The dream of the techno-utopian workplace is dead. Remote work proved that digitizing the workplace isn’t liberating, it’s a company-controlled nightmare.

laptop screen showing video meeting with pixelated blue participants with crossed out eyes and frowns
  • When the pandemic hit, companies embraced remote work, especially as productivity began to increase.
  • Instead of investing in luxury office spaces, companies are investing in employee monitoring software to maintain a sense of control.
  • As companies put profit over workers, it is clear that technology in the workplace was never going to be liberating.
  • Katya Schwenk is a journalist writing about tech and surveillance.
  • This is an opinion article. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

When Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey abruptly announced last year that his employees could work remotely “forever,” the move was hailed as no less than “the end of the office as we know it.”

A year later, the mythos of the digital workplace persists. Companies now insist that the pandemic has heralded in a new, if inevitable, age of work – one in which technology is enabling “workforce liberation,” as one CEO wrote in March. “Once a futuristic vision,” Boston Consulting Group has pronounced, “the bionic company is here.”

The new cyborg workplace promised by corporate America is placeless; perfectly digitized and perfectly efficient. Its workers have been freed from the old shackles of the office. For years, business executives have pushed to better integrate technologies like artificial intelligence in the workplace, arguing that greater employee autonomy will follow. The pandemic, they claim, has proved this to be true. “We are seeing a human transformation right before our eyes,” Dell’s Chief Operating Officer Jeff Clarke told investors last year. Under this model, worker productivity has reached “an all-time high,” he said.

Don’t fall for this charade. A year into the pandemic, it is more clear than ever that Zoom calls and “people analytics” are no antidote to the woes of the office. Automation and new technologies have never liberated the workplace; they aren’t doing so now, either.

Instead, companies are deploying tech to cement their control over employees. This sort of control is certainly not new. In the early 20th century, Frederick Taylor pioneered a strategy of “scientific management,” which placed workers under close surveillance in a ruthless pursuit of efficiency. But the age-old trend accelerated rapidly when the pandemic forced more than a third of the US labor force to work virtually.

The ideal of a digitized, “flexible” workplace is a familiar one. It draws from techno-utopian thought birthed in Silicon Valley, which in the early days of the internet imagined technology as a democratizing force, a means to secure personal freedom.

“There was a strong sense back then … that wiring the world was good in and of itself,” Chris Hughes, a now-defected Facebook co-founder, told The New Yorker in 2019. It did not take long for this ethos to reach the workplace.

For years, gig platforms like Uber and Instacart have touted their “new model” for work – using the language of liberation to describe a labor model that, in reality, quite closely resembles exploitative practices of prior decades. Uber’s tech might be innovative, but its vision for labor is not.

An example of in-app messages sent by Uber in recent weeks
An example of in-app messages sent by Uber as part of their Prop. 22 campaign.

Uber’s lobbying campaign for Proposition 22 in California, which exempted app-based drivers from being classified as employees, deployed this same techno-utopian language. “We believe a better way to work is possible,” the company wrote to its employees, urging them to vote for the legislation. Ultimately, the ballot item passed, greenlighting an independent contractor system that takes advantage of drivers and is likely to be replicated across the country. The erosion of employee benefits is being dressed up in the language of innovation.

But the behemoth companies that have recently joined in to claim a liberated, office-free workforce were – just a year or so ago – fixated on the physical office.

From luxury offices to digital offices

In 2018, cloud-computing behemoth Salesforce unveiled its new corporate headquarters in downtown San Francisco: a 1,070-foot skyscraper that, to date, stands as the tallest building west of the Mississippi River. The building is decked out with the usual luxuries of tech campuses: lounges, meditation rooms, and a “media center.”

Then, in February, the company bluntly announced that its 9-5 workday was “dead.” Salesforce did not plan to wholly abandon its offices, president Brent Hyder assured employees, but instead hoped to “create the office of the future” – one that hinged on remote work, significantly reducing office use. Its skyscraper, which has indelibly changed the San Francisco skyline, quickly went from crown jewel to disposable commodity.

