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The Daily Wildcat

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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Minimum wage is just the beginning

    Nobody should be more interested in Wednesday’s vote to raise the minimum wage than college students: Many if not most of us are working minimum wage jobs, often at fast food places or restaurants. In fact, 44.5 percent of workers in the food-services industry are between the ages of 16 and 24.

    But our familiarity with the world of minimum-wage work also tells us that the wages themselves are only part of the conglomeration of problems that dehumanize us at work.

    Another big factor that makes us feel like faceless drones in matching polo shirts and hats is the emotional labor we undertake.

    What’s emotional labor? Think of “”service with a smile.”” Being cheerful and friendly at work isn’t considered just a nice thing to do – it’s part of what we get paid for. To be good workers, we have to deliver both the service and the smile: both physical and emotional labor.

    It seems like a lot to ask people who spend hours clearing up other people’s dirty dishes to maintain ecstatic grins while doing so.

    In fact, it is too much to ask. This kind of false joviality is a bad idea, for many reasons.

    For example, Safeway instituted new smile rules for its employees back in 1998. Among the rules was one that if a customer came within 5 feet of a worker, the worker had to say hello and smile. Safeway also hired secret shoppers to assess employees’ adherence to the new rules and even the sincerity of their smiles. And if an employee failed this assessment, he or she had to attend eight hours of “”Smile School.””

    But the smiles were often perceived as mechanical, and the friendliness was seen as irritating. Twelve female employees filed grievances because male customers so often misinterpreted their smiles and eye contact as flirting. Finally, the initiative was scrapped.

    More seriously, though, emotional labor can take a real toll on workers. Though the jobs we do are not the only ones that require emotional labor, they are the ones in which emotional labor has the worst effects. According to an Italian study, when a worker interacts briefly with many clients while maintaining a surface appearance of happiness – as workers usually do in minimum-wage service work – depersonalization, burnout and lower levels of job involvement can result.

    Also, a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that higher levels of emotional labor are associated with lower wages – especially when the work is not cognitively demanding, like the work we do as store salespeople or cashiers or servers.

    Moreover, in a nation where it’s a truism to say that we love to prescribe medication to manage our emotions, it’s disturbing that those emotions themselves have become almost a commodity – something valuable that is bought from a worker along with his or her labor.

    And at a time when studies have shown that our social networks are growing smaller and the number of deeper friendships we have is decreasing, it’s strange to see that employers are encouraging interactions where the worker and the customer no longer view one another as actual people.

    OK, it’s not really possible to eliminate emotional labor. But there are things that can be done to make it less dehumanizing for workers.

    If minimum-wage jobs were less tiring and boring – and yes, if they paid more – workers might genuinely feel happy, instead of having to pretend to be happy.

    If consumers began thinking of workers as people and began treating them as such, then workers wouldn’t have the additional emotional labor of smiling through customers’ angry tirades.

    Perhaps this is too much to ask, but if anyone can empathize with that person behind the counter wearing the silly hat, we college students can.

    So when we finally graduate and get ourselves jobs and perhaps even become other people’s bosses, let’s try to remember that empathy. Let’s not forget what it felt like to be that exhausted person nearing the 10th hour of her shift, a maniacal grin fixed firmly on her face.

    Lillie Kilburn is a sophomore majoring in psychology. She can be reached at

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