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If people were conscripted into the service industry, they’d behave better at restaurants

John Sherman
July 13, 2018

When I turned 18, I got a letter in the mail requiring me to enlist in the Selective Service. I immediately threw it away—then reluctantly picked it out of the trash, filled it out, and mailed it back a few weeks later. I was incensed at the notion of being conscripted to serve a country I was already beginning to have reservations about.

Ambivalence is always a privilege, and the fact that I didn’t need to enlist in order to pay for college or support myself is something I was too bratty to consider at the time. Many countries require a term of military service of some kind, usually for a period of at least a year. Israel conscripts both men and women into the Israeli Defense Force, which is maybe the “MORE FEMALE PRISON GUARDS” of the military-industrial complex.

But as fervently as I object to involuntarily military service, I do support one form of conscription that no nation has yet adopted: mandatory restaurant work for all adult citizens under the age of 30.

Admittedly there are some kinks to be worked out, but I think I’m onto something.

Here’s the pitch: Every American must be employed in the service industry in some way for one year. They’re free to have other jobs during this time (most industry folks do anyway), but they must spend 15 hours a week working in service to others at a restaurant, hotel, catering hall, or what have you. This is not in a kindhearted, “giving back” sort of way, but an actual service job that obligates you to smile at the rude woman at table 9 and freshen her Chardonnay without spitting in it.

I feel strongly that the experience of restaurant work—of a stranger trying to have you fired for seating her at a table she didn’t like (this happened to me); of waiting half an hour for a train at 2 a.m. after a long, slow night at work without enough tips in your pocket to justify a Lyft—would be instructive and cultivate a better citizenry. All Americans need to experience the way people treat you when they assess your worth based on the average price of an entree.  (In the same restaurant where a stranger tried to have me fired, a tony Italian place on the Upper East Side, a woman was so displeased with the booth she and her party had been seated in that she spat on the table, which someone cleaned up while someone else took their drink orders.)

Having a waiter fired is Lucille Bluth-level assholery, but the germ of that entitlement exists in places like the Seamless ads in the New York City subway. “Satisfy your craving for zero human contact,” one reads, never mind the delivery guy, a human making contact with you. There’s also the creeping disdain of the phantom “they” who prepare food for others to consume. “They forgot [condiment you probably have in your fridge]” and “They always do this” are statements of a person who is rude to waiters, but never to their faces.

Every American should be on the receiving end of a phone call asking “Where’s my food?” Everyone should know that somewhere in this country, a wedding guest is making kissing noises, as one might make to a cat, to get you to bring him hors d’oeuvres (this also happened to me). Of course, many other people are perfectly lovely to waiters, but that’s often because they have been waiters themselves.

I’ve worked in both restaurants and 9-to-5 offices, and when I’ve encountered people in a white-collar sphere who have never worked in service, I’ve often had the sense that they don’t consider it a real kind of job for their kind of people. While this is less common among people around my own age, who have known more professional instability in the past decade or so than many now-successful Gen-Xers or Baby Boomers, managing to avoid service work is a badge some wear proudly.

Worse, perhaps, is the case of a friend of mine with an immensely successful career who has lamented to me that they never “got to have” those years of struggle and uncertainty that often accompany a just-out-of-college restaurant gig. At the time I was newly unemployed, asking around once again for a stopgap restaurant job, wondering whether anyone would ever pay me to write. The comment hit me all wrong. Romanticizing struggle is dangerous for any generation.

Just as mandatory military service is not so that everyone can know what it is like to go to war, the goal of mandatory restaurant work is not for more people to be spat at in the workplace. Rather, it could be the solution to spitting once and for all.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th congressional district a few weeks ago, was working as a bartender last year. If she wins the congressional race, she’ll be among the youngest members of the House of Representatives, and likely among the few who was working in the service industry during her campaign. Class struggle is a focal point of her platform, and a major factor in her upset victory. I want a bartender for president.

Several restaurant owners in New York are currently advocating for eliminating the minimum wage for tipped workers, which is $8.70 per hour. A friend who works in food PR told me his agency recently lost a major client, who had to cut their PR budget in order to pay their workers more, which is a rare example of wage legislation hurting the right people, in my opinion. (Sorry, friend.)

In Washington, D.C., voters approved a wage hike for tipped workers in June, raising the tipped minimum wage $3.33 over the next seven years. Some members of the city council are working to repeal the motion with a ballot initiative announced this week. A bump of $3.33 per hour at 40 hours a week is a little less than $7,000 a year, which is a significant amount to many people but too high a price for the people deciding whether they deserve that.

Meanwhile, some restaurants have decided to ban tipping in favor of higher wages, benefits, and employee profit-sharing, in an effort to improve employees’ quality of life and distribute more more money to the back of house staff (dishwashers and cooks). This is admirably egalitarian—work is work, whether or not you have to speak to the customers—but, as an article in The Guardian makes clear, patrons are accustomed to “monetarily punishing or rewarding their servers.” There are stories of ghoulish pricks placing a stack of $1 bills on the table at the start of a meal and remove one every time their server does something “wrong.” The irony is that most of those people wouldn’t last one dinner rush at the places they purport to control with a bitter stack of singles.

The American obsession with work has never translated to an accurate valuation of labor, and this disconnect is achingly apparent in the restaurant industry. A nation of restaurant workers—or, at least, former restaurant workers—would be a nicer place to live, and certainly to work.


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