Salesforce tower
The Salesforce tower dominates the San Francisco skyline.

This about-face is less confounding if workplace technologies are understood to function in much the same way as meticulous office design. As Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey writes, the utopian office – whether Salesforce’s skyscraper or Epic Systems’ bizarre, fairy-tale headquarters – entices workers to extend their hours, blurring the lines between work and leisure.

A virtual workplace, it turns out, does this better – or, at least, companies like Salesforce are banking on it. Studies have indeed demonstrated that “productivity” increases when employees work remotely, but attribute this effect, in large part, to longer working hours. Perhaps as a result, some studies have found that remote workers report burnout at higher rates than their in-person colleagues.

Companies, of course, could take measures to improve remote conditions by better regulating workers’ hours or easing expectations around productivity. But this is unlikely. For the most part, companies that have decided to adopt a remote or hybrid model have cited increased efficiency as a key reason for doing so.

A new form of employee surveillance

As companies invest in their virtual workplaces, they are at the same time investing in new technologies for worker surveillance. Employee monitoring has a storied history, particularly in the US, but its newfound popularity casts doubt on the “liberation” of employees in the virtual workplace.

One recent survey of 2,000 companies using remote work found a “rapid” uptick in use of such tools. More than three-quarters reported that they conducted employee surveillance. A stunning 57% of those companies said that they had implemented the tools within the last six months.

Driving the trend, the survey found, was fear held by company executives that they had “a lack of control” over their remote business. A majority reported that they “don’t trust” their employees to work without such digital supervision – an anxiety that will likely drive autocratic management practices in the virtual office.

Companies that peddle employee monitoring tools have happily capitalized on that fear, branding themselves as a cornerstone of the future of work. “With more and more employees working outside the office,” writes monitoring company InterGuard, “digital employee monitoring is more important than ever.”

Their tools are far-reaching. Teramind’s live demo of its monitoring platform demonstrates a sophisticated system, one that records keystrokes, sends live “alerts” when employees spend above-average time on social media sites, and ranks workers by their calculated “productivity.” This is our supposedly emancipated workplace.

Accidental accessibility

Yet, remote work – despite all of this – remains popular among workers. And for good reason: The fight for greater flexibility in the workplace, led by people with disabilities and working parents, dates back decades. If there is a grain of truth to companies’ claims of a liberated workforce, it is here. For many, remote work is an important accommodation. It is, maybe, a liberating one.

The issue is that the pivot to the virtual office was not intended as such. The change was forced by the pandemic and, subsequently, driven by the interests of employers – after years of companies refusing to make such changes. As StaffCop Enterprise, another employee monitoring vendor, explains it: “Gone are the days when remote work was only appealing to employees.”

As Marianne Eloise writes, disabled people still need accommodations, within a remote workplace or not. Unsurprisingly, there has been no new rush to provide greater accessibility. And many jobs, while increasingly digitized, cannot be done remotely – a reminder that the companies that claim to provide ubiquitous flexibility are generally doing so only for highly-paid, white-collar employees, widening the cracks of the fissured workplace.

A year of heightened virtual surveillance, amid false claims of freedom, has shattered the ideal of the techno-utopian office. Still, the status quo of the workplace is always under threat. Sometimes, this disruption does come in the form of technology: A ride-hailing app co-op that hopes to topple Uber and Lyft’s empire in New York City, for instance, or a company developing technologies that would aid worker unionization. But this is not innovation on its natural course; it is something we must fight for.

