Barbara Ehrenreich

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According to Ehrenreich in "Serving in Florida," who is to blame for the situation of those who work at low-paying jobs in restaurants? Are there heroes and villains, or does the workplace itself change people who are part of it?

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Barbara Ehrenreich's tends to favor the portrayal of corporate business as a villain in low-paying jobs. Managerial positions are used to mentally wear down employees, telling them that things such as break rooms and the ability to sit are luxuries they don't truly deserve and which can be quickly taken away from them. Employees are made to feel constantly under suspicion for everything from drug usage to "gossip." It is noted that these low-paying jobs are typically filled in means that seem racially segregated:

Most...of the working housekeepers I see on my job searches are African Americans, Spanish-speaking, or refugees from the Central European post-Communist world, while servers are almost invariably white and monolingually English speaking.

Working conditions are dismal, with improper hand-washing supplies available in one job and the counters so sticky that servers risk having their hands forever stuck to them if they make contact at another. This is made even more unfortunate because those same hands are often used to scoop and place food on the patrons' plates.

The workers are not judged to be faultless. Some pay for rooms at hotels by the night, which isn't a smart economical move on limited incomes—but they make this choice because they can't come up with initial fees needed to secure an apartment for a month in advance. Another lady is swayed to have a higher opinion of her place of employment after being "allowed" to park her van (doubling as her home) in the hotel parking lot at night. Thus, Ehrenreich doesn't believe this worker will change her job path anytime soon.

These low-paying jobs are filled by desperate people whose situations are exploited by their managers. Whether that makes them villains or simply a cog in the greater machine of capitalistic profit is debatable.

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Barbara blames the proprietors of the restaurants for taking prospective employees through degrading interviews that they eventually decline the job. This situation forces them to seek opportunities with less degrading treatment during the interview process. By seeking these “better opportunities” another problem comes up; the prospective employee comes to terms with the very low pay associated with these “better opportunities”. In this case, she blames the owners for the meager pay. The restaurant managers are also blamed for imposing extra expenses on their employees for workplace requirements such as uniforms.

She blames landlords and apartment agencies for imposing a two month’s down payment in rent which becomes impossible for most restaurant workers to afford. Barbara blames fellow workers especially in a highly competitive environment, because they offer no assistance to colleagues. At some point she blames herself for not speaking up when a colleague is falsely accused of theft, out of fear for her own job. She accuses difficult customers who do not exercise patience after placing their orders.

There are heroes and villains and some are as a result of the workplace. For instance the two employees, Gail and Joan at Hearthside restaurant are generous waitresses with major life responsibilities...

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and can be viewed as heroines. The managers who have crossed over from casual labor to management become rigid in their thinking because of their job responsibilities. In this case, they can be viewed as villains because they force employees to be busy even when there is nothing to do.

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Though much of the blame for both the servers working conditions as well as those in other jobs that Ehrenreich takes seems to lie with the corporate masters, there are a number of other factors that come into play that make the idea of picking the heroes and villians problematic.

The employees seem to be stuck in self-destructive and ill-advised behaviors.  They are renting hotel rooms on a per-night basis, something that makes little economic sense and also leads to dangerous situations and a sense of impermanence.

The workers Barbara meets do not seem to be interested or capable of planning for the future or trying to improve their situations, they are simply trying to survive from day to day which tends to increase these risky or poorly-planned behaviors.

The high-turnover in the restuarants also leads to unfriendly environments as the workers do not want to get attached to anyone as they know they will not last.  Some of them seem to try hard to overcome that, so Barbara describes some of their efforts at remaining human in a way that could be considered heroic.

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