We Were Always At Risk: Service Workers’ Treatment During COVID-19 and Why It’s Nothing New

This is Part I. Part II can be read here.

Labor Law Fact Sheet

By Teresa Rodriguez

Few have been left more vulnerable in this crisis than service workers. 60% of the country’s newly unemployed in March were workers at bars and restaurants, according to The Bureau of Labor Statistics. The New York Times reports that 77% of low income Americans don’t have enough saved to cover 3 months of expenses, with 52% of low-income workers having lost work as a result of virus containment measures. It is estimated that the current national unemployment rate is around 12-15%, which is not far off from the Great Depression rate of 24%. In Pennsylvania, 20% of the workforce has filed for unemployment over the course of the crisis. In Philadelphia, around 25% of the population was in poverty as of 2018.

Despite the sweeping uniformity of financial devastation resulting from government mandates, relief from said government has been hard to come by. Half a million people in Pennsylvania are still waiting for unemployment benefits, as WHYY reports, due in part to funding for our state’s Department of Labor being at a historic low. What’s more, workers in the service sector are particularly susceptible to being laid off due to the nature of their jobs being that of heavy face-to-face interaction, an element that simultaneously precludes the option to work from home. Rather than addressing this desperate need, the city plans to implement major cutbacks to public programs and dole out layoffs. This is their solution to loss of a revenue mainly dependent on taxes levied on these local wages (wage taxes make up approximately 45% of the city’s annual revenue). Many businesses are not providing support, financial or otherwise, to their employees, even when law requires it. Governing bodies are doing little to enforce the initiatives they have put in place to make workplaces do right by their workers. Meanwhile, programs offering financial support to business owners are prioritized, including various grants and no-interest loans provided by the Philadelphia city government alone. The shutdown of nonessential businesses in Philadelphia is set to remain in place until at least June 4th.

So, the low-wage employees of these businesses, including in major part those who work in Philadelphia’s expansive service industry, are left to fend for themselves. Many have been laid off with no guarantee of having a job to return to on the other side of this crisis, no pay, and every expectation that they will still have to pay rent and other bills. This has made the service worker an unspoken exception to the stay-at-home rule, and consequently to the protection from harm that an ability to do that affords. And when said workers have been paid poverty wages and systematically denied a financial safety net, they are often forced to seek work risking their lives for the sake of meagre pay as grocery store workers and deliverers. Many more are left to grapple with a future that is completely uncertain and possibly filled with the imminent peril posed by their employers prematurely ordering them back to work. All of this is compounded with the preexisting chaos of precarity.

The Expendables

This is only the latest installment in a long legacy of companies grossly abusing their largely unchecked power to exploit the labor of service workers (and low-wage workers in general). “Business as usual” in an unusual time.

While most jobs in America are at least somewhat exploitative in nature, in service jobs, the mechanisms of this practice are starkly apparent. In fact, it could be said that the service industry is one of the last holdouts of blatant barbarism in an era where many workers “enjoy” a consistent 40 hour workweek and are offered some kind of paid leave and benefits package. Many service workers’ jobs fail to follow even these basic ground rules. Many often work 16 hour days and 60 hour weeks. Most work weekends and holidays. And on “Labor Day” they keep right on laboring, in many cases dealing with heavier workloads due to crowds. To add insult to injury, many don’t even get minimum wage, and are instead left to rely on the generosity of patrons to scrape out a living. Still others in the customer service sector are forced to stitch multiple part-time jobs together (due to the common practice of employers limiting hours to avoid providing benefits) and work far more than 40 hours a week without any of the benefits of a “full time employee”. These workers are denied sick pay (and unpaid sick leave!) across the board—even in Philly, where such policies have been expressly forbidden by law since 2015. 

Deemed “unskilled” workers, those working in customer service, hospitality, and similar fields are singled out as exceptions to this modern rule. They are said to execute an “easy” job that anyone could do, and assumed to be exceptionally undeserving of respect. And alongside this cesspool of stagnation, a larger-scale regression to old-fashioned ways that expands the gap between rich and poor has been underway for years, affecting practically every member of the workforce.