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Corporations have hijacked the language of self care to seem ‘relatable.’ Don’t fall for the gimmick.

a 100 hundred-dollar bill with the words: "It's OK not to be OK" embroidered on it
  • “Emotional marketing” makes consumers feel like corporations care about them.
  • Brands have tapped into a real need for self and communal care, but people are seeing through it.
  • We need to center care in our activism, as the Black Panthers did, in order to work against its corporate co-optation.
  • P.E. Moskowitz is an author and runs Mental Hellth, a newsletter about capitalism and psychology.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Last year, my internet went down for three weeks. I chatted with customer service agents from Cox Communications, a cable and internet provider which earned more than $12 billion in revenue in 2020, about a dozen times. Each time, a customer service representative told me that they “felt my frustration and anger.” One said, “I hate when this happens, I totally get it.”

The problem is, they did not get it. The reason Cox could take their sweet time fixing my internet was not because life is frustrating and hard, but because they are a monopoly – the only option for broadband service in vast swaths of the United States, and thus have no one competing with them for my money. My internet access was dependent on them, and instead of addressing that problem, they told me they empathized with it.

I thought the experience was a particularly bizarre, but isolated customer service strategy. Until one day I was on the phone with T-Mobile, and the customer service agent said, “You sound sad today, is everything okay?”

Then hits kept coming. Late last year, the athleisure behemoth Lululemon tweeted out “It’s okay to not be okay,” to which hundreds of internet users replied with variations on the theme of “aren’t you the company that was caught under-paying and beating your factory workers?

Last week, I woke up to an alert from my Chipotle app (sometimes I have a craving for their burritos, don’t judge me) telling me that I should “check in on someone today.”

And the official account for the government of Israel, which recently engaged in a bombing campaign that killed hundreds of Palestinians, tweeted on May 12 that they were having a “difficult night” but appreciated the “messages of support from you guys.” The tweet ended with a heart emoji.

It’s no coincidence that these uber-powerful entities have all settled on language that makes them seem like “healthy living” Instagram influencers. The language of therapy and self help has been co-opted by institutions to distract from their power and sell us on the idea that they’re just like us.

This is not only an attempt to try and get us to forget their misdeeds, it also ruins the language of care built to actually help people, reducing what were once radical tools for survival to a hollow branding strategy.

Emotional branding sells

Corporations use the language of self care and mental health because it makes them money. There’s an entire field of advertising called “emotional marketing” dedicated to helping brands establish personal bonds with consumers. Ads with “emotional pull” are more likely to create loyalty among consumers, and encourage them to buy more.

Emotional manipulation for profit is nothing new. The work of Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, is often considered the blueprint for using psychology to manipulate consumers. He believed that by harnessing psychoanalytic theories of the mind and human behavior, he could subconsciously influence people to do just about anything.

In 1929 he employed his thesis after being hired by the American Tobacco Company with a campaign to break the taboo of women smoking cigarettes by linking the idea of smoking with women’s freedom. It worked – women bought more cigarettes, and the media began associating cigarettes with the very idea of independence and freedom.

The present-day marketing shift to focus on self care is just a new facet of the emotional branding manipulation corporations use to win over consumer’s hearts – one that matches our era of increased fear, anxiety, and depression.

It makes sense that at a time when depression rates, especially among young people, march steadily higher, and anxiety is present in everything that companies and other powerful institutions would attempt to capture our minds and dollars not through vague concepts of freedom or empowerment, but through the idea of life feeling survivable.

The kids are not alright

Cox and T-Mobile’s faux-empathetic customer service, Chipotle’s “check in on your friends” push notification, and Lululemon insistence that it’s ok not to feel okay hint at the predominant mental problems currently ailing our society: a feeling of constant dread, a sense of isolation and disconnection, and persistent anhedonia – a feeling that, no matter what, even if life feels good on the surface, we do not, in fact, feel okay.

In 2014, the European leftist collective Plan C published a treatise on capitalism and our feelings. They posited that the predominant affect, or feeling, of the mid-1900s was boredom. The hippie and free love movements were a response to this boredom, but so was the advertising created by people like Bernays – exploiting people’s dissatisfaction with a stifling suburban life to sell them the idea of excitement and freedom. Post-2008 financial crisis, according to Plan C, the predominant affect switched to anxiety as jobs disappeared and housing grew precarious.

