Service Jobs Are Hard Work or, All We Want for Christmas Is a Living Wage and a Modicum of Dignity

I visited a Starbucks in downtown Seattle the other day–the ultimate location for a Starbucks. It’s my ideal coffee shop in other ways, as well: the people who work there are the friendliest, nicest Starbucks employees I have run into, and that’s saying something. As a rule, the employees behind the counter at Starbucks are upbeat and professional, and some are even kind enough to laugh at my jokes. They’re frequently young people, and here in Seattle tend to be relatively diverse, with the occasional candy-colored hair, and there often seems to be a functional but warm camaraderie as they work together to serve under-caffeinated strangers (by far the worst kind).

On this day, as the barista passed my drink to me, I blurted out how much I enjoy coming into their shop; I told her it is my Favorite Starbucks. The barista thanked me and then in a move of impressive savvy that explains at least in part why their crew is so successful, asked me why. She said, “Can you tell us more?”

I muttered something about how they’re all so friendly and they seem to like each other. I said, “I don’t know if I’d want to work here, per se, because it looks like a hard job–but it’s a pleasure to visit.” And she responded, “We try to keep the energy high.”

Anyone who’s worked in the service industry knows, staying cheerful and energetic is a job in itself. By the “service industry,” I mean work that involves dealing with the public, providing a product or executing a task. They are jobs defined and constrained by that most revolting of capitalist maxims, “The customer is always right.” Sometimes a service job relies heavily on tips, and the dependence of the worker on the consumer’s goodwill is all the more stringent and constrictive. I’ve made pizza, sold movie tickets, and worked the drive-thru window, and it is hard, demanding work, and frankly should be paid better and treated with more respect in general.

Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman alluded to this same state of affairs on one of my favorite podcasts, Call Your Girlfriend (Episode 70). While discussing Thanksgiving and Black Friday, they talked about how service workers in this country don’t get paid time off on holidays in many cases, and it’s particularly egregious on days like Thanksgiving, when we’re all supposed to be marinating in community and the family feel-good propaganda about the sovereign importance of social bonding and relaxation, and following it up with the Black Friday purchasing frenzy to re-up our capitalist membership ID cards.

We have the privilege of hiring people to clean our gutters, make and serve food, fill potholes, and stock the nail polish in an attractive display so we can find it quickly. I don’t have a fundamental problem with these kind of transactions, but it’s so important to not willfully take that work for granted, to let it become invisible. The bathroom in your hotel room is clean because someone made it that way: it didn’t magically shed its grime because of our divine right to pay for what we want, when we want it.

Why this type of labor ever came to be considered less important than programming or hedge-fund managing or even creative work like, say, writing, is a mystery that we should perhaps let Karl Marx solve for us.

I found myself rethinking my comments to the barista and her colleagues, and wanting to add something. I do appreciate their cordiality and willingness to explain complicated lattes to me when there’s a line out the door, and I thank them for sharing their energy and friendliness. I hope they enjoy their jobs as much as any of us can enjoy something we do to pay the bills, rather than spending time as we might choose for ourselves.

Because when it comes right down to it, the people who work at Starbucks don’t owe me smiling good cheer–if anything, all they “owe” me is a cup of coffee, and anything else is a gift, an act of simple generosity. I appreciate their extra effort, and it is extra.

Thank you so much for your gracious service. I will be sure to leave a tip.