The Exceptional

However, in this exceptional time, we find ourselves in an unprecedented moment of self-reflection for service workers, as well as acknowledgment of their value by the general public. Some acquire an increased sympathy towards a group that is now obviously at risk, some protest in the streets for the “right” to be waited upon in a chain restaurant; all are forced to reckon with the prominence of service workers as staples of daily life—even, and perhaps most potently, in light of their widespread absence. Under such bizarre circumstances as these, nothing “mundane” can be taken for granted.

And many service workers are beginning to re-envision their workplace dynamics for the first time, tapping into the strength of each other and asserting their value. At this historic moment, some contemplate fighting for equitable treatment, a prospect that seemed improbable, if not impossible, before. 

Eight of Philadelphia’s laid-off service workers speak out here, sharing their experiences and the conditions that formed a precedent for their employers’ response to an unprecedented event.

Shutdown Testimonies

D, who wishes to remain anonymous, was a server at Louie Louie in University City, of local restaurant group Fearless. He got an email on March 15th informing staff that the restaurant was closing, and might have reduced staff or hours upon reopening. Since then he has heard nothing from them, but has seen the company post that they are hiring.

Maggie, Mateo, and David were all working at the Roxy Theater, a movie theater owned and operated by the Philadelphia Film Society. [The author of this article was also an employee of the Roxy at this time.] When Maggie and Mateo voiced growing concerns about the possibility of the theater closing at a meeting in early March, upper management skirted around the issue. Maggie also pressed for information about something she had been seeking answers on for years—sick pay. She was told that an addendum would be sent out to employees concerning their rights. That addendum never came. What did come was an email abruptly announcing that the theater would be closed starting the following day and telling staff to apply for unemployment. When Maggie attempted to call management for more information, nobody picked up. Soon after, she was locked out of the company email.

“I definitely relied on the job,” E, who also wished to remain anonymous, says of her job at a Philadelphia restaurant. Upon the city shutdown, she received a notice saying the restaurant would be closed indefinitely and to apply to unemployment. She hasn’t received any further communication from her job since the initial notice, and she gets the sense that not everyone at her workplace is going to get their jobs back. She even fears the restaurant may not be able to sustain operations and never reopen. 

According to D, Louie Louie has not given their employees any pay since closing. Employees on company health insurance were kicked off April 30th. D says he’s gone on food stamps and is simply foregoing paying any other bills. He has been trying to negotiate with his landlord for rent, but with no success.

RS, who worked as a cook at a restaurant in center city before being laid off, has also not been paid out any paid time off (PTO). She is living off of the savings for her wedding. She has not yet received unemployment funds. She also asked for leniency on rent, but her landlord refused.

E hasn’t received any unemployment yet either. “The entire concept of the stay at home mandate is so limiting and lacking foresight”, she says, emphasizing that it does not accommodate people like herself who cannot work from home. She says stimulus checks do not solve the issue, noting that her check immediately went to rent. “I don’t think $1200 stretches the same way in Philly or in New York as it does somewhere in the fly-over states,” she points out. “There are so many other financial obligations and material needs that go into supporting a person.” Hopes of saving money to pay off student loans have also been dashed by these circumstances.

As a homeowner and caretaker of multiple rescue animals, Maggie has significant expenses. Even with receiving food stamps and unemployment since being laid off, she still has no choice but to risk her health and turn to cleaning jobs, her former side hustle, for income. She says the stimulus check will only be a help for a few days before she starts to fall behind again. “It’s scary,” she says, adding that she is also searching job boards every day for temporary gig employment, even reaching out to hospitals to see if they need cleaners. David, a box office associate at the theater, speedily took a job on the front lines at Acme; he couldn’t survive off of what little he was receiving in unemployment.

  Roe worked at a South Philly coffee shop. Despite the company opening a Venmo fund for staff and providing PTO to certain employees, Roe is mainly relying on unemployment to get by. She says it has only “taken the edge off” and only for now. She has put all unemployment money towards rent and bills, and has gone on food stamps. Roe says if she begins receiving the $600 extra a week in unemployment she will be making more than she did working at her job. Alysa worked two jobs as a cook before the shutdown, but say they are still more financially stable being on this federal unemployment. 

