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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Rising remote work is upping job inequality in European capitals and ‘scarring’ some sectors, says OECD report

Paris
The expansion of remote working has led to labor inequalities in major European capitals.

  • An report by the OECD and Indeed warned that remote working may aggravate labor inequality. 
  • Analyzing job postings for major European capitals, experts said the service sector may be scarred.
  • The percentage of remote job postings is increasing but the job market has still not recovered.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Remote working options have allowed many companies to keep going during the COVID-19 pandemic, with some companies even thriving as a result. However, this hasn’t been possible in all sectors with retail, hospitality, and healthcare among the most affected.

The expansion of remote working has led to labor inequalities in major European capitals including London, Paris, Madrid, and Berlin. Unemployment in the UK hit its highest level in five years last month and job offers have been harder to come by in all the cities and their countries. Meanwhile, remote jobs have thrived.

Sundar Pichai
Google plans to try and accommodate remote working indefinitely.

This is one of the major findings published in a report on remote working in European capitals, co-authored by OECD economist Lukas Kleine-Rueschkamp and the Indeed job portal’s chief research economist for the MENA area Pawel Adrjan.

Using data from the Indeed portal, they said: “Labour markets in these cities are being pulled apart in early 2021, with postings for higher-paid jobs performing better than those for lower-paid service jobs.”

Remote working as a factor of inequality

“The move to remote work is greater and more persistent in these cities than in other places and may be long-lasting,” the report said.

A survey conducted in January by the National Association for Business Economics (NABE) found that just one in 10 companies expected their employees to return to the office after the pandemic.

Major companies have recently extended their remote working policies, with Google planning to try and accommodate remote working indefinitely.

“Cities such as London have already experienced population declines,” Kleine-Rueschkamp and Adrjan added. They said that although it was unlikely that living in a major European capital would not have its perks after the pandemic, “the trends COVID-19 has initiated might weaken their appeal.”

Remote working does appear to be much more prevalent in major cities than in the rest of the country. Remote work increased 7.3% higher in Berlin than in the rest of Germany, and 5.4% more in Madrid than the rest of Spain.

london street
The report warned of the consequences of further decline in European capitals.

Paris and London had smaller disparities but they were still notable. Remote working growth was 4% higher in Paris than in the whole of France, and 2.4% higher in London than the rest of the UK.

Remote job offers previously constituted 5% of the overall workforce in Madrid in 2020 but stood at 15.7% a year later. In the rest of Spain, the rate has increased from 4% to 10.4%.

The report attributes this phenomenon to the fact that “postings in occupations suitable for working at home, like tech, finance, law, and marketing, are most prevalent in big cities.” In comparison, the service sector is heavily affected by remote working and could be “scarred for a long time,” especially in London and Paris.

Fewer jobs available than before the pandemic

The OECD report revealed that job markets in European capitals had been seriously hit by the pandemic. London was the worst affected, with 41% fewer vacancies at the end of January 2021 compared to February 2020.

Paris and Madrid both had around 25% fewer vacancies than before the pandemic, while Berlin had 8% fewer. Paris was the only instance where the capital was worse affected than the rest of the country.

The report warned of the consequences of further decline in European capitals, as their economic growth tended to outstrip the rest of the country. In the years prior to the pandemic, “GDP per capita jumped more than 12% in these cities, almost 3 percentage points faster than national growth.”

At the height of the pandemic-related job market contractions, however, capitals were affected more than the rest of the country.

Job openings in London were 57% lower than before the pandemic, 48% lower in Madrid, 42% lower in Paris, and 26% lower in Berlin. The report noted that “for much of 2020, job openings in these cities were between five and 15 percentage points lower” than the rest of the country.

The report said large cities would “a difficult adjustment period for some urban workers,” adding that “the pandemic’s labor market effects may be temporary for some sectors, but, for others, they may last.”

Policymakers should support displaced workers and those at risk of redundancy by offering comprehensive skills development strategies tailored to local conditions,” the researchers concluded.

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US business output climbs the most in nearly 6 years as services bounce back, IHS Markit says

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A person wearing a protective mask disinfects tables at an outdoor restaurant in Greenwich Village on February 15, 2021, in New York City.

