But because of the nature of the work, management of course assumes everyone there is an idiot. Most places will be marginally sketchy under the hood: whether with food safety or wage regulations, there’s [almost] always something afoot. Management relies on people feeling threatened, feeling precarious and unsure, to keep these sometimes illegal practices going. And for the most part, nobody raises a fuss because they (1) Don’t know, or (2) are afraid of retaliation.

I, however, am in a better position than many who feel they have no option but to acquiesce to whatever plot management has derived to wring pennies out of their employees. I can fall back on savings, I can find another job. I am a citizen, educated, and a white man, with all the subsequent privilege such a position and body bring in this society.

A quick note before I go on: I am not claiming to be a white knight–I am under no delusion that I act only for the sake of others, nor am I trying to claim any moral high ground, merely stating things as I understand them to be in my situation(s).

So today I wrote a letter for an employer who has been illegally using tips (and wages) to make up shortages in registers at the end of day–and potentially withholding wages (for hours already worked) from employees “as punishment.” The text is below.

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2019 February https://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs16.pdf

So now that you have been caught out, I would think there are two options:

1) Admit wrongdoing, apologize to employees and cease theft, or;

2) Continue with policy as-is and explain to the state upon investigation. (A complaint has been filed)

Surely we would all be better off with the first option, no? If “respect” is an actual value, and not merely a talking point or a rhetorical device to stifle dissent, then recognizing it as a two-way process is a good start. In such a situation, there are no demands, but requests; no punishment, but understanding. And, importantly, no passive-aggressive acts of retribution.

This is, after all, a communal enterprise; a delicate yet robust interplay of hundreds, all working in invisible synchronization.

If you want to receive respect, you must also give it. If you want your time to be honored, you must also do that for others. If you expect loyalty just for the asking, you will be sorely disappointed—and rightly seen as hypocritical and unjust. “For friends and family” must be expanded to include those in your working family, otherwise the term rings hollow and nepotistic, and this enterprise is destined for failure.

All of this is, one would think, common sense. So why is it then so uncommon(ly practiced)?

It is not enough to merely be good, you must do good. Therein lies the difference between regarding oneself as and being regarded as. It is only through action that a person, a business, a world takes on an attribute not merely in name (lip service) but in being.

We don’t work for you, as the language commonly asserts, we work with you. To think that there is some invisible property making this minimum-wage job different from any other is insanity. If we are easily replaced, so are you. If you want to be better, you must do better. Otherwise, business-as-usual will slowly degrade over time: turnover will rise, reliability will fall, and the market (read: customers who are not ‘friends and family’) will consign to the dustbin of history another mediocre business. You can see this happening in real-time already.

You may only care about the bottom-line, and the tiny Arabic numerals that lie upon it, as is your wont. But the number there will never return any amity. Such a perspective will be easily visible to the people who enable this enterprise, who will feel let down, morale will slip, and quality will drag. May I remind you that you need their help in this. Incentivize excellence and you may well be pleasantly surprised.

To do so will require leaving blame out of this. Everyone is involved, everyone is responsible. So there’s no point in jabbing fingers. What matters is the future, growing and getting better. To that end, some easy concrete suggestions:

1) Regularize everyone’s schedule that can be; 2) schedule two weeks in advance, not merely the-Friday-before; 3) collate phone numbers for shift-switching; 4) set up a means of receiving employee feedback anonymously, and actually respond to the valid ones in some tangible manner; 5) communicate expectations, and offer clear rationales—relying on the proverbial grapevine is a fraught policy.

It does not have to be this difficult, and we know we can do better. We owe it to ourselves, and our customers, to at least try.

Thank you.

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What is astounding to me is the fact that such simple, small things are often not addressed. Passive-aggressiveness rules in the affairs of strangers interacting for economic reasons, and small service businesses seem no exception. But why settle? Can’t building something be a process not concerned with merely “not getting worse,” but actively seeking to be better?

These are perhaps small things–but that is exactly, to my mind, why they must be addressed, and are to be taken seriously. “It is always the simplest shit/ that means the most” as Will Wiesenfeld sings in “You’re My Excuse To Travel.”