10 Worst Things About Working in Fast Food and Retail


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.

7. Judged by appearances. Service employees face other challenges in their work related to their appearance. Employers report that they want to hire people who fit the image or the brand of the company, which can mean they prefer to hire younger, attractive, slender employees. Unfortunately, weight is not a protected category in most states, and employers are allowed to discriminate. Twenty-two cocktail waitresses filed charges at the Atlantic City casino Borgata, which told the women they could not gain more than 7 percent of their body weight from the time they were hired. The waitresses were required to weigh in at work, and faced suspension if they gained too much. Michigan is the only state that outlaws discrimination based on weight or height. It is legal in New Jersey, and the “Borgata babes” lost their case.

The retailer American Apparel was accused of hiring people based on their looks when they instituted a policy requiring applicants to submit a photo of themselves. Several store managers and employees spoke out, noting that the company mocked applicants based on their looks. Research shows that customers consistently give higher restaurant tips to attractive servers; in general, men tip more to women with blond hair, women wearing makeup, and more attractive women. It isn’t only restaurants: over 30 occupations rely on tips, and research finds evidence of discriminatory tipping in those as well, such as one study that found African-American taxi drivers received lower tips, on average, than white drivers.

Retailers want employees to reflect their brand and often require workers to wear the clothes sold in the store. But employees must buy those clothes. Even with an employee discount, that can get expensive quickly, particularly at high-end stores where a pair of $150 jeans can take a sizeable chunk of a retail paycheck.

8. Nowhere to go. Most service sector jobs have few career ladders. There are almost 12 million front-line retail sales and cashier workers, but only a little over one million first-line supervisors or retail workers managers, suggesting that the odds of moving into a supervisory position are low. Even then, the median income for a retail supervisor is $36,820 a year—hardly enough to raise a family or even cover basic costs of living in many parts of the country. Sales managers earn more, but there are even fewer of those jobs: fewer than 3 percent of sales workers and cashiers could expect to reach that level. Conditions are similar in other fields. First-line supervisors of food prep and serving workers earn a median annual income of just over $29,000 a year.

9. It is harder than it looks. Many service workers have jobs that put them at risk for injuries and violence. Nursing assistants and janitors are among the occupations with the highest non-fatal injury rates. One study found that nursing assistant injuries could be dramatically reduced when workers had access to lifts, and adequate time allotted to serve residents. Similarly, hotel housekeepers face huge workloads, leading to chronic pain and injury. Cashiers and food prep workers face repetitive stress injuries.

10. Who can you turn to? Many of the problems listed here are found in other sectors as well: injury rates are high in construction work; manufacturing workplaces have experienced racial discrimination and sexual harassment. But historically, unions have worked to protect workers in these industries, whereas unionization rates are relatively low in many service occupations, particularly in places like retail, food service, car washes and childcare.

New organizations such as the Retail Action Project, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, and OUR Walmart are working with service workers to improve standards in their industries. But these organizations are relatively underresourced for serving the almost 26 million people who work in service occupations.

Because service workers feel disposable, they are afraid to speak out about poor treatment, as management can easily fire them. One study of hotel room cleaners found that 75% experience work-related pain but only 20 to 30 percent filed claims or reported it to management. Over 25% of survey respondents said that they were afraid to report their injuries.

Employees can pursue legal action, but consider the track record. In 2000, Betty Dukes filed a charge against her employer, Walmart, for sex discrimination. The case was pursued as a class-action suit representing 1.6 million women who worked for the company. After many years and court battles, the Supreme Court ruled in Walmart’s favor, denying the plaintiffs the right to file a class-action suit. That means that each of the 1.6 million women would need to pursue their own legal case against the company, despite strong evidence that Walmart discriminated against women in hiring and promotion practices. Service workers have few champions in Congress, and neither the Democratic or Republican Party has been eager to raise minimum wages, increase workplace inspections, or tighten labor market regulations.

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