  • IHS Markit’s gauge of US business output rose to 58.8 in a preliminary February reading.
  • The data marks the strongest rate of growth since March 2015.
  • Revived activity in the service industry drove the bulk of the improvement. Manufacturers grew, albeit at a slower pace.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

A popular gauge of US business output improved the most in nearly six years as falling COVID-19 case counts lifted the service industry, IHS Markit said Friday.

The firm’s Composite Output Index rose 0.1 points to 58.8 in a preliminary February reading, signaling the strongest rate of expansion since March 2015. The bulk of the improvement was driven by an uptick in the service sector. A measure of service activity rose to 58.9 from 58.3, also its highest level since March 2015.

IHS’ manufacturing purchasing managers’ index declined to 58.5 from 59.2, its lowest point in two months. Readings above 50 indicate sector growth, while those below the threshold signal contraction.

The service-sector improvement marks a major turnaround for the national economy. Economic restrictions imposed during the winter surge in virus cases halted the industry’s recovery as Americans were urged to stay at home. While manufacturers’ growth improved, service businesses dragged on overall output.

“The data add to signs that the economy is enjoying a strong opening quarter to 2021, buoyed by additional stimulus and the partial reopening of the economy as virus-related restrictions were eased on average across the country,” Chris Williamson, chief business economist at IHS Markit, said in a statement.

The data follows a similarly encouraging retail-sales report published by the Census Bureau on Wednesday. Americans’ spending at retailers gained 5.3% last month, trouncing the 1% growth anticipated by economists. The jump was likely fueled by stimulus passed in late December and declining case counts.

Slower manufacturing growth in the month to date was attributed to extreme weather and supply shortages. Supplier delays hit a record high in the preliminary report. Rising input costs across manufacturers and businesses drove the biggest selling-price increase since at least October 2009, IHS said.

Business confidence remained elevated, though down slightly from its recent high. Service businesses reported slightly softer expectations, while manufacturers posted the strongest confidence in three months.

While activity in the service sector ticked higher, it hasn’t yet translated to a hiring surge. Firms expanded their payrolls “only marginally” in February, IHS said. Hiring at manufacturers, on the other hand, reached its quickest rate since December 2017.

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I’m a butler for wealthy NYC families who earns a six-figure salary and has lots of time to see my kids. From checking for dust with a flashlight to taking wine cellar inventory, this is what my job is like.

Stanley (not his real name) has been a professional butler and house manager for 12 years.
Stanley (not his real name) has been a professional butler and house manager for 12 years.

  • Stanley (not his real name) is a house manager and butler for wealthy families in New York City.
  • His job involves everything from organizing bills and tracking charitable donations to taking wine cellar inventory and making sure everything inch of his employer’s home is spotless and dust-free.
  • Over the years, he’s had both good and bad employers, including one who would constantly fire and rehire him and another who would yell across the house and snap his fingers to get Stanley’s attention.
  • Despite the long hours and repetitive tasks, Stanley says he enjoys his work and has learned to set healthy boundaries with his employers.
  • Here’s what his job is like, as told to freelance writer Rose Maura Lorre.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Like many people who work in hospitality or the private services industry, I started out as an actor. And like many actors, I made a choice to stop acting because it was driving me nuts.

My wife was reading Tina Fey’s “Bossypants at the time and in the book, Tina Fey talks about “fake it ’til you make it.” That’s what I did: I acted the part of a house manager until I figured out how to be one. It just takes a little bit of observational skills and people skills and a good memory.

After I left acting, I first went into events and catering and worked my way up. While managing a big charity event in 2009, I met a project manager who introduced me to an ultra-high net worth (UHNW) family. The husband was in finance, the wife was an ex-bartender, and they had twin 4-year-olds, a dog, a pot belly pig, and a 20,000-square-foot townhouse. They hired me as a house manager and personal assistant, my first job in the industry. Those clients were a wild ride, real tabloid-gossip stuff. 

When the wife had an issue with how I handled something, she would just fire me. 

Then as I was walking to the subway or during my cab ride home, she would call me, apologize, and say she’d see me tomorrow. That happened four times in less than six months. 

