Thursday, January 15, 2015

Low-Wage Work is Undervalued Work

Ok so the day before yesterday was my first day working as a dog bather, which I did for eight hours. When I got home, I was far too exhausted to even think about scheduling any posts for yesterday. My back ached, my feet were sore, and all I could do was lay on the couch and focus on unclenching.

It's been years since I had any job that required me to be on my feet all day, and I'm not as young as I used to be. The experience has renewed my appreciation for people who do what I think we should all start calling "undervalued work." I first heard this term come from Melissa McEwen of Shakesville, and it's perfect. Some people call it "unskilled work" because you don't need special training or a degree to get hired. This is a shitty term because having a degree does not mean you have more skill in a particular thing than someone who doesn't. It really just means that you had the privilege necessary to attend school. And in the US, that's a lot of privilege, since a BA can easily cost as much as three years worth of a minimum wage employee's earnings.

Still, most people think that undervalued employees who do things like wash dogs don't deserve decent pay because it's "unskilled work" that doesn't require lots of homework and tests to prove you're worthy of the position. I think there are people in power who want us to think of it this way. But it's not the only way to think of work.

Working as a dog bather in a grooming salon is a great example of how undervalued work makes all other work possible. It doesn't matter how many years the groomers have spent learning how to trim a dog's nails and cut their hair into that trendy style that weird yuppies like. If someone's not there to thoroughly wash and dry the dogs, the business breaks down. Drying, in particular, takes a long time. If the groomers had to do that themselves, they wouldn't be able to finish enough dogs in a day to make any kind of profit. And if the bathers didn't clean the store for them, no yuppies would want to bring their Labradoodles there.

That's why I call them undervalued workers. In our society, people seem to be completely oblivious to the fact that these workers form the foundation of the entire company, the entire system, and really, the entire economy.

I'm saying this from a place of significant privilege myself. I have the money and the support system to quit this job and find one that's so much easier on my body. That's another thing people don't get. Those with privilege can sacrifice the money they're lucky to have to get a degree. But people like dog bathers sacrifice their bodies. You think you can spend all day on your feet for years without wearing your body out? People who end up stuck in jobs like these eventually have to deal with medical problems like chronic back pain, worn out joints, repetitive stress disorders, and so on. And again, in the US, this can cost you a shit ton of money - far more than college tuition.

So tell me again why "unskilled" workers don't deserve better pay. I've worked harder in the past two days than I ever did at office jobs that made use of my college degree, and I'm getting paid little over state minimum wage for it. It's utterly backwards.

And I'm just some 26-year-old who's looking around for something fun to do. Little is at stake. My coworker told me that she's been doing physically demanding jobs for years, and I get the feeling that it's because she has no choice. And she's good. You want to talk about skill? She can wash a dog in like two minutes and dries at least twice as fast as I do. She laps me with dogs. What's her earnings potential? In seven years she'll get to make $15 an hour, but only because Seattle passed that law that forces all businesses to have a minimum wage of $15 an hour within seven years.

There are companies out there that pay every employee the same amount, from the CEO to the assistant janitor. I think all companies should work this way. I'm considering pushing this idea at my new job to see how quickly I can get fired. Then I'll write about it.


Matthew said...

There is a lot of undervalued work, but I see no value in bathing and grooming a dog.

Try the people to run grocery stores or sewage treatment plants or garbage collection services. These are things that are necessities.

Lindsey Weedston said...

I meant it's valuable to the company. I'm not trying to say that a grooming salon is necessary for anything.