When I was young and naive enough to think that the name of my university was the number one marker of my worth and intellect, I was working retail and telling everyone I met – “I went to Johns Hopkins.”
I really thought that mattered.
Of course, the first reaction I got – not from my coworkers, but from customers – was, “What are you doing here!?” There was also the inevitable, “Are you putting yourself through medical school?” And the equally incorrect and humiliatingly condescending, “Paying off student loans?”
In a way, I had been right. The name of my university did mean something – it just didn’t mean what I thought it would. I think that most people put workers in the service industries into a little box of pre-determined value; while I knew that both I and the people I worked with were some of the most dedicated and determined members of an incredibly uneven economy, the customers I served at a high-end kitchen shop assumed that we were something else. We were dead-ends. We were what they thought their college-educated children would never be – retail workers.
First off – I loved my job. I loved learning everything about Staub and Le Creuset cookware, and I loved teaching cooking classes. I was excited when I received an award for my work, and when I won a stainless sauté pan in a store contest. I enjoyed honing my skills as a saleswoman, helping customers find exactly what they needed, selling two espresso machines with a single pitch. I was good at it, and if my degree from Johns Hopkins wasn’t a part of my role as an associate, who cared?
Well, my customers cared.
I was reminded of all of this on Labor Day. Fully one-third of employment in the United States is in the retail/service industry. Most of those workers do not qualify for any of the benefits we consider necessary – health insurance, paid leave, sick leave, holidays – because in order to minimize costs, companies limit the number of qualifying full-time employees. And recently, fast-food workers went on strike to demand something which should already be in place: a living wage.
Minimum wage? It doesn’t cut it. At all. In fact, minimum wage places you squarely below the poverty line. The proposed increase from minimum wage to $15 an hour would be a beginning – but still, part-time work, perhaps 20 hours a week? It doesn’t take a math genius to figure out that even with that increase there is no possible way to make ends meet. And that’s pre-tax.
What does that have to do with us, college graduates, people with degrees? Actually, a whole hell of a lot.
If you’re like me – admittedly a graduate of a well-known university – that college degree guarantees you one thing: a piece of paper in a frame on your wall. Sure, you could get a degree in something useful (unlike me, who stubbornly chased the dream of being a writer) and maybe land a more “valuable” job. But at some point or other, most of us are confronted with the basic issues of life – un- or under-employment, rent past due, an empty fridge, an embarrassing phone call home (if you’re lucky enough to have supportive and able parents), an inability to buy birthday or Christmas presents, paying off those emergency medical bills because you don’t qualify for insurance, and a feeling of helplessness at the end of the month. Looking forward to the fifteenth and thirtieth, going without on the fourteenth and twenty-ninth.
Taking a job in the service industry.
Having your customers look down on you.
Knowing that society doesn’t think you’re valuable.
And that’s one of the biggest problems, isn’t it? While reading online articles regarding the strike, I glanced at the comments section and was so unbelievably appalled at the derision and spite and apathy espoused by some. These anonymous commenters seemed to truly believe that fast-food workers didn’t deserve to make enough money to eat, to support their children, to pay rent. It was so easy for these people to write that “flipping burgers” wasn’t as valuable as working in an office, wasn’t as hard as whatever “real job” they happened to have. Some of them purported to having worked in the service industry at some point – as a teenager, as a college student – and that utterly mystified me, because anyone who has been on their feet for eight hours, catering to every request, dismissing any disrespect should know how hard it is. Quite a lot of these people went so far as to say that anyone in the industry had no right to have children, and therefore shouldn’t need enough money to feed them.
Labor Day came and went. But I’m not sure that most people lucky enough to have the day off understood that someone else was working in their place – serving their food, selling them their televisions, restocking brats and beer, shoring up a failing economy and still being thought of as a dead-end.
I think that there’s an important message in all of this for us at Buster and Ellie and for our readers. Some of us will be able to find success in our field without working a service or retail job. Some of us will do both – an entry-level position supplemented by part-time work. And some of us won’t know exactly what we are doing with our lives and will start out, bit by bit, with a job we never thought we’d take. Through all of these trials and triumphs – disrespectful customers, winning employee of the month; interning and hoping to impress the boss, finally landing our perfect position – we should be aware of our own value and of the value of those who work harder and longer hours for less money and pitiful benefits. We should remember not to look down on others – perhaps some day, we will be looked down on, too.
I’m proud of my degree from Hopkins, yes – but somehow I am equally proud of living through Black Fridays and staying at work until midnight during the holiday season. I’m proud of the knowledge I gained in the pursuit of hard work and self-worth, good customer service and excellent sales records. I think that makes me valuable.
I made eight dollars an hour. I had no benefits, no sick leave and certainly no holidays. Did that make me less of a person?
Not one damn bit.