Our work defines our lives.
At least, that’s what we’re told throughout our early years. As children, we are asked by adults what we want to be when we grow up. As high school seniors, we have to decide whether to enter the workforce or pursue higher education. As we enter college, we are asked what major we wish to study, and after four years, when we near our hard-earned college graduation, we are asked on a rotating basis by professors, friends, parents, and adults we barely know what we plan to do with our degree. This near-constant questioning of our future profession only reinforces that sinister truth that lies beyond the questions: that in society’s eyes, our work, whatever it may be, will in large effect define our lives.
We are judged by our work. We are made to believe that the higher we climb on the invisible ladder of professional prowess that society has created, the more worthy we are of the world’s adoration. And at the bottom of this intangible ladder are the fast-food workers, the janitors, the hostesses, the gas station attendants, the grocery store cashiers, and the other roles that kindly have the tag “minimum wage” attached to them. Perhaps it’s an unconscious act or perhaps not, but either way, western society revels in this ladder of superiority. CEO’s, athletes, famous actors, successful entrepreneurs, internet moguls, executives, lawyers, doctors, and many more high profile professions are thrust to the top of the ladder, and those who possess such occupations find themselves in a position where they are often praised, admired, and glorified for their skills. Whereas those at the bottom of the ladder find themselves cast in an unforgiving role, one where they are merely seen as a part of the background, and that’s if they are seen at all.
The minimum wage workers of Western society have taken on a mask of anonymity. This is through no fault of their own. Like the sound engineer working on a Broadway play, though they are vital for the show to go on, they will never earn the recognition that the leading man or lady will. Instead, they are neatly tucked away backstage, completing their tasks that are essential to the production but without the possibility of a standing ovation.
As a society, we have created a persona around minimum wage workers; that they are somehow the lackluster members of society, and they can only get those jobs. And as such, they perhaps don’t deserve the recognition or thanks that other professions may allow. Phrases like “you don’t want to end up flipping burgers” and “get a good education so you can get a good job” seem to emphasize the subtle point that minimum wage workers are the lepers of the vocational world. Even the word ‘minimum’ contributes to this convoluted image of the minimum wage worker.
Minimum, as defined in the dictionary, means “the least quantity or amount possible, assignable, allowable, or the like.” Yet the word minimum does not always directly relate to effort. After all, minimum is attached to the wage of the legions of workers at the bottom of the ladder. Does that mean that those workers don’t put in as much effort as those on the top? Of course, every worker has a varied work ethic, but anyone who has endured a 12-hour shift on their feet cleaning tables, lifting boxes in a warehouse, scanning seemingly useless products through a checkout, hauling trash, developing an acute knot of pain in their lower back and answering the ever thrilling question “Where’s the bathroom?” would gladly testify that although they receive a “minimum” wage, the effort they put into their job is far from minimum.
2020, perhaps more than any other year, finally cast a spotlight on minimum wage workers, a.k.a essential workers. During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, truck drivers, delivery workers, grocery store clerks, postal workers, and gig workers became the crucial glue that held our society together. Essential workers were praised in the news, people put up thank you signs in their windows, and many acts of appreciation towards essential workers were captured in viral videos. It was a glorious moment of essential workers and healthcare workers becoming the stars of the show. Yet as we enter a new year and lockdowns lift in different varieties across America, it could be far too easy to fall back into our old cultural habits of propelling hardworking people who earn a minimum wage back into the background of our society.
Personally, I’ve had vast experience working as a minimum wage worker from Florida’s sun-drenched coasts to the mountains of North Carolina. At the age of 15, I joined the ranks of minimum wage workers and took my first job in the hospitality industry. I’ve been a face painter, guest relations representative, parking attendant, hostess, cafeteria dishwasher, waitress, college fundraising telesales worker, and catering staff. Many of my coworkers in these jobs have been college-educated, parents, students, retirees, etc. Almost all of the people I’ve had the honor of working with were far from minimum in any aspect of their lives.
