Benjamin Innes


Minimum Rage

Will a generation of accidental career waiters hold out for "real" jobs—or fight for the ones they have now?

Behind the bar of a fancy New York restaurant, a 27-year-old bartender tidies her olive-and-cherry box. She attempts to look distracted while a middle-aged financial analyst holds her captive with small talk.
“So what else do you do?” he slurs, four Manhattans deep.
“Nothing,” she says. “I just do this.”
“Oh!” he answers. “That’s cool. Did you go to college?”
“Yup. I went to NYU.”
The man makes no attempt to hide his confusion. She leans forward and wipes away a few whiskey drops in front of him.
“I have loans,” she says, with a touch of attitude. “Don’t know what to tell you.”
Emily Sanders has been a waitress or bartender, on and off, for almost a decade. She’s made anywhere from minimum wage to around $1,000 a week, which is what she hauls in now. She has no health insurance, no 401(k), and a pathetic savings account. Most days, she gets to her first job at noon and leaves her second after midnight. If she’s sick but a little short on cash, she downs some DayQuil and goes into work anyway.
We all know an Emily. Six years ago, I was an Emily. After college I waited tables at a now-closed restaurant where she and I met. I was a server for years, through internships, passion projects, and freelancing, until I landed a full-time job doing what I love. Emily hasn’t been as lucky. Neither have a lot of my peers.
For kids who grew up middle-class, Emily is the embodiment of a cautionary tale: “You don’t want to end up flipping burgers all your life.” We internalized the message that service jobs aren’t “real” jobs. We wanted to be writers, therapists, lawyers. We wanted to start our own businesses and send our own kids to college. We didn’t want to spend our working lives reciting specials and making drinks. Even when these jobs drag on for years, we tell ourselves this isn’t what we’re really doing. It’s ok for now. It’s only temporary.
That was Emily’s assumption. Her middle-class mom managed to send her to boarding school, where she got decent grades and ended up at NYU's artsy enclave, the Gallatin School. During the school year, student loans paid most of her bills, but she picked up restaurant jobs to fund her weekends and help cover her rent. Her first job in New York City was at Hale & Hearty Soups in 2002, when she was a college freshman. They started her at $6.50 an hour. She was the only white college girl behind the counter.
The summer before her senior year, Emily was broke and decided she wanted “one of those real waitressing jobs.” No more getting tips out of a jar. She found a job on Craigslist as a server at a just-opened restaurant where she made $150 on a good night, but she still struggled to keep up with her bills. So, in December 2005, she got a more lucrative job at a busy, boozy tapas restaurant in the East Village—the same one I came to work at six months later.
Since then, Emily has worked in half a dozen restaurants, taught English in Italy, and had a short stint at an office. Right now, she’s back to bartending. She rakes in more cash than most of her friends who work entry level 9-to-5s. Her coworkers are actors teetering over the hill, aspiring real estate agents, office drones moonlighting for extra cash, breadwinners, Mexican immigrants who want to go back and build a house in Oaxaca. They are waiting for their lives to start or trying desperately to maintain them.
Still, Emily is the “1 percent” of restaurant workers—she makes a lot more money than your average minimum-wage, chain-restaurant employee. But even cream-of-the-crop gigs offer no benefits, little chance for advancement, and no recourse if you’re fired. Which could happen anytime, for any reason. Most of these jobs are pretty bad. And Emily considers herself lucky to have one.
Some depressing facts: Nearly half of people ages 16 to 29 do not have a job. A quarter of those who do work in hospitality—travel, leisure, and, of course, food service. A study of 4 million Facebook profiles found that, after the military, the top four employers listed by twentysomethings were Walmart, Starbucks, Target, and Best Buy. The restaurant industry in particular is booming; one in 10 employed Americans now work in food service—9.6 million of us. Those numbers are growing each year. Even though more and more laid-off, middle-aged Americans are turning to restaurant jobs, as of 2010 about two-thirds of food service workers are still under age 35. And the industry’s workforce is more educated than it was just 10 years ago. In major U.S. cities, about 9 percent more food service workers have been to college.
Food and retail jobs usually don’t pay a living wage—let alone enough to pay back student loans—and they’re supplanting jobs that do. The average restaurant worker made $15,000 in 2009, compared to $74,000 for a manufacturing worker. Factory work, once the default employment choice for many newly minted adults, was backbreaking and monotonous. But, if unionized, it was also stable, full time, and decently paid.
None of these things are true of the modern service industry, and shockingly few people are working to change that. Only 2 percent of food-service workers are union members. When you subtract the ones who work at hotels, that number goes down to approximately zero. Big unions like the AFL-CIO and Service Employees International Union opt to organize health care workers and teachers instead of the folks behind America’s bars and cash registers.
But the restaurant workforce is changing. Whereas in the 1970s you could visit a steel mill and declare all the metal pourers “working class,” today philosophy majors from Brown are making lattes alongside folks who grew up poor and assumed they’d sling drinks for life. Most of the college grads are like Emily—they tell themselves they won’t be here long. Others have a hunch they might be making minimum wage for a while.
And a few of them have decided to do something about it.
* * *

Erik Forman picks me up in a rusty blue Chevy pickup truck at the Minneapolis airport on the day after the 86-year-old Ford assembly plant across the Mississippi has officially shut its doors. Erik is 26 and earnest-looking. His fine blond hair is boyish, almost angelic. He’s dressed in layers: hoodie, jeans, dirty Adidas. He’s very excited to see me.

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