Serving is skilled labor

Despite more and more Americans working in the service industry, these jobs still aren't generally considered worthy careers.

Serving is skilled labor

Despite more and more Americans working in the service industry, these jobs still aren't generally considered worthy careers.

Last year, Lisa Porter, a 49-year-old server whose tips help support two of her four grandchildren, interviewed for an assembly line position at a Volvo plant in South Carolina. Almost immediately, it became clear that the hiring manager had never spent a minute working in restaurants. He expressed surprise that she had been waiting tables for 29 years, and he didn’t seem to understand how teamwork could be one of her strongest assets.

“I got frustrated because, in my head, it’s common sense,” Porter told The Outline. “[To survive working in a restaurant], you have to be willing to help others, run their table’s food, carry their drinks. That’s server life, and he asked, ‘What do you do as a server?’ I wanted to be like, ‘What do you think I do? Have you ever eaten out?’”

Porter did not get the job, and her experience speaks to a cultural stigma that plagues service industry workers. Despite the fact that half of American adults have worked in a restaurant, some people perceive waiting tables and bartending as menial occupations. Restaurants employ 10 percent of the workforce, and if the National Restaurant Association’s (often referred to as “the other NRA”) calculations are right, that number will rise over the next decade. However, being a server or bartender is still seen as, at best, a temporary job for college kids, and not a legitimate career.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman congresswoman representing New York’s 14th district, has highlighted this issue in recent weeks. Following the House Oversight Committee’s hearing with Michael Cohen, Ocasio-Cortez received praise for asking succinct, focused questions that got Donald Trump’s former attorney to accuse the president of insurance fraud. In a viral tweet, scientist and author Matt Blaze joked that the “former bartender” might also be a former prosecutor, and in quote tweet, Ocasio-Cortez replied, “Bartending + waitressing (especially in NYC) means you talk to 1000s of people over the years. Forces you to get great at reading people + hones a razor-sharp BS detector. Just goes to show that what some consider to be ‘unskilled labor’ can actually be anything but.”

Yet that’s exactly how many people continue to view service industry workers: unskilled. This is such a commonly-held opinion that attacking Ocasio-Cortez for her background as a bartender has become fodder for conservative memes. Conservatives are even selling hats and shirts with a new, typically stupid slogan: MABA, which stands for “Make Alexandria a Bartender Again.” Ocasio-Cortez addressed these attacks in a recent tweet, saying, “I find it revealing when people mock where I came from, & say they’re going to ‘send me back to waitressing,’ as if that is bad or shameful.”

This exemplifies a problem that’s larger than partisan politics, as a willingness (inadvertently or not) to look down on service workers has little to do with one’s party affiliations. Even when people came to the defense of Ocasio-Cortez, it was often to point out how structural inequalities leave talented people “trapped” or “wasting their potential” behind the bar.

So why are bartenders and servers viewed as unskilled laborers even by those who purport to advocate for them? In part, the answer is as simple as tipping and sexism — at least according to Rosemary Batt, the Alice Hanson Cook Professor of women and work and chairperson of the department of human resource studies at Cornell University.

America’s tipping culture dates back to the end of slavery, and studies have shown that it is connected to an increase in sexual harassment. Tipping creates the image of subservience, which, Batt said, impacts how the occupation is viewed culturally. Seven states have gotten rid of the separate tipped minimum wage of $2.15 an hour, and this year, lawmakers in 10 more states have introduced bills to eliminate it. However, advocacy groups like the NRA and the Restaurant Workers of America are trying to keep the status quo.

Compared to institutional sexism, tipping might be easy to solve. Of the estimated 15 million people working in the service industry, over half are women, and according to Teófilo Reyes, the national research director at Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United), nearly 70 percent of servers were women in 2018.

Batt said that the defining skills of a successful bartender and server — multitasking, anticipating a guest’s needs, making sure several people are happy and comfortable at once — could transfer into any public-facing job. “Whether it’s as a sophisticated IT professional, claims agent for an insurance company, lawyer, or a politician,” she said. But, because of traditional roles within the patriarchy, along with how the restaurant industry has historically run on the labor of women, Batt said these skills are seen as part of “women’s work.”

“This work is not associated with having a college degree, even though a lot of servers have degrees,” she said. “And it is considered not difficult to do because women have been doing it in the home and not getting paid for it.”

Of course, anyone who thinks working in a restaurant is easy has never stood behind a full bar during happy hour, juggled a seven-table section on a Sunday brunch shift, or dealt with an angry customer during the middle of the Saturday night dinner rush.