The Eleventh Hour

Right up until the citywide mandate to close, Roe’s employer told employees that they would stay open “no matter what”. She says precautions were minimal for most of the time that her job remained open during the pandemic, and any safety measures were implemented in the last two days before the shutdown. Management resisted doing anything that might inconvenience customers. In those last days, the shop pivoted to take-out only, directed staff to wipe down door handles, and provided a small bottle of hand sanitizer. No limit was placed on the amount of people allowed in the cafe.

Since D’s restaurant is on Penn’s campus, which began transitioning to online instruction on March 11th, the days leading up to closure were extremely slow. Servers were getting little to no tips, which meant effectively making $0 an hour after taxes (servers are paid below minimum wage). Still, they were forced to stay their entire shift length and perform cleaning tasks. Louie Louie did not supplement their paychecks to ensure minimum wage.

Though this period was also slow at E’s restaurant, she worried about being in close contact with groups of people during a pandemic. At the same time, she didn’t have a choice: “I don’t want to be put in harm’s way but I need to make rent payments…I need to eat”. She says if she had chosen not to go to work before the city mandate due to safety concerns she would have been fired. Sick leave was not provided. Management sent out an email telling staff to stay home if ill, but E is quick to clarify that calling out was still “a pain in the ass”. Staff had to find their own coverage when calling out. In the months leading up to the shutdown, some employees cut off their company-provided insurance because it absorbed most of their small paychecks (all other employees were removed from the company health insurance upon being laid off).

Maggie says the Roxy was slow to implement any COVID-related policies. When the company finally did, the policy was simply to bleach everything. Despite Maggie and Mateo both having high sensitivities to the product, they were directed to spray the bathroom stalls with bleach in between each set of movies. The bathrooms were small with low ventilation. The bleach was often applied in combination with ammonia, which is potentially deadly. “You can knock yourself out, you can blind yourself with that,” emphasizes Mateo. There were no gloves provided to handle the bleach. David says it “burned like hell”, and he “had to wash [his] hands maybe 20 times to get it all off”. The Roxy made no effort to limit the amount of patrons coming in. Maggie had asked directly if an employee diagnosed with COVID-19 would receive paid time off. The answer was no.

One week before the closure of RS’ restaurant, management held a meeting telling staff not to come in even if they even looked sick, and instructing them to go in the back if they had to sneeze (the restaurant has an open kitchen visible to patrons). However, paid sick time was not included in this new policy.

“Normal” Conditions

When asked if his job had ever offered paid time off, D laughs at the notion. “No,” he says. “Restaurants, they just don’t.” When asked if he’s had to come in sick before, D replies without hesitation. “Absolutely”.

“We get hourly pay when we are there and only when we are there,” E says when asked about sick leave at her job. “If you miss a day you’re just not going to be paid that day”. She says that servers would often come in even if they didn’t feel well because of this. E adds that there is a “gross stigma” surrounding calling out sick that management perpetuates. It is implied that anyone doing so just doesn’t want to work.

At RS’ job, back of house employees were the only ones offered PTO. In practice, it wasn’t offered outside of a planned event or vacation. Illness-related callouts would still result in losing a day of pay. She often had to find coverage for herself. She says the attitude from management was “‘stay, home, get better, and be better by tomorrow’”. “It is the service industry, y’know; there’s this pressure to work and to come in even when you’re sick,” she explains.

Roe also says that PTO at her job was specifically for paid vacation time. Whenever she was sick, finding coverage was her own responsibility. Employees were shamed for staying home when sick, with management often mocking them and implying that such employees were lazy. Roe says she worked through a bout of walking pneumonia last summer just to avoid the “ordeal” of trying to find coverage and facing abuse from management. Management, fully aware she had pneumonia, made jokes about it.

Alysa’s jobs did not offer them paid time off. At one job, it was reserved for the head chefs; at the other job, it wasn’t offered to anyone. “I’ve never personally had it, and it sucked” Alysa says. They, too, had to find coverage for their own shifts when sick.

