We are often so caught up with our own lives that we don’t really take a second to think about the person behind the counter serving us our pre-meeting coffee, or the one taking our order on a holiday. As it turns out, the pandemic has done a lot to highlight these low-wage workers who are considered essential, yet are treated like… well, garbage, to put it bluntly.
Attitudes towards low-wage workers
Even before the rise of the pandemic, we generally considered lower paying jobs inferior to others. Ever heard the term “flipping burgers?” It’s often used to derogatorily refer to the job of a fast food worker, as if working in McDonalds is some sort of shame.
Low-wage workers are sometimes referred to as “unskilled workers” as well, which is supposed to justify their little pay. More experience means more money, after all. The truth of the matter, though, is that low-wage workers have to do much more than we realize, and there’s no possible way every average person would be able to do what they do. Personally, I feel like I’d have a breakdown on week one if I tried.
So then, why do we call this labor unskilled?
Low-wage but essential?
Even without the pandemic, if every essential worker were to collectively disappear one day, the world would be up in arms. Whether they’re officially essential or not, they play a big part in our lives, which we take for granted.
If there were no more baristas, what would you do? “I’ll just make my own coffee,” you say? Yes, that’s obviously an option. But let’s not forget that getting our coffee from a coffee shop saves us time in our busy lives, and this level of convenience is a luxury we assume will be there forever, so we don’t think about it much. Thus, is it not hypocritical of us to look down on that which we deem an important part of our lives?
Furthermore, what the pandemic has revealed is that low-wage workers are considered essential enough to have to put themselves at risk of contracting COVID just to serve us, the customer. Clapping for them was cute the first time, I guess, but what does that really do for them in the long run?
The cost of being a low-wage worker
Zeynep Ton, co-founder and president of Good Jobs Institute, describes the typical salary of a minimum wage worker and how it’s simply not enough. “Imagine a single parent working as a bank teller and earning the median hourly wage for that job of $15.02,” she writes. “At 40 hours a week, she would make $2,580 a month — $494 less than her rent, child care, transportation, food, and medical expenses.”
She goes on to write about how this isn’t even taking into consideration things like clothing expenses and phone bills. She also emphasizes that this example is of someone who’s working 40 hours a week. Not every minimum wage employee works that many hours, meaning they get paid even less.
Therefore, many so-called essential workers have to take on multiple jobs just to survive, even though they’re being told they’re a necessity in the workforce. On top of that, they’re treated horribly by a good amount of entitled customers day in and day out. How does this make any logical sense? It doesn’t. A lot of things under capitalism don’t.
The point is, low-wage workers deserve not only basic respect, which many employers and customers seem to lack, but also a decent increase in their wages. They provide far too much to be paid so little that one exhausting full-time job isn’t enough to cover their basic necessities.
Next time you receive service from a low-wage employee, give them a big tip if you can afford it. If not, some kind words would most likely help them get through the day, at the very least.