The last time she fired me, I made sure everything was in order, put her folder with her schedule for the following day on her desk as usual, quietly grabbed my coat, and left. Like she’d done in the past, I quickly got the apology call. When she said, “See you on Monday,” I said, “Why don’t we let this one stick?” That Monday, I still got a few calls and texts from her, but I didn’t pick up.

I’ve worked for six different families over 10 years. 

Two of them, including that first family I worked for, were roller coaster rides – and short contracts because of that. Two were trial periods, after which I passed on their employment offers, and two have been better, long-term experiences.

The other “roller coaster” employer I worked for was similarly demanding, with an extremely busy and packed schedule. He was also a yeller; he would always holler my name. When he’d snap his fingers or yell, it was like somebody had shot a gun off in the house, and everyone would jump to attention. 

Once, I walked into his coat closet after he’d pulled all of his coats off the racks. He’d made separate piles of coats, and I assumed he  wanted me to do a seasonal switch-out for him. I dashed into the room with a smile on my face and said, “How can I help, Mr. So-and-So?” He looked at me and said, “What the f–k are you smiling at?” 

But besides those particular clients, many of my employers have been great to work with. I’ve also kept in touch with former fellow staff members, and some of them have interviewed me for other jobs.

Read more: I’m a mom influencer who earns up to $12,000 a month through paid sponsorships. Here’s how I grew my income and following while caring for my son.

I currently work for an older couple, and it’s the best version of this job I’ve ever had.

Rose Maura Lorre butler
Checking for moisture and leaks in the basement.

I joined their household in January 2020. I work Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Before the pandemic, my hours were longer if my employers were entertaining guests. I wear business casual, and add a sport coat or blazer over my outfit for guests. 

Since March, my employers have been in the Hamptons while I continue to care for their Manhattan townhouse and ship over any packages they receive there. When they’re out of town, I usually just wear jeans and a sweater or collared shirt.

Currently, the staff at my employers’ Manhattan townhouse consists of me, three housekeepers, and a driver. I contract outside vendors for IT, audio, gardening, and a wide array of specific maintenance for furnishings and antiques in the house. We also have a maintenance contract with a company who takes care of the house, but I troubleshoot little things like loose door handles, dead lightbulbs, and updating iPads and printer firmware.

My position has been called everything from house manager to property manager to butler. 

When I described myself as a property manager, I’d hear, “Oh, you cut lawns?” If instead I say “butler,” people tend to romanticize what I do, like it’s “Downton Abbey” or “Remains of the Day.” I did once work in a household where I was their formal butler, and received guests in a black dinner jacket or a tuxedo. But I’ve also cleaned toilets, which is not romantic at all. 

For the most part in this industry, people refer to their employers as “principals.” Meaning, that person is your principal focus. There may be other people you cater to as well, like guests who stay at the house, but the principal is your main focus. 

One family I worked for had a house staff of 38 people. In my job as personal butler, I worked most closely with the head of house, the principal client, assisting with wardrobe, packing, communications, setting up and serving meals, and running in-house events. 

In my current job as a house manager, it’s my responsibility to manage my employers’ expectations about what goes on in their home. 

My job is to think proactively about what they’ll need and to avoid leaving anything open to complaints. If they’re talking to me – other than, for example, to tell me what they want for dinner – then I’m not doing my job. If their iPad isn’t connecting to the WiFi or the TV isn’t working in the gym, I haven’t done my job.

Rose Maura Lorre butler
Checking that the TV in the house gym is in working order.

I do a lot of walk-throughs to make sure everything is in working condition. I turn TVs on and off at least once and sometimes twice a day. I also check all the lights, music, technology, and appliances. I sit down on the couch and look around, and think: Does everything look the way it’s supposed to look? Does it feel the way it’s supposed to feel? Is this TV working the way it’s supposed to work? Are there fingerprints on the table? Has the housekeeping staff dusted and moved the remote too far from the couch? 

I’m not getting into my boss’ bed or trying out the sheets, but I do try to put myself in my employers’ experience. It’s the same thing I did in catering; I put myself in the guests’ shoes. 

The gentleman I currently work for loves wine and keeps a modest stash at the house (about 300 bottles) with more in a wine storage warehouse, so I track arrivals and consumption and inventory what goes between their Manhattan and Hamptons homes. 