As a teenager, I worked at a popular water park in Orlando, Florida as a guest relations representative (the person who stands behind a glass window that resolves problems A-Z while generally serving as a verbal punching bag for hot and frustrated tourists). At the water park, one of my colleagues, Rosa, would often talk of her degree in marketing from the University of Miami, her three pre-teen children, and her husband’s leg injury that had kept him out of the workforce for a year. After years of being a stay-at-home mom, she took the job because it was the only thing available, and her family needed the money. Often, Rosa would describe her day to me, and I was amazed. She would spend her workday being yelled at and abused by customers, only to drive 45 minutes home to make dinner for her family, administer the correct medication for her husband, and take her children to their respective after school clubs before completing her weekly budget and falling into bed around 1 a.m.
When I received my paycheck, I always thought of Rosa and how hard she worked to earn such a small amount of money that had to be stretched five ways. I hadn’t the faintest idea of how she managed such a balancing act. None of the water park customers thanked her for her work or showed concern for the dark bags of sagging skin under her eyes. All they wanted was their entry into the overly priced water park full of dolphins, wave pools, brightly-colored slides, and of course, the all-day buffet.
Almost all of my jobs before and during college had two things in common; they paid minimum wage (or just above) and came with some kind of special cloak that caused me to blur into the background of the environment I was in. The anonymity passed into post-college as well when I began working as a waitress to make ends meet. After all, I was no longer Grace but just another worker doing a basic job that anyone could do.
There is an underlying thought that seems to percolate through Western society: minimum wage jobs are easy work, therefore anyone can do them, thus minimum wage workers have no particular skills and are easily replaceable. This thought contributes to the continual forced anonymity of minimum wage workers. After all, if anyone can do the job, what need is there for that worker to be recognized, praised, or acknowledged in the same way a doctor, lawyer, or celebrity would be? Beyond this, it sometimes seems people make a choice to berate and demean low-wage workers. Far too often, we see customers using derogatory language and exerting all their anger toward the cashier or waitress or postal worker simply because something wasn’t 100% perfect. The minimum wage worker is nothing more than a cog in a machine in the customer’s eyes.
The reasoning behind such displays of indifference and contempt on a consumer’s part may be malicious or stem from pure busyness. Most people are constantly fighting to be the best they can be and achieve the most they can. There are deadlines to meet, people to see, and things to do. And perhaps it is in this flurry of chaotic thoughts, times, and dates that we all tend to forget to notice the faces behind the everyday jobs that allow our lives to churn over at a familiar pace.
2020 gave us a slight reprieve from such attitudes as we celebrated essential workers. Still, if we are to avoid falling into old patterns, we must remember every worker’s humanity. After all, the minimum wage was never meant to degrade any group of workers in society. It began with good intentions and was brought about to protect workers who were the most vulnerable from being exploited by the big bad bosses of the 19th century. New Zealand was the first nation to introduce a minimum wage in 1894, and the idea came to America thanks to President Franklin Roosevelt’s new deal. When Roosevelt first introduced the notion of a minimum wage in 1938, it was part of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Roosevelt called it “the most far-reaching, the most far-sighted program for the benefit of workers ever adopted here or in any other country.” Before the minimum wage was introduced, many employees were exploited for their labor, especially in the manufacturing industry’s sweatshops. Roosevelt wanted Americans to get “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”
In 1938, the minimum wage was set at $0.25 an hour, and in 83 years, the federal minimum wage has only increased to $7.25 an hour. In that time span, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment skyrocketed from $27 a month to the current US average of $1,078 a month. Many states don’t believe the federal minimum wage covers costs for workers effectively, so in turn, many states set their own minimum wage rates, with California being the highest at $14 an hour for large employers.
For years there have been many debates about whether the minimum wage is effective in preventing people from falling below the poverty line. Many legislators are pushing for a living wage, which would help minimum wage workers have a more comfortable life since living wages are based on the costs that are particular to a specific region. Overall, 2021 seems to be moving towards a living wage as 24 states, including New York and Florida, are increasing their minimum wage. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 hasn’t increased since 2009. Yet hope remains as President Biden has made raising the minimum wage a key policy for this administration, saying, “Nobody working 40 hours a week should be living below the poverty line.”
The federal minimum wage should be increased, yet even when that happens, the way we as a society treat minimum wage workers must still be improved upon. 2020 taught us we are capable of it, but it is a choice. It’s far too easy for the masses to ignore the work of minimum wage workers, and thus in turn ignore the worker behind the job.
