Service industry workers deserve better treatment

Sree Sreenivasan is a leading expert on how technology is changing our lives. He is a professor of Digital Innovation and CEO of Digimentors.
Liberal Opinion

Sree Sreenivasan

Digital Innovation Prof, Stony Brook; CoFounder, Digimentors
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Can you imagine how difficult the past two years would have been without the hard-working members of the service industry? I can’t. If those people hadn’t reported for duty to make deliveries, stock grocery shelves, and maintain the trains, trucks, and planes that our economy relies on so heavily, the pandemic would have been exponentially worse for all of us. Mind you, these people were doing it at great risk to their health, as most of that time, they were working without the protection of vaccines while the coronavirus ravaged the country.

And yet they still can’t get the basic respect they deserve for their hard work. People in the hospitality and travel industry have been some of the hardest hit by the pandemic and its crushing impact, yet we still see outrageously inappropriate scenes of restaurant workers harassed and flight attendants verbally and physically assaulted on planes. On top of that, they get treated with shameful disregard by politicians on the left and the right.

People on both sides of the aisle routinely diminish the work of retail workers, and we’re all the worst for it. Minimum wages are light years behind the times, employers routinely take advantage of those who simply cannot afford not to work, and governments at both the federal and local level, continue to shrug. Those who braved a pandemic to get to work at the pharmacy, at the grocery store, at the Amazon warehouse, pick a place that stayed open during the pandemic, have been doing this work largely not because they want to, they have to do it to make ends meet.

Is it any wonder that in 2021, the retail industry, which can be a grueling, demoralizing experience for workers, saw its largest single-month exodus of workers since the Labor Department first started tracking such data? Why stick around for a terrible job with low pay when you may have other options? When executives or people in other “white-collar” professions quit their jobs and seek out better opportunities, they’re not vilified or called lazy. They’re commended.

Not the service industry.

Despite their tireless work, when stimulus checks were sent out, many had to hear complaints that it was government welfare. $2000 checks were giving people an excuse to not work, people said. Never mind that those claims aren’t really supported by job reports that show rock-bottom unemployment. People making accusations like that have clearly never lived paycheck to paycheck because they would know for the vast majority of people in the service industry, the money gained from stimulus checks and other pandemic-era benefits wasn’t enough to take a vacation. They were simply about keeping the lights on and food on the table.

Our service industry workers deserve much better. It’s about time we deliver for them.

Hi, I’m Sree Sreenivasan. I talk about technology and more. Today we’re gonna talk about the myth of the unskilled labor force as the US is ravaged by yet another COVID-19 wave. I honestly cannot believe we’re still using the term unskilled to talk about such a broad section of society. In the first weeks and months of the pandemic, the pressure on workers across the service industry increased exponentially. Stores, logistic centers, and restaurants across the country remained open and put millions of people at risk. There were no vaccines, no ideas of when relief would come and no end in sight. Despite all of this people showed up to work and quite literally kept the society functioning at a minimal level.

This is a sector of the workforce that earns well under $30,000 per year on average, and is more likely to hold more than one job. For all the praise and deference we give to tech and knowledge workers, it’s quite telling that it was service workers who have kept their country running through the worst pandemic in a century. This isn’t a typical left or right fight. People on both sides of the aisle routinely diminish the work of retail workers and we’re all the worst for it. Minimum wages are light years behind the times, employers routinely take advantage of those who simply cannot afford not to work and governments at both the federal and local level, continue to shrug. Those who braved a pandemic to get to work at the pharmacy, at the grocery store, at the Amazon warehouse, pick a place that stayed open during the pandemic, have been doing this work largely not because they want to, they have to do it to make ends meet.

And society at large needs them to do it, to keep functioning at just the way we are.

The problem is that this is the American system actually working the way it’s supposed to. The economy must keep going no matter the human toll. This is not the way it works elsewhere.

It’s truly maddening that after all that we’ve been through, we still show no appreciation for our workers. We can do better, folks. Let’s increase the minimum wage across the land. Let’s give healthcare for everyone. Universal pre-K. These are things that all other developed countries do and the U.S. does not. Let’s change that. 

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