the signs hang undisturbed in windows all across america – “now hiring.” and workers aren’t biting, as i’m sure you’ve heard by now. with everyone from the united states chamber of commerce, your mom & pop restaurant owners, chain restaurant regional managers, ceo’s and c-suite management types, and the new york times with no fewer than six headlines this past month, the powers that be are all losing their minds that we’re not all running on our knees back to the jobs they all let us go from last year. the view seems to boil down to the american worker is now making more money sitting at home collecting unemployment than they would returning to work.
what’s hilarious is that many of these same sources can often be found on television, pontificating upon the so-called free market, how it does and should determine the value of everything. well. the federal government has valued the american worker’s labor at an average of fifteen bucks an hour, which is what that six hundred smack weekly payment works out to at forty hours a week. i’m not economist, but there’s your basic economics. there’s a lot simmering below the numbers, though, and to chalk it up to the simple view ignores all of the fucking shit we’ve all been talking about for years. (see: the fight for 15, amazon warehouse working conditions, ken friedman & the spotted pig, & as mr. brenner so eloquently put it – et cetera, et cetera. et cetera.)
they let us go on march 17th last year and sent us on our way with a canvas bag of pantry goods, our last check in hand, totaling hours worked and paid time off, accrued. no severance. and no guarantee of our jobs back, either. though we’d been invited to reapply through the company jobs page, H.R. will email when applications open. it’d been no surprise, the layoff. everyone knew it was coming, after a solid week of cut shifts, revised and then revised again schedules. having to reapply, though, felt like a fucking slap in the face at the advent of a worldwide pandemic, then just gaining it’s foothold in the lungs of millions of people around the world. i’m certain the reasoning is myriad, complex. i’m no economist but at the core is economics, i’m sure. because economics dictate these things so. and because they could. thanks, governor gavin newsom.
it had been a rough ride until then, for poor curs-ed, but beloved henry’s, site of a hostage situation and shootout in the 1990s; reborn in 2017 and closed the same year in scandal; reopening; failed partnerships with celebrity chefs; general managers who never stayed long; beer covered floors and drunk kids on berkeley gamedays; a never talked about ICE raid. i wasn’t long in on my second stint there before i started thinking that perhaps my double degree from cal just MIGHT be put to better use someplace else, that MAYBE, just MAYBE i MIGHT have something more to offer the world than knowing which cocktails are great and what you should order for brunch.
i imagine dolly parton would not be the first name that comes to mind when considering various critiques of capitalism in america. hers should, though. have you ever really listened to her lyrics for “9 to 5”? i’d never thought of dolly as anyone other than dolly, a constant that entered the world fully formed and always there. she never lost touch with the working class, clearly. i mean,
9 to 5, yeah, they got you where they want you
There’s a better life and you think about it don’t you
It’s a rich man’s game no matter what they call it
And you spend your life putting money in his wallet
9 to 5, what a way to make a living
Barely gettin’ by, it’s all taking and no giving
just as true now as it was in 1980.
it’s easy to kick back and say, “well, if you didn’t want to serve beer to drunk college kids, just put a little elbow grease in and find something else.” thing is. i tried that. not long after i’d graduated i’d been hired at a local community college to tutor english composition. fucking perfect. i’d thrived as a tutor as a student at both city college and berkeley, fucking loved connecting with students, the passing of knowledge off to another. after a couple of weeks there, a catastrophic hitch would emerge. on payday. when i discovered my supervisor had failed to make clear my first check would not come until the next month. it may come as a surprise, but some workers in academia are paid only once a month. i couldn’t afford a whole month of transportation to and from campus every week until then. i’d been counting on that one week of pay to cover just that. and when i explained all of this when i tendered my resignation, my boss told me the story of how she’d tutored for free at a school two districts over just for the experience. “sadly, i don’t have that privilege.” i’m a generation x writer with millennial problems and lemme tell you something, you don’t have much freedom when you’re living on a razor thin margin like that. and that’s exactly the way they want it. it wasn’t long after that that i applied to henry’s.
i’m no economist, but it seems to me that our moment has finally arrived, fellow workers! the market has turned in our favor! intent on returning your business to full capacity by the fifteenth of june, when california officially reopens for business? then get those ill-tempered chefs simmered down, no more promises of benefits then shorting of hours, pay a fair wage, hire enough staff.
i’m over a year in, now, happy to ride this wave on through till the end. because my thoughts now are much the same as the day we all got our last checks. that this is the time for me to invest in myself, my art, and my writing. that i have the time, now, to see what else might be out there, to see what i might be able to hustle up for myself. that this is the time that i SHOULD, because let’s face it, as a worker in late capitalism america, you just don’t get the opportunity all that often.