The Roxy never provided paid time off. Worker’s rights were never posted in the workplace. Staff could not call out sick without first finding a replacement for themselves. Upper management told Maggie that employees at the Roxy would never be entitled to sick pay, claiming that a nonprofit organization like the Film Society was not obligated to offer these things. When Maggie developed a disability and had an increasing number of doctor’s appointments, upper management discussed laying her off for 6 months without pay and possibly replacing her. “It wasn’t as important for me not getting paid sick days until I started developing a sickness,” Maggie says, adding that “month after month year after year it starts eating away at you saying well, you know, am I not important?”

Floor staff at the Roxy were paid around $8 an hour with no possibility for raises across all 7 years of the Roxy’s operation, the only adjustment coming mere weeks before the shutdown when a board member discovered how little staff were being paid and demanded a $1 raise. All staff were kept under a certain amount of hours so that, Maggie was told, the company could avoid offering medical benefits. 

“I’ve worked at places where I have a paycheck that says negative 0 dollars,”, D says, explaining that taxes would often equal more than server base pay. If no tips were made, staff would net nothing.

The back of house employees at RS’ job were also the only employees offered health insurance. RS says the health insurance was “not great” and did not even accept it. Her and her coworkers were not officially given breaks. She generally wasn’t allowed to eat during a shift.

Roe’s job did not provide health benefits, and in fact established a rule against working overtime to avoid paying time and a half. If an employee got close to the 40 hour limit, the rest of their hours for that week (or that day) would be slashed. Roe was expected to work on holidays and was not provided breaks. 

The schedule for D’s job came out late every Sunday night for the very next day. He says that working extra hours is common because base wages aren’t guaranteed. Servers have to overextend themselves to make up for slow days and satisfy their financial needs. It’s an advantageous system for restaurant owners, who get more labor by paying workers less. “I can work 60 hours a week…I don’t think that’s right…it’s not good for you,” D asserts. Breaks were rarely provided. At his last server job, he said staff were working doubles every day with no break until an employee reported them. After that, breaks were provided, but only for doubles—regular shifts, which were 9 or 10 hours long, still did not have breaks.

“I’m coming in at 3, getting out at 2 am, coming back at 9 am and working a 16 hour shift” E says of her job, adding that “it’s not uncommon for people to be working a 16 hour shift one day and again the next day”. She said staff were not often given breaks. Rather than being explicitly stated that you can take a break, it is implicitly stated to be unacceptable. E says that the common statement from managers is “if you need to take a break, be very quick about it—if you need to”.

Mateo confirms that the Roxy routinely ignored the law, failing to keep the concession stand up to code (eventually incurring penalties from the health department in early 2019) and leaving the entire behind-the-counter staff area, including the box office, in a state of perpetually unfinished “renovations” for the entire time the theater has been operating. A “step” of loose cinder blocks and open wiring was the only way to get down into the box office. Donations were solicited from patrons for these renovations. “They hide behind this ‘we’re member funded, your money goes to this, that, and the other’, yet they’ve done nothing [to] invest in the building”, says Mateo. Adds Maggie, “they are only interested in making a quick dollar”. 

The building Roe worked in is older and in need of repairs. She describes holes in the floor, and says that she saw a piece of siding fall off. In addition, the staircase to the basement was unsafe, and Roe says she fell down it twice. Roe tells of one instance when a refrigerator was emitting a “horrific, smelly gas” and employees were made to work through it. There was also, Roe says, a perpetually-leaky refrigerator, which created a daily slipping hazard.

“They get away with a lot more than what other places can get away with,” D says of restaurant workplaces. Louie Louie provided staff meals. Staff meals were made up of old food that could not be sold to customers anymore. D says consuming these expired goods made him and other employees sick on numerous occasions. Bringing meals from home was prohibited. Staff had to take what was offered or go hungry. They also weren’t permitted to bring water bottles and were not provided adequate time to drink water during their shift. 

D says that managers and servers are pitted against one another at restaurants. Managers sometimes use their power to refuse to cut servers on slow days, throw out servers’ food, shame servers for taking breaks, etc. Nonstop work is expected. “I work all day, no break, I’m starving”, D says, speaking of an instance where he was chastised for eating a handful of nuts. D emphasizes that management was mainly implementing orders from above. “Everybody’s miserable.”

