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10 Worst Things About Working in Fast Food and Retail

Disrespected and considered disposable, retail and service workers have nowhere to turn when their jobs become unbearable.

There are around 4,100 Walmarts across the United States and the retailer is the country's biggest private employer


A new study by an MIT economist shows in detail how the U.S. labor market is steadily shifting to a service economy. As skilled production and administrative workers lose their jobs, they have moved into jobs in retail, fast food, home healthcare and childcare. There are many reasons why this shift is not ideal. Here's a roundup of the worst things about working in the service industry. 

1. Not enough hours. Hourly wages are relatively low in service jobs, so many workers need to work more hours to increase their income. But on average, service sector workers average just 34 hours per week; retail workers only 31 hours. This leaves many service workers feeling like they are always on the lookout for more hours, a full-time job, or a second job. Part-time workers usually do not qualify for benefits under employer policy or federal benefits such as the Family and Medical Leave Act. Low hours plus low wages means living paycheck to paycheck.

2. Shifting schedules. In the past, many states maintained laws restricting the days and hours that businesses could operate. But the laws have been weakened, and more employers operate for longer periods. Service workers must be available for shifts that sometimes go around the clock and through holidays. Employers have moved to more flexible scheduling practices, including “on-call” scheduling, based on customer flow and variables such as the weather. This might help the employer save labor costs, but leaves the worker with varying schedules week to week. It means she cannot predict her paycheck, or easily plan childcare, eldercare or college classes. People have trouble adjusting their bodies to irregular sleeping and eating patterns. Calvin Miaw, a former hotel employee, says one of the downsides of the work is that, "You work evenings, holidays, weekends; if you are a restaurant server, you work during the time your body tells you it's supposed to be eating."

3. Disrespected and disposable. Many people consider service workers to be unskilled, and employers tell workers they should feel lucky to have any job at all. Yana Walton of the Retail Action Project says, “Our members feel like they go above and beyond and are treated by management and customers with no respect.” Many service jobs end up serving as the front line for customer complaints, and employees must try to solve problems they have little control over, such as front desk workers in hotels who have no control over the quality of hotel rooms, or call center workers who work for a subcontractor and have no interaction with the corporation customers are complaining about. Customers take out their frustration on these workers; management rarely steps in to defend them.

4. Arbitrary rewards and discipline. Employers want work to trump family lives and school obligations, and can punish workers who do not make themselves available for all shifts or on-call work. Without protection, employees are subject to arbitrary discipline: they find themselves scheduled for fewer hours or less desirable shifts. Managers might play favorites, pitting workers against one another.

5. Sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is not confined to the service sector, but service workers must confront not only harassment from coworkers or managers, but also customers. Over one third of sexual harassment complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission were filed by women working in restaurants. Women in many service jobs are expected to perform “emotional labor” by smiling, caring for and even flirting with customers.

6. Racial discrimination. There are several notorious examples of racial discrimination within certain service jobs, including a 2003 lawsuit against the clothing company Abercrombie & Fitch for discrimination against Latino, black and Asian workers. Plaintiffs were either not hired, or placed only in backroom jobs where they would not be visible to the public. A U.S. District Court approved a $50 million settlement in the case that mandated the retailer to adopt new employment practices. Similar lawsuits are common in the restaurant industry, including a recent charge from the EEOC against the Chicago restaurant group Rosebud Restaurants for discrimination against African Americans.

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