Several decades ago, when I worked in food and beverage service, we used a phrase about some customers: “the sincere thank you.” That described people who would tell us that our service was great and that they’d had a nice meal, and then would leave little or nothing in the way of a gratuity. Evidently, in their minds, an expression of appreciation was sufficient compensation, even for people who lived on tips (that, or the people were simply cheap). Having been frequent recipients of such expressions, the group of people I worked with at the resort developed our own unspoken response: “Say thank you with money.” We didn’t feel that we automatically deserved an extra 15% on the check, but we did feel it was our due when we’d been painstaking in our care of customers, and had delivered above-average service. As any server will tell you, however, it’s very often the most demanding customers—usually also the most well-heeled types—who are the stingiest. Conversely, I got some of my biggest tips from people who looked as if they couldn’t afford it.
In my experience, the sincere thank you has become the most common M.O. in corporate America. Time and time again, at every company where I was employed, my co-workers and I were asked to take on more and more responsibilities with no increases or bonuses. CEOs thought it was enough to tell us how talented and vital we were. Sometimes, after all that build-up, we didn’t survive the next downsizing move.
In these months of the pandemic, a universal meme has arisen. Countless ads from big companies of every stripe are flooding the airwaves, thanking the first responders, the doctors and nurses, the grocery store workers, the food delivery people, the mail carriers, the warehouse workers—in short, all the mostly invisible citizens who are keeping the country going. The Walmart CEO is publicly calling his employees, “heroes.” Meanwhile, they’re paid slave wages, have no healthcare and almost no paid sick leave; if they get sick and use up extra time off, they’re fired. Many rely on food stamps. At Amazon, Jeff Bezos is paying an extra $2.00 an hour for some positions, but only for the duration of the crisis. The benefits are still slim to none, and workers tell stories of not having any protective equipment, despite ads depicting warehouse employees all masked-up and dedicated. Amazon does allow workers to sleep in their cars in the parking lots, however, and some facilities go so far as to have electrical hook-ups for RVs, for employees who are effectively migratory.
At the same time, food chains, brewers, pharmaceutical companies, and a host of others are running ads to tell us that we’re all in this together, it’s not about brands, and by the way, they’re donating X number of dollars to COVID19 relief efforts. While all of that sounds quite generous, I wonder how many of these same companies are supporting their workers during this time. In the long run, it’s much cheaper to buy goodwill and positive publicity for a few million dollars than it is to pay employees decent wages and provide high-quality benefits during their careers.
Bottom line, most of the tens of thousands who are literally risking their lives in these months are doing so because they must. They have no choice, if they want to keep body and soul together. They can’t afford the luxury of not working, and their jobs don’t allow them to work remotely. Yes, they are heroes, albeit involuntary ones. They are also, for the most part, at or near the bottom end of the national pay scale, OR they are not being paid commensurate with their skills and the risks they’re taking. If they are absolutely indispensable to the country during the crisis, why are they not being compensated accordingly? They are the ones who should never again have to worry about feeding their families, living in respectable housing, or putting their kids through college. If this country really cared about showing gratitude to the essential workers, those people would be getting a lot more than cheers and banging pots at 7:00 PM every night. The “sincere thank you” would be on the memo lines of the hefty salary checks they were issued.