I was down the shore this weekend, enjoying the sea, the sun and the sweeping panorama of people without masks. Honestly, that was even more beautiful than the sunset over the Atlantic.
One of those sunsets was observed from an outside patio at a fantastic pizzeria just outside of Atlantic City. My Sicilian Square with “Momma’s” sauce was so good, I had to tell “Momma’s” son how much I loved it. He replied, with an almost wistful expression in his eyes: “Thank you, I only wish I had Momma here with me to help out.”
What I thought was a poignant reference to his deceased mother turned out to be the lament of a small business owner.
This wasn’t the first time that I’d heard a similar complaint from small business owners. It seems as if everyone who used to work in service industries prior to the pandemic either found better jobs elsewhere, preferred getting the extended monthly unemployment checks or left the job market altogether.
Pretty much the only people you see in the kitchens, on the scaffolding and hunched over cleaning offices and homes are the immigrants who don’t have the luxury of seeking unemployment benefits.
I’m not an economist, so I can’t offer an intelligent reason as to why this is happening from a financial perspective. I’m sure that businesses themselves were either forced to close or severely reduce their staffing during COVID, and then decided that they didn’t want to go back to pre-pandemic payrolls.
But I think there’s something else at play, here, and I see it in the rhetoric on TV and in the media: “We deserve better.” It’s the idea that some people are too good for the jobs they were doing at wages they didn’t like. Granted, the food service industry is notorious for underpaying their employees and unfairly expecting customers to make up for the miserly wages in generous tips. I’m no fan of the “slave” mentality some employers have.
But I honestly believe that the problem this time around is not with the demand, but with the supply. Or to put it differently, the lack of supply. Workers became accustomed to a few things this past year: Staying home, getting paid to stay home, getting told that they were right to stay home, getting warned that if they didn’t stay home and wear masks, they were unpatriotic, and getting used to having their egos stroked.
It’s really a generational thing, and I don’t mean age. There are some wonderfully motivated young folks out there looking for work and juggling multiple part time jobs, and then there are people my age and even older who are content to take three or four Zoom calls a day (hopefully not a la Jeffrey Toobin) and think that’s enough until quitting time.
I even have friends who said that if their employers require them to return to brick-and-mortar buildings, they’ll quit. One said her health is more important than her paycheck (funny how she doesn’t think that paying for doctor’s visits involves having a paycheck) and another said that she finally realized that there was more to life than the grind of her nine-month job as a teacher.
I remember my father, who worked three jobs during the day while going to law school at night. I remember my mother, who took the overnight shift as a bookkeeper, riding the subway from Logan into Center City and back again in the early morning hours. I remember stories about my grandfather Mike, who drove a trash truck for 20 years in Philadelphia, fell off, broke his back, was out of work for months and then went right back to the job. While he was in bed recovering, my grandmother took odd jobs while raising three young kids. My other grandmother drove a trolley while her husband worked in different restaurant kitchens.
I was privileged. I never had to work, and this is probably why I recognize the unique character of people who did. My few jobs while in school were vanity adventures, things I did so I could say I was “working.” One involved serving burgers at the old Roy Rogers at 54th and City Line. I also worked at the Valley Forge Music Fair as an usherette one summer, where I managed to run into Paul Anka and knock him down backstage while rushing to deliver show programs. Again, I had it easy.
But I’m aware of how easy I had it, and I never thought that I deserved kudos just because I showed up for work. These days, that’s exactly what a lot of people think, and COVID has only made it worse. To be fair, it seems that the applicants for unemployment payments have decreased, ever so slightly, since the worst moments of the pandemic. But it’s the exception that proves the rule.
A country built on the honest labor of its citizens should never turn into a country that has to beg people to come back to work.
Let’s hope we figure that out before “Momma” runs out of sauce.
(Christine Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Delaware County Daily Times in Swarthmore, Pa.)