Kueppers: Well at least you get tips, right?

Even in a pandemic, service workers and retail employees are getting screwed over. It’s despicable.


by Henry Kueppers

For all the anti-maskers out there, yes, the rumors are true. Us service industry workers revel in the moments we get to tell you to put on your mask. Oh god, what euphoria! We love jeopardizing our own health and well-being just so we can remind you to put on a mask when you pick up your $7 burrito. I’ll be honest — I feel like such a big man when I get to tell folks they need a mask to walk into my place of work. Yeah, that’s right. I’m a freaking junkie chasing down every chance I can get to tell someone to put on their mask because hoo-chow! What a rush it is to tell an adult to do something that should be common sense by now.

Yet, these are just some of the trials and tribulations I face working in the service industry. I know my experience is ubiquitous, however; just about every other retail and service employee out there has had to go through the same motions. And while it was tough for service workers even before the pandemic, it seems to me that companies and employers have not risen to the task of finding new ways to protect or reward workers for even more stress and emotional fatigue during this last year. And it is unbelievably frustrating.

Even more frustrating is the fact that I cannot delve anymore into my own experience working in the food industry. I’m told that, apparently, if I write an exposé on my workplace I’ll “get fired.” I guess employers don’t like it if you tell the masses what happens behind closed doors, which clearly shows something must be seriously wrong with that employer or company if you can’t talk to people about the flaws in the organization. How can we hold businesses accountable if we can’t criticize them? Yet, I need this gig, so I’ll leave it with this sentiment: I love my job. I am treated like a prince. However, some of my fellow service industry workers have had less jovial experiences, especially during the pandemic.

Service industry workers are oftentimes denied a lot of the privileges other working folks receive. Most of the time, they do not receive employer-provided health insurance and benefits. You also can’t call into your service job and work remotely. Basically, service workers are left with very few options and are forced to risk their immune systems and sanity while dealing with people who berate them about mask mandates. And make no mistake, I did use the word “forced” intentionally because what other options do service employees have? The New York Times reported that many experts agree that the coronavirus has just highlighted the already significant disparity between service workers and high-earning professionals when it comes to healthcare and sick leave. Worse still, there are racial factors in said economic disparities. In a study done by One Fair Wage, close to 90% of Black workers reported their tips have declined by half or more since the start of the pandemic. As if it weren’t bad enough that coronavirus already has disproportionately infected more Black people than white people, now Black employees are making significantly less money too. No longer can the argument be made that, “Oh well, they get tips so they’ll make enough money to get by.” That is grossly incorrect.

Tips definitely help service workers out, but it’s important to note that there is no universal tipping system for the service industry. Some employers let their employees receive tips. Some make them split tips. And others don’t accept tips. Bottom line is, without tips, service workers like restaurant employees are often getting paid jack shit.

As if inequality, health risks and lack of income weren’t bad enough, consider the fact that dozens of workers have reported sexual harassment and violent altercations that have resulted from telling customers to wear masks. As reported by Gothamist, workers filled out a One Fair Wage survey and reported comments and threats they received while working in the service industry. These comments included, “Pull that mask down so I can see if I want to take you home later” and “I don’t wear a condom; I sure as hell aren’t going to wear a mask!”

One woman who worked at a bar in Manhattan reported that when she told a man to put on a mask, his response was that he would wait outside until the bar closed and then kill her. What the hell is wrong with people?

There are two solutions I can think of that could drastically change this entire situation. First off, President Joe Biden absolutely needs to raise the national minimum wage to $15 an hour. It is disturbing that this is still a topic of debate. We are supposed to be a global leader, yet we still have workers who can’t even make a minimum wage to support themselves? It’s beyond upsetting. Raising the minimum wage would greatly benefit thousands of people in the service industry. Additionally, the government and employers, in general, need to do a better job of adapting and protecting their employees. These are weird times, and employers need to rise to the occasion and adapt business models that actively protect their workers.

Then there is my second solution, which shouldn’t have to be mentioned, but since there are still people who choose to elicit death threats to their local bartenders, I’ll say it: Don’t be an asshole. Those are human beings behind that counter! Where is your decency? You don’t have to kiss their ass, but for God’s sake, be decent. Be kind. Just say please and thank you, take your order and go. It shouldn’t be this hard.