E describes management style in restaurants as “curt” and “impersonal” compared to that of office jobs she has worked. She says this impersonality compels her to put in excessive hours to win the good graces of management and actually be scheduled enough to survive. “Uphold these standards—that’s the terminology, uphold these standards—which is really just coded language for follow the fucking rules and stay in your lane and keep with the order,” E says of the strict expectations restaurants have for servers. She points out that when she had a Fitbit it would total around 10 miles a day, “and that was of continuous work”. She describes the job as “very much slaving away and toiling physically”, adding that “[she] feel[s] like a servant”. E explains that “you inherently know the power differential involved” when serving a group of people at a table and knowing that “their pay and their tip are going to affect me and my livelihood”.  She also notes that restaurants are not very inclusive of queer people, women, or people of color. She calls it “an old white man’s game” and says this is reflected in the fact that different demographics are segregated accordingly: bussers and dishwashers typically being “black and brown folk” while higher level positions are typically white.

Roe’s job put heavy pressure on staff performance, and employees faced swift discipline for not perfectly adhering to high standards. Roe says that, considering the conditions workers were subjected to, this harsh management style “seems really unreasonable”. “We’re not compensated for the huge amount of emotional labor that we have to do”, she adds, pointing out that customer base is also a factor in conditions.“It’s hard to smile at somebody and nod and you’re worrying about your healthcare”. Roe goes on to explain that baristas fill multiple roles in their jobs, including making food and drinks, providing good service, upholding sanitation and food safety procedures, and taking care of customers’ feelings.“At the end of the day you get home and you’re fucking exhausted”. “And” she concludes, “you get your paycheck and it’s no money”.

Why do we take it?

For those previously unfamiliar with the plight of service workers, such testimonies might beg the question: why do workers accept these conditions? And, indeed, the close follow up—how is this legal? For an answer to the latter, see the Labor Law Fact Sheet. Spoiler alert: it’s not. 

As for the former, the service workers spoken to for this article are all in agreement that said conditions are made possible and perpetuated by a myriad of factors, all working in concert to oppress, suppress, manipulate, mollify, and silence them. These include, but are not limited to: fear of retaliation (which could include anything from bullying to getting fired), low knowledge of worker’s legal rights, failure of workplaces to disclose or be honest about said rights, high number of undocumented workers without legal protections in the industry, lack of value culturally attributed to these jobs, long-held traditions and methods of conducting business in a service setting, being so overworked that there isn’t time or energy to do much else, being alienated from other workers, the unwillingness of government to enforce labor laws and risk stepping on the toes of business owners (as Governor Wolf’s recent statements regarding the enforcement of COVID workplace safety laws attests to), and the burden to report a workplace’s unlawful practices consequentially being exclusively placed on workers (who often don’t have the resources to navigate bureaucracy).

“Bad gas travels fast in a small town, and the service industry is a small town,” says RS, explaining that workers face the danger of essentially being blacklisted if they organize. “People are terrified”, constantly “beat down by their employers” and told they are replaceable, according to Maggie. “All the structures are in place to prevent unionizing from happening in those industries”, says Mateo. “It’s set up to make it seem like you don’t have any rights.” “It’s hard to voice any dissent…because so much of your livelihood is dependent upon a position in which your supervisor…can affect the treatment you get at work” adds E. “It seems like…managers make the decisions and we’re at the whims of their choices”. Many workers emphasize that the generally poor conditions of these jobs make them reluctant to jeopardize any providing even the most rudimentary benefits. “People don’t conceive of what they really deserve…” asserts RS. “That’s something I hear a lot from people who have been in the industry a long time—‘well this is how it is’…I’ll take what I can get”. Roe agrees that “if one boss hints that maybe they would take our feelings into consideration” she considers it a “good gig”. RS also points to the “perception that service industry work is temporary work, that it’s something that people come to when they’re trying to figure out their life” as a factor in this. 

