Like millions of Americans, I was unemployed last year. The Alaskan hotel I’d worked at since 2017 shut its doors for the 2020 season since its business relied on the cruise ship industry, which in a normal non-pandemic summer brings more than a million tourists to Alaska.
I’ve spent my entire working life in customer service and have many friends in the service industry. When tourism and indoor dining vanished in March 2020, we all worried our jobs were gone forever. Fast-forward to 2021: Hourly employees are this summer’s hottest commodity. With nearly half the U.S. population now fully vaccinated, all evidence suggests our economy will make a quick recovery.
Everywhere seems to be hiring. A recent banner outside the Taco Bell on Route 40 proclaimed, “NOW HIRING, TEXT NACHO to 8500.” I stop by Giant for groceries and pass through an entrance with huge lettering: NOW HIRING, LOVE WHERE YOU WORK. As I grab a carton of eggs in the dairy aisle, I see yet another sign affixed to the clear refrigerator door: Apply now at giantfood.com. Across the street from Giant is a billboard for Royal Farms: “We’re Hiring.”
I was angry to see service employees lauded as “essential” and “heroes” during last year’s pandemic. Cashiers, restaurant workers and store clerks have always been essential. These so-called “unskilled” jobs keep our economy and our everyday lives functional, especially throughout COVID-19. All of 2020’s useless lip service in no way makes up for decades of lawmakers failing to give these employees a decent, livable wage.
One of the biggest issues of our post-pandemic economy will be how businesses can attract staff. What will incentivize jobless Americans living on generous government stimulus money to return to work?
I love seeing corporations beg and plead with potential employees. Some have gotten creative: Wawa offers a $100 hiring bonus plus $75 if you’re vaccinated. Applebee’s hosted a National Hiring Day where anyone who submitted a job application qualified for a free appetizer. Seriously? A couple hundred bucks and free food are laughable compensation for years of mistreatment and low pay.
It’s doubly frustrating to see Congress debate worker pay and unemployment benefits since many senators and representatives are independently wealthy and have never worked a low wage job. Or haven’t worked one since, like, 1970 when the minimum wage was $1.60, which inflated to today’s dollars would be $11.05, far greater than the current federal rate of $7.75.
One of the goals Biden announced for his administration is to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. In the meantime, many companies (including Costco, Target and Amazon) have increased their starting pay to $15. It’s about time service work is recognized as valuable, not with “thank you heroes!” yard signs but practical, tangible stuff like more money.
Current worker shortages may handicap certain industries in the short term. But if it ultimately leads to fair pay for all Americans, our country will be the better for it. In the meantime, I hope those Americans take all the federal aid and unemployment insurance money that they need. They deserve a break from years of penny-pinching, corporation-favoring government policies.
What relief to see workers gaining more power. Workers who, throughout a lifetime of low pay and financial hardship, manage to survive. They take on a second job, move in with family, max out yet another credit card. It’s only suitable that our leaders and big businesses must now take on some of the burden of “making ends meet.”
Alexandra DeArmon grew up in Frederick. Her current job pays her $14.25 an hour. Reach her at email@example.com