We are now likely in a new age, one of disconnection and dissociation, spurred by the isolation and overwhelming nature of the internet and the pandemic. We have yet to see what the social response will be to this, but we can already see what advertising’s response has been: to sell us the idea that in an age where we all feel alone, scared, and unable to connect to each other, perhaps our friends at Lululemon, or Cox, or Chipotle can help.

“An act of political warfare”

Beyond the cynicism that this corporate cooptation of care inevitably breeds, it also erases the radical roots of the language. In the 1960s, the concept of care was used by radical Black activists like the Black Panther Party (BPP) to center the wellbeing of people of color in a world that was, and still is, actively hostile to their bodies and minds. The BPP thought taking care of one’s own body, mind, and self image was a necessary response to living in a racist country. In 1988, the Black feminist Audre Lorde wrote that, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

A company – or country engaged in warfare – taking these concepts and using them to their own end disenables us from using this language in any kind of productive way. The phrase “it’s okay to not be okay” might be a good way to view mental health recovery – I had to learn how to apply it to my own life after PTSD wrecked my productivity a few years ago – but now it’s also forever associated with a leggings company, diluting its power.

Corporations tell us it’s okay to not be okay when they are, in large part, the reason we are not okay.

Unfortunately, this corporate version of care has trickled down into how we speak to each other on a daily basis. When the Black Panthers and other radicals preached self care, they did so as part of a toolkit to fight against the material realities of racism and capitalism. Now, concepts of care and empathy float around with no root: Instagram influencers preach self care as they sell us beauty products; Twitter memes tell us that the problem with men is that they simply do not go to therapy, that it’s okay to break plans, and that it’s encouraged to deny people your time and energy when they need help.

We tell each other to take care of ourselves without acknowledging the reasons we need so much care in the first place – the isolation, anxiety, and depression caused by living in 21st-century America.

All of this does not make the very concept of care meaningless, but we must purposefully work to return material meaning to it. And I have no doubt we eventually will.

Bernays realized that people in the mid-1900s were craving freedom and used that realization to sell cigarettes. But then people realized that they needed to truly escape the boredom of the 1950s, and that purchasing things was not the way out. A real movement for Civil Rights – a movement against the white stasis of mid-20th-century America – blossomed. Today, corporations realize people are craving care and connection. They’ve tapped into a real need; but I have to believe it’s only a matter of time before we all see that real need and build a solution to it with our own hands.

I can already see it happening on social media: The language of self care has been re-radicalized, positioned against corporations and capitalism. Accounts like The Nap Ministry are teaching people that their own care is not politically neutral, but a necessary bulwark against productivity-culture burnout. But we now need to take this rhetoric and turn it into action. That could mean forming free-therapy collectives, doing teach-ins about mental healthcare, or providing free meals like the Black Panthers did so families feel less isolated from each other.

At a small scale, these things already exist, but we need to make them a more central part of any radical practice. Otherwise, we risk repeating a daunting cycle of being exhausted, overworked, and made to feel like automatons, leaving the solutions to the corporations and institutions least interested in actually solving them.

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Ending the pandemic can’t happen without ending evictions, which needlessly increase infections

eviction foreclosure moratoriums 2021
Americans protested a wave of evictions and foreclosures at the end of last year as protections aiding people who couldn’t afford rent or mortgage payments was close to expiring.

  • The CDC eviction moratorium may be overturned soon, leaving millions of Americans owing $40 billion.
  • Evictions target marginalized people and help to spread COVID.
  • To keep people safe, Congress should act to not only extend the moratorium but to cancel accumulated rent payments so that no one is evicted when this all ends.
  • Abdullah Shihipar is a writer who covers public health, class, and race.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Two weeks ago, a federal court in Washington, DC ruled that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) overstepped its authority in issuing a nationwide eviction moratorium and threw it out. The Justice Department announced that it would appeal the verdict and the judge has allowed the moratorium to remain in place while litigation continues. Still, the ruling has caused chaos across the country, as tenants grapple with the possibility of being evicted during the pandemic.