Many of the workers who spoke out for this article admitted they were nervous about participating. At the same time, many knew their criticisms to be justified. “We shouldn’t feel so afraid to organize,” RS says. “We’re not asking for a lot, we’re not trying to drive our owners out of business, we just wanna be treated equally”.

Roadblocks

“There is no incentive for bosses to do the right thing, only incentives for them to do the wrong thing” explains Jack Thornton, a graduate student in Sociology at Penn who is currently researching class inequalities in higher education. This results in even basic rights becoming a “nice to have” rather than a given. Workers are forced to accept otherwise exploitative positions because they offer something basic like health care. What’s more, there are few protections against retaliation when an employer can fire you at will. Jack also points to broader societal forces at play, such as the cultural perception that “these are jobs for teenagers” and the fact that service jobs “are feminized historically”—having been performed primarily by women and people of color in the past. Speaking on the concept of service workers organizing, he says “it’s not a new idea but it feels foreign to us because it goes against…what we think of when we think of [a service worker]”.

Alysa says they’ve “never even considered it” when asked about the possibility of unionizing. They had no idea that the Philadelphia sick leave law existed. Maggie was unaware of the sick pay law until she googled it after being laid off with no pay. D’s experiences have led him to assume that labor laws may simply not apply to restaurants. He says a coworker who began talking to other servers about starting a union got fired. RS says she attempted to organize with her coworkers digitally after being laid off but hasn’t had much success. “Most people are just concerned that they will lose their jobs”. E says “I could very easily see people just getting fired and replaced” if workers organized at her job. 

Sparks

“A lot of people…are living in abject poverty even though they are working 40 hours a week”, says Emilio, a Philly barista. “When you’re doing that it’s just mentally hard to even think about organizing.” Emilio says he wasn’t really thinking about it himself when he hatched an idea one day to create a spreadsheet for baristas to pass around and share how much they make. The spreadsheet gained significant traction, quickly being shared across the city and even catching media attention. Many other cities across the country started their own barista spreadsheets. Conversation was sparked as baristas in Philly were able to transparently compare wages and conditions across cafes for the first time. Emilio himself got a small raise after the spreadsheet came out. After witnessing the ripple effect this simple action generated, Emilio realized that the potential for further action was exponential. “Imagine what some real organized collective action would do!” he thought.

Through this unexpected response, Emilio found out about Philly Workers for Dignity, an organization that aims to bring workers together to fight for better conditions (it is the labor organizing project of the Philly Socialists). Together with a coworker, he attended a meeting. Dignity then put them into contact with other baristas who were organizing in the city, and soon enough a group called the “Citywide Barista’s Union” was born. The group began meeting every two weeks, checking in with one another’s organizing efforts at their respective shops and strategizing ways to best support each other and build the power for collective action. Before the shutdown, a lot of the group members’ shops were already moving towards majority support. The group also did outreach by conducting organizing trainings, and one-on-one conversations with barista contacts to assess what issues they might have. With assistance from the barista group and Dignity, workers at Cake Life, a Fishtown bake shop, successfully unionized. Now Fishtown Local 1, the union won PTO for all staff. Three days later, Philadelphia shut down, and Cake Life employees were some of the few to actually see a payout of accrued leave upon being laid off.

Emilio says that a barista organizing group serves a radical function in the cafe industry, where there isn’t much of a precedent for unions and baristas are generally led to assume that organizing within their typically small shops is not possible. “We thought we could change that”.

“Small business owners get away with everything in our country”, Jack, who also serves as Dignity’s secretary, asserts. He explains that these businesses are a politically important group that the system makes sure to appease. The idea of an organization like Dignity is to “upset that dynamic, destabilize that norm”—i.e., expose abuses and keep bosses on their toes. Dignity takes on typically overlooked industries, especially those without union representation. It aims to identify workers being mistreated and help them fight for their rights. “Service workers, food service workers especially, are a huge contingent of people who are untapped, essentially, as organizers” Jack says. Dignity utilizes the method of direct action, which may include anything from sending a demand letter to confronting the business owner in person. In the year and a half since Dignity’s inception, the organization has helped multiple local workforces organize. Counted among them are employees of the CookNSolo restaurant group (Goldie, Federal Donuts, Zahav) who, with Dignity’s assistance, fought for PTO. The organization especially tries to work with businesses that are well known in the city, as organizing campaigns there tend to attract more attention and alert consumers to unethical practices. “When people hear about the kind of stuff we’re doing,” says Jack, “it usually grabs people’s attention really quickly, because you’re like ‘oh this bougie bakeshop unionized—what?’”. Dignity also employs a worker education component, conducting regular “Know Your Rights” trainings.

