Opinion | Service workers are people too

Amid the labor shortage in Iowa, consider the reason people are returning to the service industry.


Sophia Meador, Opinions Columnist

In the early days of the pandemic, the service industry faced a major halt as businesses and restaurants had to close or limit services because of safety precautions.

Workers had to survive without a constant income – which, in most cases, were already short-coming. The labor force rate declined to 60.2 percent in April 2020 —a  level not seen since the early 1970s. Through unemployment benefits, stimulus checks and other outlets of help, some workers were able to stay afloat without their previous incomes, while others fell through the cracks.

Thanks to the successes of COVID-19 vaccines, businesses and restaurants are able to reopen their doors to the public. However, there’s one major problem – there’s not enough people to open those doors.

Many pundits blame previous service workers for the current labor shortage. In early May, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the end of pandemic related unemployment benefits, which included an additional $300-a-week payment. “Now that our businesses and schools have reopened, these payments are discouraging people from returning to work,” Reynolds stated in a press release.

On the surface, this assessment seems valid. Now that COVID poses less of a risk, things should go back to normal, and people can go back to work.

As a service worker who worked throughout the pandemic, I can testify these payments are not what discouraging people from returning to work. The discouragement comes from an industry with little respect for its workers.

Throughout the pandemic, workers risked their health and safety each shift. In most settings, workers had little choice but to be in close proximity to co-workers. In my own experience of working at a busy coffee shop during the pandemic, social distancing was not an option. Because of the tight workspace co-workers share, I was exposed to COVID-19 from a coworker and later tested positive for the virus. It was almost as though service workers were on the frontlines of the pandemic due to the nature of the job.

Additionally, some consumers believed masks were optional, despite the mandates set by companies. Workers returned home each day with a strained voice from asking customers to keep their mask on and maintain social distance in a crowded setting. Too many saw complying to covid as an option, not a social obligation.

The pandemic demonstrated the lack of decency and respect the service industry has on workers. From this perspective, how could anyone blame previous service workers for not reentering an industry with no regard for their health and safety?

Where the industry stands, there is little incentive for anyone to enter the workforce as a service worker. Corporations have shown no action in creating a better environment for their workers. If consumers want business and restaurants to resume at their capacity prior to the pandemic, there needs to be a shift in attitude; consumers need to participate in creating an environment workers want to come back to.

The service industry has some of the hardest working people. Most who go to work in service jobs are not there because they want to be. This industry is made up of people working paycheck to paycheck, barely surviving off minimum wage. These jobs are filled by single mothers, broke students, teenagers supporting their family — members of the economy who are often the most left behind.

Consumers need to treat workers better. This shift of perspective in society is a drastic change, but this change can easily start with you. Treat workers better by  tipping even when we forgot your refill. Wait in a long drive-thru line and still greet the cashier with a friendly smile. Throwing your trash away rather than expecting someone else to take care of it. And please, don’t get mad at the worker who doesn’t have the item you wanted.

For people to come back to the service industry, the industry needs to improve it’s treatment of workers. As the world continues to open up, please remember to be kind to service workers; we’re people too.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.


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