In addition to the CDC moratorium, the country has been covered with a patchwork of state, county, and city-level bans on evictions. However, despite these protections – and thanks in part to a system of loopholes – thousands have been evicted over the last year of the pandemic. The chaos caused by this ruling has only reaffirmed the need for Congress to act and pass real relief for tenants. It’s time to cancel rent.

Eviction conviction

Prior to the pandemic, evictions were already an epidemic in the United States – around 900,000 evictions take place in an average year, which is around four evictions per minute – and not everyone is affected equally. According to statistics collected by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, Black, Latinx and women renters are disproportionately targeted by evictions and removed from their homes. Households with children, particularly single mother households, are especially at risk. A study by the Eviction Lab shows that neighborhoods with higher amounts of children have increased evictions and that in court, tenants with children are more likely to receive a judgement ordering their eviction.

Evictions are a disruptive force in the lives of Americans. Once someone is evicted, it is harder for them to rent in a similar neighborhood -even an eviction filing can have the same impact without the actual eviction. Since landlords refuse to rent to them, people who have been evicted are often pushed into housing that is substandard, often in areas that are far from their workplaces, transit, and more. Even worse, some end up without a home at all. Merely being threatened with an eviction is associated with worse physical and mental health.

Evictions can be blamed for some spread of the novel coronavirus too. They’ve been deemed an infection risk during the pandemic, which is what caused the CDC to institute the moratorium in the first place. A study published in December found that 11,000 COVID-19 deaths and 433,700 infections could have been prevented had states that lifted their eviction moratoriums kept them in place. When you don’t have stable housing, you aren’t able to stay at home and isolate from others. People who are evicted may go live with extended family, causing crowding in housing, which has been associated with COVID-19 cases and deaths. Similarly, a working paper published in the National Bureau of Economic Research found that maintaining moratoriums reduced COVID infections by 3.8% and deaths by 11%.

As cases, deaths, and hospitalizations decrease in the coming weeks, politicians may use this opportunity to declare the pandemic over and rescind the moratoriums. While the moratoriums need to be extended for the considerable future, they do not address the accumulating amount of unpaid rent that is piling up for those who are at risk of eviction. By this month, 7 million renters in America will collectively owe $40 billion in unpaid rent – these unpaid fees will kick off a cascade of evictions once the moratoriums expire.

This is why Congress needs to act to not only pass a lengthy moratorium but also to cancel outstanding rent so that tenants are not evicted once that moratorium expires.

Representative Ilhan Omar has proposed a bill that would do just that. The Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act wouldn’t just cancel all missed rental and mortgage payments, it would also cause missed payments to have no effect on people’s credit scores. Additionally, it would establish a fund that would allow landlords and mortgage holders to recuperate their losses, providing both owners and renters with a win-win situation. Since some landlords have been evicting tenants throughout this period, it would be important that such a fund reward landlords who have not evicted tenants and not compensate landlords’ for losses in general.

These provisions however only address temporary issues caused by the pandemic, and aren’t a permanent solution to housing insecurity. Housing and rental costs across the country have skyrocketed in recent months and the pandemic has increased homelessness across the country; cities across the country are grappling with a rise in encampments, which has prompted public backlash and police-led sweeps.

Even before the pandemic, homelessness increased by 2% from the year prior. Researchers say that over the next four years, the economic impact from the pandemic is expected to increase homelessness by 49%. When someone lacks secure housing, it makes it harder for them to access services like healthcare; considering that COVID-19 is now expected to become an endemic disease that will require routine vaccination, a sizable homeless population that has precarious access to care should cause us concern.

Rep. Omar’s bill would also create funds to facilitate the public purchase of some rental properties – a good start. Further solutions have been proposed by housing advocates in the form of a “Homes Guarantee“, which among other things – like universal rent control – calls for 12 million social housing units to be built.