In college, I worked as a cafeteria dishwasher and general cleaner, among other jobs, to help pay my tuition and housing fees. In that job, I experienced an especially potent brand of obscurity every day. While I cleaned the floors and tables, students would drop food and leave their plates and cups strewn across the tables in an unruly mess. Rarely did they take a few minutes to bring their own dishes to the drop-off points, instead choosing to leave it for me despite my pleading gaze. I cannot describe how maddening it is to have the same people continually leave chairs pulled out, food all over, and dishes carelessly disregarded despite seeing the amount of effort I was pouring into my work. They didn’t see me as a person, just a drone performing essential tasks.
As a child, I was guilty of this sin as well. I would leave napkins on tables and not pick up clothes I dropped in stores because “it was someone’s job to look after it.” Much to my mother’s dismay, I continued this habit until I began working in the service industry. I quickly understood how I had been disrespecting workers and subconsciously throwing the cloak of namelessness over them for many years.
Without thanks or recognition, there is a grand monotony that comes with most minimum wage jobs. At the water park, my routine was the same every day. Solve customer issues. Sell tickets. Take a break. Be yelled at. Solve more issues. Sell Tickets. Be yelled at. Cash-out. Every day I fell into the background, my bright green shirt blending with the water-themed wallpaper, and became a shadow. The only time the spell of invisibility was broken was when someone said my name (most minimum wage workers come with a name tag). For one sweet and fleeting moment, I was reminded that I was a human being with blood coursing through my veins, not just a part of the machine.
And that’s the miraculous thing; it only takes a moment of acknowledgment and appreciation to break the veil of anonymity and remind those at the bottom of the ladder that they are living breathing humans with emotions, intellectual thoughts, and a heartbeat pounding beneath the ugly uniform that comes with the job. But for those moments to happen, we have to look beyond ourselves.
David Foster Wallace was a brilliant writer of fiction, but he also delivered some stunning speeches on rare occasions. During a commencement speech in 2005, Wallace touched on this very issue I’ve been discussing. Wallace states that his “natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way. But the really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in a myriad of petty little unsexy ways, every day.”
Wallace had the right idea. True success or freedom in life is when we are able to step outside of our natural selfish habits to not only consider but appreciate those people that fill out the background of our everyday lives. It’s easy to focus on our hectic schedule and forget the ‘little’ people on the bottom of the ladder that make the world quietly tick over. But if 2020 proved anything, it’s that the celebrities, advertising execs, marketers, or even politicians don’t make the world go round; it’s those ‘essential workers’ that so often are being paid minimum wage and given minimum glory while putting in the maximum effort that do. The truth is those at the bottom of the societal ladder support everyone above them. The world cannot function without them and the work they complete. Without gas station attendants, postal workers, grocery store cashiers, warehouse stockers, and delivery drivers, our 2020 lockdowns would have been far bleaker.
As we move forward into 2021 and beyond, let’s not cast essential workers back into the shadows. That invisibility can drive a worker, as I often have, to lose faith in people’s basic kindness. Everyone has difficulties in their lives, and everyone has to earn a living. But I would urge you to remember that minimum wage workers, most of whom proved to be more than essential this past year, are fighting a low wage and the aching anonymity their position affords them. It is up to us as a society to restore low-income worker’s faith in humanity and kindness by taking a moment to step out of our own skin and notice those fading faces in the background. Something as simple as saying please and thank you, asking about a worker’s day, or saying the name etched into the cashier’s name tag can be a powerful reminder. However simple it may seem, a small act of appreciation shown by those benefiting from their work can remind any worker who feels the pains of obscurity that they are, in fact, a living, breathing human.
Minimum wage workers are not worth any less because the word minimum is attached to their hard labor. Minimum wage workers keep the world running smoothly and should be celebrated. So, I urge you, as discussions about raising the minimum wage flow, also think about the obscurity those positions often provide and how you can break that curse by merely looking up from your own hustle and bustle and expressing thanks.
Take a minute to see the essential workers in your own backyard as genuine humans behind that uniform and name tag. They are more than a background note in the symphony of daily life. They are more than minimum. They’re your fellow human just trying to make it through each day with dignity and respect. You can help provide that. You can keep the gratitude of 2020 alive with simple moments of acknowledgment and appreciation.
We’re all in this together. Let’s never forget that simple and essential truth.