When I finished the last episode of the Netflix show Maid, I was a sobbing mess. In case you haven’t heard, Maid is inspired by the book Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land. Both the book and the show chronicle Land’s real-life struggle to support herself and her young daughter while working as a house cleaner.
The ‘essential’ nature of house cleaning might be debatable, but the show got me thinking back to the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, when messages like “Thank You, Essential Workers” and “Thank You, Frontline Workers” were everywhere. And while the public love affair with nurses, delivery people, and bus drivers has quieted down, many of us have been left with a greater appreciation for how truly essential many of these jobs are. While the rest of the world was tucked up safe, these people went to work and literally put their lives on the line every day.
But why are so many ‘essential’ jobs also underpaid and undervalued? Why do we look down on some of the work that has to be done to keep our cities and our economy running? And how do we carry this newfound sense of appreciation forward, post-pandemic?
If your kids are like mine, they consider “famous YouTuber” to be a viable career option. (Not that it isn’t, and props to those who are doing it, I just think we need to be open to other possibilities.) My kids see the make-up, the LED ring light, and the editing software and think that looks FUN! I want them to aim high, of course, but jobs that are fun, exciting, and glamorous are few and far between. As any adult can attest, work can be the opposite of ‘fun.’ Many jobs are physically or emotionally challenging. They’re also boring, repetitive, and not-so-stimulating. Or they’re unpredictable, chaotic, and stressful.
Like anyone who’s worked a low-paying, service industry job, I used to fantasize about a legal requirement that would force anyone over the age of 16 to work as a waitress (aka server) for at least two weeks. See if you’re still smiling and chipper after eight+ hours on your feet, a nine-table section during dinner rush, and a kitchen that’s short one line cook. Other necessary and under-appreciated professions everyone should experience? Hotel chamber maid, flight attendant, receptionist, and, of course, teacher.
What makes these jobs so challenging is the amount of emotional labour each position requires. If you’re not familiar with the term, emotional labour refers to how workers need to suppress their own feelings and emotions to do their job. Not surprisingly, most of these positions are customer-facing and service-oriented. In other words, the jobs where you’re expected to have a smile plastered to your face all day lest a customer or boss accuse you of not being pleasant enough. It’s called emotional labour because of the toll this kind of effort, this kind of work, takes on our emotions.
Servers, for example, must be pleasant and efficient. They are the last line of defence against mistakes made by the hostess, the kitchen, the bartender, the busboy… basically everyone else in the restaurant. When the food isn’t right or takes too long, customers don’t complain to the kitchen, they complain to the server. Like the flight attendant who cannot control airport delays, turbulence, carry-on baggage policies, or almost anything else passengers complain about, the server is almost entirely responsible for making sure a customer’s experience is positive, from start to finish.
Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it?
In 2019, the Marriott corporation generated $21 Billion in revenue. That’s billion, with a B. As an operation, Marriott and other hotel chains cannot generate such astronomical profit without housekeeping staff who clean up after strangers (I can only imagine some of the grossness they’ve seen) and ensure the room is not just ready, but perfect, for the next paying guest. Receptionists are the gatekeepers who control access to appointments and information, but people have no qualms about berating them for on-hold wait times or for not complying with customer or client demands. BTW I have no idea why you’d want to berate the only person who can help you but that seems to be how it works.
And don’t even get me started on teachers. Even pre-pandemic, the emotional labour required to be a teacher was astronomical. Trying to keep kids, parents, administrators, colleagues, and unions happy while actually teaching to the required curriculum and standards? I have no idea how they do it.
In the show Maid, the main character, Alex, is humiliated and belittled by a wealthy customer whose withering comments and sarcastic asides are difficult to stomach. But Alex can’t quit, and she can’t tell her client where to go. She needs this job so she’s forced to put a smile on her face and let the nastiness roll off her back. And this is the paradox of work that is both emotional and undervalued: many of us do it because we don’t have a choice. And sometimes the less appealing the job, the worse we’re treated, like people want to punish us for having to do it, even though they need us to do it.
My point is this: all jobs are essential. All jobs matter. Anything that puts food on your table and a roof over your head is ‘essential,’ and I hope the pandemic has opened our eyes to this. And I hope we keep over-tipping our restaurant servers, delivery people, cleaners, baristas, and pet groomers. I hope we remember to thank our grocery store clerks, bus drivers, and teachers on the regular.
Because pandemic or not, we’re all in this together.
Feature image ©Netflix
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