When the pandemic hit more than a year ago, society made some quick rapid changes thinking the virus would only be with us for a while. Among these were programs like Project Roomkey, which were designed to house people in hotels so they did not have to stay in congregate settings like homeless shelters. The funding for these programs is now running out, and our focus is now on “getting back to normal,” but the virus and the problems it exacerbated will still be with us. We need long-term solutions, and we can start by cancelling rent.

Abdullah Shihipar is a writer who writes about public health, class, race and other issues. He has written for publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Jacobin among others. He has a B.Sc in Cell and Molecular Biology from the University of Toronto and a Masters of Public Health from Brown University.

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Restaurant and retail owners have 2 options nowadays: stop treating their workers like garbage or stop having workers at all

Business owner with a sad emoji face for a head holding bags of money with a protesting supporting higher wages with an annoyed face emoji as a head on a green background.
“I made more money on unemployment than I did working at the bar because they only gave me lunch shifts and I was part time,” said Mark, a former bartender in New York.

  • Restaurant and retail staff have been underpaid and overworked for decades.
  • Government aid during the economic crisis has allowed workers in the industry to reassess going back to work.
  • Employer claims that people won’t come back out of laziness are increasingly laughable.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Eoin Higgins is a journalist based in New England and Contributing Opinion Writer.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Sean Earl is a 10-year veteran of the restaurant business who was out of a job when the coronavirus pandemic hit. He still doesn’t know if he’ll return to the industry – especially without the promise of worker protections and better conditions on the job.

“If I returned it would have to be somewhere with union representation or at least a co-op situation,” Earl said. “Some way of having better control over what happens in the workplace.”

I talked to Earl this week for a story highlighting the voices of service industry workers at my newsletter The Flashpoint. The piece pushed back against a number of recent articles featuring business owners blaming unemployment insurance and government aid for contributing to laziness on the part of staff to not return to their jobs.

Over and over again, the people I talked to told me that while the aid provided security and support at a crucial time, they weren’t passing up work just to sit around. Rather, they were looking at other options because of the service industry’s terrible working conditions and low pay.

“The pandemic kind of stripped away the illusion of fairness and equity in the industry,” said Sarah, a restaurant professional who is on her way out of the business and off to grad school.

Reassessing things

One of the first casualties of the pandemic last year was the service industry. With businesses forced to shut down due to health restrictions and few people willing to risk going out anyway, restaurants shuttered around the country and prepared to wait out the disease.

Stimulus and aid packages passed by the federal government under both former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden delivered relief. In addition to aid for businesses, programs like the $600 weekly bonus COVID unemployment payments that came with the first stimulus were a huge help to workers forced out of their jobs by the shutdown.

It is true that for some service industry workers, what they made staying home was more than what they made at work. Indeed, that was part of the point of the pandemic aid; to keep people whole after losing their jobs to public health orders that were no fault of their own.

And now, as things begin to open back up, people are pushing for these benefits to be cut off – despite lingering health concerns and ongoing aid.

“There’s no reason for workers to come back to their old jobs earning the same poverty wages, especially since more than 100 million Americans remain unvaccinated, and there’s still a stable safety net in place until autumn,” writer and former restaurant worker Carl Gibson wrote for Insider on May 2. “It’s not that unemployed restaurant workers don’t want jobs – we just have more options now.”

The time off prompted a reevaluation of not only their role in the business but industry practices in general. The service industry is a notoriously harsh and unforgiving business that makes intense demands on staff for low pay and anarchic schedules.

“I made more money on unemployment than I did working at the bar because they only gave me lunch shifts and I was part time,” said Mark, a former bartender in New York. “They also over-staffed so there were fewer tips per person, I went from making $250-ish a week to a solid $600 a week from unemployment.”

But now that many of these workers have been able to step back from an industry where low pay and abusive practices were the norm these businesses face a challenge: improve working conditions or shut down.

Tall Tales

As the country has begun to reopen, some politicians and pundits are claiming that staff are uninterested in returning to work because they’re lazy. Signs on windows of shuttered businesses or temporarily closed outlets claim that people aren’t willing to come back because they’d rather sit back and do nothing.

