July 31, 2020

SMITH | Working for Minimum Wage During a Pandemic

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I’ve worked at the same restaurant in my hometown since senior year of high school. I haven’t had any sexy internships over the summer, just long shifts that leave my hair smelling like french fries. I work there over any break I can, and — in an industry where employee turnover is high — I’ve developed a somewhat oddball work-family consisting of the few people who have been there as long as me. I have a boss that is obsessed with the windows being clean, doesn’t believe in climate change and has me clean the slats in every table with a knife, but who sings off key to classic rock during closing and has given me some pretty solid life advice.

When COVID-19 restrictions really began in force, I was resigned to the fact that the internships I’d applied for were not happening, (something which apologetic emails confirmed) and that I wasn’t even going to be able to return to my minimum wage job. Then, on a night in late June, I got a text asking if I was willing to work. After a lot of conversations with my family about their comfortability with me increasing the risk of our exposure to COVID, I dusted off my old apron and headed back to work.

A lot of the job is the same. The hours are long and I still get nauseous at the sight of ketchup as a result of filling bottle after bottle with it from bags kept in the industrial fridge. But now I wear a mask and gloves and take a shower as soon as I get home. We use paper menus and the bar is surrounded by sneeze guards. Even though it’s been over 90 degrees every day, the majority of customers prefer to sit outside, and my boss greets me every day by pointing a thermometer gun at my forehead to take my temperature.

Working has given me a lot of opportunities to “people watch” as my mom calls it, and I’ve seen the whole gambit of responses to the safety risk posed by COVID. I’ve had to refuse service to people who walk in without masks. I’ve had people straight up ask me “do I have to wear this mask?” when indoors.  I’ve also had people recoil if I get any closer than six feet and watched some sanitize their own table after I already have. The pay is the same, and the tips are as well, if not less, which makes sense if money is tighter than usual for most. I don’t feel like I have the right to complain — I have a job in a time when unemployment is high and I am not under remotely the same pressure as healthcare workers. There is a slight sense of a lack of thanks for us putting ourselves at higher risk just so that they can eat a burger, but it’s a risk I signed on for. Still, when a customer complained the other day about the slow service, I had to bite my tongue to avoid saying that things were taking more time because I was washing my hands constantly and sanitizing the tablets we use for orders and payments for both my sake and their’s. Within the same day, however, a customer gave us a $20 tip on a $32 bill, thanking us for working. And while it’s not like I’m doing any of this for free, that felt undeniably good.

Almost all the people I encounter at work, be it coworkers or customers, are filled with the pervasive desire to return to “normal.” Customers expect the same level of service and are frustrated by new laws such as the recent order to not sell alcohol without food accompanying it. None of my coworkers enjoy wearing a mask and gloves, and we’d all love to rip them off even though we know how critical they are. During a rush, it’s almost possible to forget, if it weren’t for the constant glove changes and hand washing. I know my working there falls under the same hope that life can continue on with a shred of the familiar. To me, even the act of working and eating at a restaurant is a bid for normalcy, a reminder of a time before masks and quarantine. It’s nice to have a schedule and interact with more than the same three people every day, but I’m also more anxious about feeling fatigued or coughing, even if it’s just because I had a tickle in my throat or worked a ten hour shift. One of my closest friends’ brother is an ER nurse, and when I talk to her on the phone, I’m reminded that the virus is still in force and that the impact to how I work has been minimal in comparison to how other’s lives have been changed.

I can only hope that the customers I interact with every day are taking every precaution possible in their daily lives to keep themselves and the food service workers they are choosing to interact with safe, just as I am. When I see people wearing masks with their noses hanging out over the top, and then come home to my apartment building which has elderly residents touching the same door handles as me, and my own family, I question whether or not it is worth it. Unfortunately, the need for money has not been put on pause in the same way much of life has been.

Minimum wage jobs have long gotten a bad rep as the work of teens, students and those who are incapable of getting other employment. There is a chance our safety is being overlooked more than that of others in the name of restaurants and other stores reopening and the push for  a return to normalcy and a bid to keep companies from going under. But I know the owners of this restaurant. I’ve met their kids, who’s birthday parties have been at the restaurant. When I’ve come to them in the last three years needing money to pay for college or build up my savings, or even just have some spending money so I can afford a five dollar coffee at CTB, they give me work that makes me feel good about myself. As we come back to campus, we will interact with dining workers and janitors who will be working hard to keep our food and public places safe. While these may not be flashy jobs, we owe them a lot for allowing us to carry on our daily lives, in a world with COVID-19 or not.

 

Emma Smith is a rising junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at esmith@cornellsun.com. Emmpathy runs every other Wednesday this semester.