Rose Maura Lorre butler
Taking inventory in the wine cellar.

I use spreadsheets to pay bills, file invoices and documents, and track everything from orders and shipments to various house inventories to gifts given and received, which can get quite complicated during the holidays with gifts and charitable donations.

I go over the house with a fine-toothed comb on an almost daily basis.   

I check all areas for wear and tear, potential repairs, and moisture and leaks to catch any issues before they grow serious. 

For cleanliness checks, I do walk-throughs in the dark with a flashlight to pick up on hidden moisture and dust. I also have an LED light that also picks up on dust you can’t see with the naked eye, like fingerprints or dog hair on the landing.

Rose Maura Lorre butler
Conducting a house walk through with a flashlight to check for dust.

I take pictures of what I find to send to the housekeeper. I’ve also given them LED flashlights, so I can write “hello” in the dust I find and text them, “Go look for my ‘hello’ on the table.” The housekeepers I work with are great. If I show them a picture of something, they know exactly where it is to clean it.

Rose Maura Lorre butler
Taking a photo to send to the housekeepers of smudges on the mirror in the backyard.

The woman I work for also has an entirely separate townhouse around the corner that serves as her office. I go there to pick up things for her, check on the building, and sometimes assist with art hanging or putting together furniture. I also pick up flowers for the house, run to stationery stores and to the bank for house petty cash, and trek to FedEx and UPS on the regular to ship and pick up packages.

This all may sound intense, but it’s not my employers; I’m the over-the-top one. I’ve relaxed over the years in my own home, especially after having two children of my own. Still, I would follow my kids around with a Dustbuster if I could – that’s just how I am.

I typically make six figures annually with a bonus and benefits.

Since my first position in 2009, my salary hasn’t increased that much over the years, but the hours have decreased. I started at 60 to 70 hours per week on average, I’m doing more like 45 to 50 now, which is a huge positive difference to my quality of life. 

When I first started at $100,000 in 2009, my hourly rate was sometimes $9, especially during the holidays. Back then, I only saw my wife at night. Now, I spend more time with my kids than ever before.

I learned early on that in this line of work, you have to be good at setting boundaries.

My current employers are very friendly and very considerate of the staff, but still, I maintain a professional boundary. I don’t want to be too involved in my employers’ lives. There are some situations where I have to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t get that involved.” 

Certain things I’m very willing to do and other things I’m not. For example, I’ve never stayed the night at an employer’s house. I was asked to do it once, a couple of households ago. Their live-in housekeeper was going away on vacation and I think just for security and peace of mind, my employers wanted me there in her place. I said, “I don’t think my wife would really appreciate that.”

Read more: I’m 23 and launched a luxury picnic service in the middle of the pandemic – and while working full-time. Here’s how we make up to $12,000 a month throwing personalized events.

At my job, sometimes the most satisfying day can also be the most aggravating. 

This job presents daily challenges, such as one time when a bird swooped into my employer’s glass atrium as we were setting it up for a business lunch, and it took us five attempts with ladders to catch down and release it. Those experiences are all in a day’s work.

The way I think about my job is, it’s like any other job, only I’m standing in my boss’ private living room while I’m doing it. Or I’m literally standing in their kitchen watching them eat. Most of these people are used to having someone stand there, though, so it’s not weird for them, and by now, it’s also not weird for me. 

Managing wealthy homes is a great job, but it isn’t for everyone.

My advice for anyone thinking about getting into this line of work is to hop on LinkedIn and see if you can talk to house managers. Ask questions about the schedule they keep, pros and cons about the job, and find out if this lifestyle is for you.

There hotel and butler schools for training and certification programs, and estatejobs.com is also a good place to start. Still, be careful of programs that only feed into a pool for a domestic agency that charges steep commissions for job placement fees; some can be 40% of your annual salary. 

For this line of work, you need the ability to manage expectations and communicate well and sometimes delicately with your employers, staff, and anyone else working inside the house. It’s a great career, just know that once you’re hired, you’re somewhat tethered to your employer like no other industry, since you become part of their private life. Know the stakes, and be empowered to create the boundaries that you need. 

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