The Disappearance of Service Industry Safety Net Jobs

New Orleans     Perhaps the most dependable host on WAMF, our low power noncommercial radio station in New Orleans, has been a product representative for a fine local distillery in the city.  Her show every Tuesday afternoon, “Road to the Ramones,” is a rocking, eclectic mix with feminist and contextual highlights that keep you thinking with your ears.  When I’m around, as I was the other day, she will always poke her head in and say, “Hi,” before she prepares to go on the air.  Since she travels from stores to watering holes in a three-parish area, she has often been my street side barometer on everything from mask-wearing to venue closings.

She has been particularly dark in her predictions on when – or if – there will be a recovery in the industry here.  The dateline keeps moving back in our conversations from the fall to the winter to next spring, and, more recently, she believes never.  As she sees the clouds over the industry, she sees no return to what was, only that a survival-of-the-fittest for those willing and able to adapt, largely to takeout and delivery.  Yesterday, we engaged in some gallows humor in this city where the service, hospitality, and tourism industry rules.  We joked that there would be TV shows and movies in the future called “February 2020” that were nostalgia plays on the “good old days” before the pandemic changed the city, the country, and the world.

She had always enjoyed this job, but she said everything she enjoyed about the job – especially dealing with so many people – was gone.  Her company was now making hand sanitizer.  She had a master’s degree in social work, and was thinking about other career paths and what might be out there for her.

Then she said something that at one level was so obvious, but seemed profound, because it had slipped by me, as I tried to keep up with the markers of change being forced by the pandemic.  She said she was worried that the current collapse of the service industry and its potential long demise would be crippling to her and a generation of workers.  She, like so many, had always thought, “hey, if this doesn’t work out” or “if everything else falls through, I’ll be alright, I can always get a job as a server or tending bar or something in the service industry.” In effect, been there, done that, I’ll be OK.  Now that’s gone.

Labor economists, politicians, and others have always thought these minimal wage and tipped service jobs were for younger workers or first-time employment.  Sure in Las Vegas, the union has made these career jobs until recently, and even at lower pay, the same could be said in New Orleans as a convention, festival, and tourism destination, but these jobs, as my DJ was saying, are more than that.  They also served as “safety net” jobs for the working class.  Only gig-type jobs are at the bottom of that barrel now, and for all the approbation that might be cast at service jobs, at least they are jobs with hours, schedules and fixed locations.  Gigs are still just gigs, and no one is sure exactly what that means, other than it’s not enough to live on.

This is a fear without a name yet, but one that workers and the unemployed are seeing much more clearly than anyone else.

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