“I can take someone who is totally disgruntled, who walks in looking to be upset and complain about something, and spin that around and make them so loyal that they will not only come back, but they will ask for me next time,” Alanna Fino, 41, a server at an Italian restaurant in Buffalo, told The Outline. “Yeah, it takes some intelligence to be able to do that.”

Waiting tables can be more stressful than being a neurosurgeon, but one of the most chaotic of all restaurant positions happens out of view. Working “expo” — being the person who stands opposite the line cooks in the kitchen to expedite every order and make sure each meal goes to the right table, while also fielding complaints and requests from servers — is one of the most intense jobs in any restaurant. Dominique Giovannelli, a 28-year-old who is in charge of quality assurance at a sports bar outside Nashville, works expo every weekend. An aspiring restaurant owner, Giovannelli told The Outline has worked in the service industry since she started scooping ice cream at 15. She’s been a hostess, server, bartender, and sous chef. She loves the adrenaline rush she feels when the kitchen reaches peak insanity — “It’s like a party without the party,” she said — but is less in love with the customers who regularly ask condescending questions like, “What do you really want to do?” and “What’s your main job?”

Porter jokes with coworkers that she should update her resume to include economist, counselor, photographer, and babysitter.

Giovannelli said she laughs at these comments, but Lisa Porter told me they used to really bother her when she was younger. After 29 years, she still receives these types of questions. Recently, she waited on a family of four, and the husband commented on how she looked like the person who served them the last time he brought his wife and children to Charleston three years ago. When Porter said it was possible because she has worked at the same barbecue restaurant for five years, the man responded with a prolonged, sarcastic, “Oh.”

“I’ve been told my job is for kids, and I shouldn’t be doing it,” Porter said. “Your career is your career. It doesn’t matter if you decided to become a doctor or if you’re working at Burger King. If it wasn’t for people like us, they wouldn’t be sitting down eating.”

Though not everyone considers serving a legitimate career, the money one can earn is very real. Porter, who raised three children alone, said she makes $55,000 a year, factoring in tips. But her income is far above the norm, as the average American server rakes in about $24,410 a year. Earning more than double the national average requires a level of talent that deserves respect. Porter credits part of her success to multitasking and reading people. Ocasio-Cortez mentioned that latter skill specifically in her tweet. Fino described it as one of the hardest attributes for someone to hone.

“I want to make sure I know how to display myself and attend to the needs the way they expect to be,” said Fino. “But I have to figure that out on my own. It's not like I can go to a table and say, ‘What kind of service do you like? Do you guys want me to be absent and quiet? Would you like me to entertain you?’ There are so many different ways to be with a table, and in any given night, I can be all of them.”

A single mother since 16, Fino said she provided a middle-class upbringing for her daughter because of serving, earning $50,000 one year. But working in a restaurant has social and physical drawbacks. Fino struggles to see friends and family because she works evenings, weekends, and most holidays.

Fino has gone back to college to become a high school English teacher. On top of wanting a career that allows for a normal social life, she also wants better health insurance, as well as paid vacation and sick days, which are two benefits most restaurants don’t offer. "Overall, consistency and stability are why people leave the industry," she said. “They don’t want paychecks that fluctuate. They want to be able to call off sick without having to find someone to cover for them.” Even so, she insisted serving is a great job: “People who leave can get stuck in a cubicle, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But better is so arbitrary."

Porter said she wants to leave the service industry because “my body is telling me I don’t like it anymore.” She loves waiting tables, but she suffers from plantar fasciitis, as well as shoulder and back pain. But Porter said she can’t even take the thought of being in a classroom again. After going on 12 job interviews with no success in the past year, Porter jokes with coworkers that she should update her resume to include economist, counselor, photographer, and babysitter.

Jokes aside, service industry professionals should finesse their resumes when switching careers, according to John Sullivan, a human resources expert who Fast Company called “The Michael Jordan of hiring.” “Servers and bartenders should describe their accomplishments, not their duties,” Sullivan said. “No one makes drinks. You produced and sold a product. Cash registers are incredible machines today. Say you’re a self-learner. You learned a new technology. You learned a new sales approach. No one’s overlooking the service industry, but the service industry might not be speaking the right language.”

Porter doesn’t want to stop serving. She has regular customers she likes, and she enjoys talking to younger coworkers she refers to as “my work children.” But she wants a consistent, predictable schedule so she can help with her grandchildren, and she said her body can’t take 55-hour weeks on her feet anymore.

She lives with her son, daughter-in-law, and their two sons in North Charleston. Their apartment is on the second floor of a building that doesn’t have an elevator. Every night after work, she said she sits in her car for at least 30 minutes before she can climb the stairs.

Gavin Jenkins is a freelance journalist based in Pittsburgh. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Vice, Mel, and Narratively.