The media has helped spread this narrative, too. Articles from NPR, Fox News, and others have portrayed business owners as hard on their luck victims of circumstance who just can’t catch a break. Workers – if they’re included in the stories at all – are presented as shiftless, careless louts who aren’t thinking of what’s best for the company’s bottom line.

The reality is different, Lucas, a former Uber Eats driver, told me.

“We’re sick of being called lazy bums because we’re sick of thankless, s—-paying jobs,” Lucas said.

Rather, Lucas and other workers I spoke to said they are finally asserting themselves after years of mistreatment and becoming more selective and holding out for incentives-or even considering leaving altogether if things don’t change. That’s what happened two weeks ago at a Dollar General store in Eliot, Maine. Three out of four of the store’s employees walked off the job and quit over the weekend due to their pay and the company’s disrespectful mistreatment. Two of them, Brendt Erikson and Hannah Barr, put signs up on the store’s door explaining why they quit, putting the blame squarely on Dollar General for the company’s disrespectful treatment of employees and low wages.

Erikson told me he wanted people to know that he and his comrades didn’t leave their jobs because they were lazy.

“You’ve probably seen on Twitter those signs on businesses that are closing due to understaffing because people don’t want to work,” Erikson said. “I have been thinking about those signs a lot lately. And I wanted to make a retort to those signs that actually told the truth of why people weren’t going to work there anymore.”

Best practices?

Despite claims that businesses are scrambling to attract workers, in many cases owners simply aren’t offering incentives for employees to return to customer-facing positions – as Ary Reich, a floor member at the National Museum of Mathematica in New York, told me.

“Less than a month after lockdown, after keeping us on to help them fix their broken website, they laid all eight of us off,” Reich said. “Since then we’ve received emails letting us know we all can have our jobs back if we want them, but they are not interested in raising our pay.”

That shows a misunderstanding of the power dynamic at play now – workers are able to decline offers to come back to their jobs without losing income for the first time in decades. Bosses who expected new workers to crawl back begging for jobs no longer indisputably have the upper hand in negotiations. So their attempts to strong arm staff back into the poor conditions and insufficient pay are falling flat.

Given this dynamic some restaurant owners are deciding to try and bring in newer, less experienced staff rather than rehire seasoned professionals – leading to more instability.

“A lot of folks I know in the fine dining world are struggling because many places closed during the pandemic and some are re-opening but instead of hiring back their old staff they are trying to hire new staff for less money or less front-of-house staff,” said Earl. “Which means more front-of-house will do more work for the same or less money.”

How well that’s working for the owners varies, but it seems clear from their complaints that staffing remains a concern.

Lessons learned…. maybe

But not everyone in the industry is willfully ignoring the new reality. Joseph Tiedmann, who works as an executive chef in New Orleans, told Eater’s Gaby del Valle this month that restaurants need to figure out how to change the business to pay people better and make the business a more desirable destination for workers.

“We need to make this an attractive business to work in,” said Tiedmann. “At the end of the day, it’s all about being able to do more for your employees.”

It still remains to be seen whether or not the owners of restaurants and other service industry businesses will end what’s effectively a capital strike and invest in their workforce.

But there is one simple trick to getting people to want to come and work for you, as Pittsburgh’s Klavon’s Ice Cream Parlor discovered: offer people more money. The outlet more than doubled its starting pay from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour and saw immediate results.

“It was instant, overnight,” the parlor’s general manager Maya Johnson told the Pittsburgh Business Times. “We got thousands of applications that poured in.”

Restaurant owners have a choice to make. They can provide incentives for people to return to work in what’s still a dangerous, fraught time for staff to be in forward facing roles – or they can continue to try to shame workers into returning to their jobs. The former works, the latter doesn’t. Owners should take heed of that lesson and pay their staff more, not only because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s the path forward for the industry’s survival.

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