Professionals, ask yourself, when is the last time you heard these words? “Work is slow today. So the CEO has to go home.” (and by the way, his pay will be cut down to the precise hours worked). And since some of the work he’s doing is not executive-level, let’s call him an administrative assistant while he writes emails, and a VP when he’s not leading a meeting but merely attending one, and pay him at lower levels for those hours.

Should a teacher be paid clerk wages while she photocopies materials for her class? Should a manager drop down to a waiter’s pay while he helps out on the restaurant floor? Salaried professionals and executives would scream if those outrageous conditions prevailed, yet millions of wage-earners have to accept them.

The Third World Here at Home

A majority of service industries in the U.S. have a third world within the company, one you don’t have to travel to China for. Two major abuses are rife in this sector: unreliable hours and temporary “promotions. Here’s how it works:

Millions of baristas, counter people, hotel workers, clerks, and waitstaff, people who need and want a full-time job can only get 32 hours per week, the magical number that defines you as part-time, excluding you from full-time benefits. But even those 32 hours cannot be counted on. According to a Starbucks barista in New Zealand, a country noted for its good labor policies, “I normally work 35-50 hours a week, and next week I’ve been scheduled only 22 hours.”

At least that worker had advance notice. A hotel worker of my acquaintance doesn’t even know on the day she goes in how many hours she’ll have. It might be two. It might be ten. Did a mom expect to get off at three o’clock to see her child in a school play? Too bad. There were more rooms to clean than usual. Does her childcare end at five? Too bad; today she has to work until seven. Somehow, somewhere she had better find flexible childcare because many childcare centers charge five bucks for every additional five minutes. Was she planning to pay off a phone bill next week or give her kid a birthday party? Oops, her pay is a third less than usual. She’ll sit on pins and needles wondering if she’ll earn enough for rent and gas to get to work. Since retail businesses are busy on weekends, those are the days employees can’t get off. When they do get time off, it’s often a single day, not two in a row. Try going out of town for one day.

Worst of all, such a wage-earner can’t get another part-time job because some weeks, her first job needs her, and so she can’t guarantee any hours to a second job. In addition, her hours of work may vary so much that she might not be able to take real classes at a legitimate college because she would miss so much class.

How it is at the Best Place

Even at Starbucks, listed as one of the top 100 companies to work for by Fortune, an employee said, “Our store currently has 5 shift supervisors, and of those 5, the only one who received over 30 hours on her schedule is the newest shift.” Starbucks touts its benefits program, but barista from California said, “You will get your forms sometime soon after you have completed your third month. Then basically all you do is select which plan you want …. Just make sure you do it within the specified window of time or else you won’t be eligible to enroll until next August. Also watch your hours and make sure you get at least 240 each quarter or else they will drop you like a ton of bricks.” Another added, “The Starbucks in Santa Barbara, California will schedule you less than 20 hours per week. If you don’t get enough hours and say you want more, they tell you to call other stores. If this is inconvenient, then too bad for you.”

According to former Starbucks executive, Jim Donald, “the turnover rate for partners [baristas] is about 80 percent. Analysts put the average turnover rate for employees in the quick-service restaurant business at about 200 percent.” This means that at Starbucks, which pays more than most and offers domestic partner benefits, eighty percent of hourly wage-earners are gone within a year. What’s a typical, non-mandatory paid vacation in service jobs after a year? One week. Clearly most hourly employees in fast food (McDonalds and Burger King are among the top twenty employers in the country) get no paid vacation at all because they don’t last a year, and there are many obstacles for those who do. Said one McDonald’s employee, “I just started working at a McDonalds as a crew member and i was told i dont get vacation leave, and its not paid for if i ever need time off.” It’s so hard to find good help these days. I wonder why.

The Crazy Part: Temporary Promotions

A sick new practice is that of promoting workers to a higher level but just for a few hours a week, and demoting them back to their old level for the rest of the workday: “Now your manager hat is on! Presto! Now your manager’s hat is off.” This happens in the hospitality industry and many other retail and service industries. Again, from Starbucks, “One of the stores is ‘heavy’ three shift supervisors, so they are demoting the last three that were promoted.”

The Abyss between Wage-Earners and Salaried

How can Starbucks say it offers “on-site childcare,” “fully paid sabbaticals,” “onsite fitness centers,” and “telecommuting”?” I haven’t seen any gyms or childcare centers at my ten local Starbucks. Ah, I see now that those items only apply to full-time salaried folks, not the ones who actually work in Starbucks cafes. How can a magazine like Fortune simply overlook the majority of the company’s workers (64%) when it decides which are the best places to work? It’s like saying a plantation is a great place to work (oh, except for the slaves).

A Failure of Empathy

The frightening part is that so few people in positions of power seem to care. They appear incapable of imagining themselves in their underlings’ position. One website tells employers “How to Limit Employee Hours to Avoid Benefit Eligibility,” and assures them, “You can reduce the hours of any nonexempt employee at any time; however, in states such as Connecticut you must provide notice in writing …” And to add insult to injury, “You can charge employees up to 102 percent of the premium cost for continued coverage. The extra 2 percent is for your administrative costs.” So health benefits are not only wholly paid for by employees, but workers also chip in to ensure their employer has no cost!

Only 11.9% of American workers are unionized, and that number includes a fair number of professionals such as teachers and nurses. The lucky few have a collective voice and an organization actively working to keep them informed of their rights and to bargain for better conditions. But the lower-level wage-earner, though ubiquitous, is overlooked.

Are managers and business owners ogres? Of course not. Many will make efforts to accommodate good workers beyond the minimum the law requires. But workers cannot be best served by people who see them as “the other.” The need for change is evident in this comment: “Craig Rowley, who leads the retail consulting practice at management consulting firm Hay Group says that it’s understandable store employees want predictability, but that retail is ‘not a predictable industry.’” Is management consulting a predictable industry?

Once one reaches a certain level, this unpredictability doesn’t matter. It’s predictable enough for the head-office folks; they get to discuss and negotiate their own salaries, benefits, and working conditions with a friendly board while conferring much worse conditions on others. This attitude reminds me of T. W. Hoit, a 19th century anti-abolitionist who said, in defense of slavery, “The intimate commercial relations existing between this Republic and the principal maritime and warlike nations of the globe, mainly by means of the products of slave labor, constitute a necessity for our onward, uninterrupted progress,…” Who is this “our” he speaks of? It certainly doesn’t include workers.

We’re Number 137!

In 136 other countries of the world, workers have the right to paid vacation. Maybe someday the U.S. will too. But it won’t come about through endless proclamations of “We’re the best!” at Republican conventions.

Let me leave the last word to John Schmitt of CEPR (Center for Economic Policy and Research):“This is one of the most important ideological victories of the right in the last 30 years–to persuade us we aren’t rich enough to treat workers well. We’re incredibly rich, getting richer every year, and we have plenty of resources to pay adequate wages, pensions, health insurance and vacations, but we’ve chosen to give that money to the top five percent.”


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