Hope for the Future

Jack says that the pandemic has Dignity inundated. “You have people seeing ‘oh this can’t function without me’ and ‘you have the ability to make it easier for me, why should I go back’”, Jack explains. Workers are realizing that the established institutions don’t work in their best interest, and are looking for other avenues for political participation besides electoral politics. The organization has seized this as a historic opportunity to “harness this energy” and get unemployed people ready to organize once they go back to work again. As Jack puts it, “we’re training the army right now”.

To do this, Dignity revived an old concept that has become newly relevant, forming the Dignity Unemployed Council. An idea borrowed from organizers during the Great Depression, unemployed councils were groups of thousands of workers (unemployed and employed alike) who came together to make demands. Dignity’s Unemployed Council is primarily focused on demanding “relief now” under the current circumstances, and is partitioned into four committees. The Action Committee puts pressure on both city hall and businesses to support workers through direct action campaigns. These include urging city council members to raise revenue through alternate means, namely: ending the tax abatement, taxing corporate headquarters located in Philly, taxing millionaires, and abolishing a clause in the PA state constitution that prohibits a varied tax bracket for different income levels. The goal is to stop the city government from cutting back on public services and laying off more workers. Then there is the Hiring Hall (helping people sign up for benefits and creating a forum for job postings), the Organizing Committee (recruiting people and doing intake), and the Mutual Aid Committee (redirecting people to the Philly Socialists’ Community Action Relief Project). The Philly Socialists, in turn, are informing recipients of aid about the Unemployed Council.

Several of the workers spoken to in this article were eager to learn more about Dignity when informed of its existence. Mateo says that the new organizing activity happening under coronavirus is encouraging. “Now people are really starting to be like: wait a second my life is on the line every day when I have to engage with capitalism”. They add, “that gives me some kind of hope for the future”.

RS found Dignity and the Unemployed Council while searching through Instagram for any organizations taking action during this crisis. She is now a member of the Action Committee. RS says that working with Dignity has made her feel empowered. She says the experience is making her realize that even if her direct coworkers were unwilling to take action, “there’s all these people who will support me…in organizing for better conditions for all workers”. She calls it “very powerful” to be a part of a group of people who are committed to their members and actually talking about and determining “what do we want? and what do we need and what do workers need and let’s go get it”.

Rallying Cry

At a moment when large numbers of people put out of work by city mandate declare that they don’t even have enough in savings to pay their rent two weeks later, when corporations are forced to deliver pseudo-heartfelt thank you messages to their previously “expendable” workforce, when people once labeled “unskilled workers” are suddenly referred to as “essential”…well, we start to see the stirrings of a shift in perspective—one many service workers never expected to see in their lifetime. The same forces that provided for the explosion of labor activity during the Great Depression, which resulted in many rights we are familiar with today, are again acting upon society. These forces may at last transfer said rights to those who are still denied them, as well as obtain more progressive changes that would lift ALL workers up into a more equitable 21st century. Hefty challenges remain, but now we are talking about it, we are thinking about it, and we’re comprehending our condition. We see that it remains stagnant within an ever-changing situation. We see that when they said they thought of us as “expendable” they weren’t kidding. There is no quick solution to this disillusionment. There is nothing left to do about this but stand up and fight for an equitable future. It does NOT have to be this way, and now’s the time to prove it.

RESOURCES TO JOIN IN THE FIGHT

(or learn more!):

The importance of unemployed service workers preparing themselves for reopening is underscored by reports coming from those service workers currently being held hostage on the front lines. The companion piece to this article addresses this section of the industry.


Teresa Rodriguez can be contacted at trodriguez@mica.edu.

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