Ann Arbor service workers see a "revolution," not a labor shortage

Service workers have quit their jobs en masse across the nation in recent months, and locals in the industry say it'll take major change to bring them back.
A June article in "Business Insider" described the ongoing pandemic-induced service industry labor shortage as an "uphill battle" for employers, but Ann Arbor resident Emily Christensen says they're up against a lot more than that.

"There is a straight-up revolution going on," says Christensen, a former server and longstanding member of the Service Industry Workers of the Ann Arbor Area Facebook group. "We're forcing the beginning of what is going to be a very, very long conversation about minimum wages and the treatment of service industry workers in the United States."

As service workers continue to quit their jobs en masse, citing adverse conditions such as unlivable wages, a lack of benefits, abuse from customers, and burnout, they also continue to face growing public criticism. Inconvenienced and disgruntled by long waits for service, one narrative about the situation paints workers who are refusing to go back to their jobs as lazy. Some ask: Why can't they just stop complaining and go back to work already?

"We're not lazy and we want to work, but we need to be treated fairly and to be paid livable wages," Christensen says. "For too long we've been putting up with a lot because we have been in fear that there is nowhere to go if we quit, and like everyone else we value job security."

Now a manager at a local pizza restaurant, Christensen was a server and bartender when the pandemic hit. When her place of employment closed down she was devastated both emotionally and financially. It took Christensen over three solid months of exhaustive effort to secure unemployment. Landing at her current job has her happier than she's been in a really long time – despite having to work 50-60 hours a week as her employer works toward increasing wages for more junior employees.

Christensen says she, and many other young service industry workers, had to "learn to adult real fast, live very frugally, and survive on very little." She explains that those who were able to set aside some of their unemployment money are using the funds to make personal pivots in their own lives. For some workers that has meant a lifeline for leaving the industry altogether for nine-to-five jobs. Many are now working jobs in real estate or banking that pay just as much and offer guaranteed wages and weekends off. 

"Believe me, there is a good reason why I will no longer work as a server and bartender. Women in the industry deal with a disgusting amount of harassment," Christensen says. "When the bars and restaurants reopened, all those men who were locked in their homes came back to their pastime of harassing women behind the bar, and they really came back at full speed." 

Unfortunately, for many workers, appeals to their bosses are often painful and uncomfortable, and end with no resolution. Having already suffered financial blows from COVID-19, many business owners refuse to kick out, or turn away, misbehaving customers and revenue. And with other industries now offering more than minimum wage, more service industry workers are saying "no more."

"Our voices are starting to speak volumes to the people in charge who are learning hard lessons," Christensen says. "Before the pandemic they could threaten to just replace us, and now they are the ones paying the price."

Coping without a safety net

Eric Farrell, owner of The Bar at 327 Braun Court, likes to refer to a meme he saw recently.

"It said that before the pandemic, the world was telling service industry workers that if they didn't like that their jobs weren't paying enough, then they should go find another one," he says. "Now that there is a shortage of workers, the world is wondering where all the workers went."
The Bar at 327 Braun Court owner Eric Farrell.
He adds that the bubbling discontent and tough conversations that are unfolding are no surprise. In fact, he's had numerous related discussions with workers and other small business owners well before the pandemic. He's found that even the most conscientious and well-meaning owners face complicated challenges.

"There are a lot of people who are trying to do good by their workers in a tough industry that is essentially one of pennies for many small business owners. You give a lot and there's not enough social support," Farrell says. "It's complicated with lots of political tie-ins and that can make it hard to advocate for things for workers, like health care and child care."

At the start of the pandemic, Farrell launched a GoFundMe campaign to offset his employees' financial stresses. In the face of huge revenue losses and having to take out a number of loans, he credits his landlord's flexibility as one reason that he's been able to keep his staff (one full-timer and three part-timers) happy.  

"I don't know a single small business owner in Ann Arbor who doesn't wish they could pay their employees more and give them paid time off, health insurance, retirement, or child care support," he says. "I gave my staff a bit of a raise, but that can only help them limp along rather than address the stuff that they really need to keep going, and that I can't afford."

Jack Goforth, the chef at Braun Court, and a service industry worker for over 10 years, seconds Farrell's insights. He adds that the mass exodus of workers might seem unreasonable and rash to people outside the industry. But he'd like the community to consider mobilizing for the improvement of the social safety net that workers deserve and need. He points to affordable housing and transportation as examples. 
The Bar at 327 Braun Court chef Jack Goforth.
"Lots of service workers don't have enough money to pay rent in Ann Arbor and have to live outside the city. And then lots of entry-level workers don't have cars or a reliable way to get into work," Goforth says. "I've had to drive some other workers home because there wasn't proper public bus service."

Goforth counts himself lucky to be in an environment that gave him support during the pandemic to up his game in the service industry and revamp the bar's menu. He used pandemic downtime to perfect a pizza recipe that has been integral to keeping the business on the upswing. But he says that's not the case for many workers who are simply demanding basic respect.

"People's attitudes toward service industry workers can be appalling and exhausting to deal with over long, thankless shifts," he says. "Lots of bosses say that the customer is always right. But they are not always right and that attitude can't be held any longer."

He adds that many service workers enter the industry at a transitional time of their lives. As a result, with the changes that are happening in the world, Goforth says more people are asking, "we're only human. Why should we deal with so much stress and get paid less than a livable wage?"

Asking the right qestions

Christensen says lots of questions need to be asked – and the right ones, too. She says one big hurdle right now is that people are viewing service industry workers' demands as a war of wages against other professions.

"This fight would be fought a whole lot better if people would stop saying 'What about me?' and started fighting with us," she says. "Just because we're fighting for higher wages doesn't mean that we think that we deserve to be paid the same as teachers with master's degrees."

Christensen adds that people need to start asking why service industry workers without degrees might be able to earn as much as people like teachers or EMTs, who deserve better pay for their work as well.  

Both Goforth and Farrell would like to see more people start to ask questions of the government rather than blithely complaining and working against the morale of the industry's workers.  

"Everyone is just trying to do what they need to in order to survive right now. Everyone is just trying to put food on their tables, and everybody needs to pay rent or mortgage or go to the doctor," Farrell says. "We need to keep talking, because our city's restaurants and bars are what makes us unique from other cities in Michigan, and when the dust settles we want them there."

Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.

Photos by Doug Coombe.