Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Emotional Labor

As I mentioned yesterday, I recently quit my day job, which I actually did in the evening, that I relied on for enough income to live. It was a minimum wage pizza delivery job. Thanks to generous tips, I was able to put enough money away to quit so that I could build a full-time freelance writing career.

But this wasn't the reason I quit when I did. I would have liked to last through the holidays, in no small part because I love buying people presents, and you need money to do that. However, I couldn't make it. Because I didn't have the strength.

Emotional labor is defined as any kind of work that requires you to hide your real feelings. If you serve customers in any way, you're almost definitely required to pretend that you're happy to help them. You're expected to put on a cheerful face no matter what's going on in your life and no matter how shitty you actually feel.

Almost everyone has had to this at some point in their life, even if they're never had to for work. You might have to pretend to like a significant other's relatives, or not freak out at the police officer who pulled you over. It's unpleasant and exhausting after a while. For many people, this is a part of their everyday life, especially since many people in jobs that require emotional labor have to hold more than one job to survive, at least in the U.S. And emotional labor is not valued by our society, therefore it is not compensated with better pay.

The horrific thing about emotional labor is that you basically have to put on a fake personality. You have to act like someone you're not, sometimes for hours in a day, in order to keep your job. You have to twist yourself into a company-approved person.

Part of the reason I chose pizza delivery as my day job was the limited amount of time I had to spend being seen by customers. Most of the time I'm in my car, by myself, free to yell at bad drivers or even just scream cusses at the top of my lungs for no reason (hey, sometimes it helps). However, delivery driving is not the easiest job. You're constantly working on a deadline. It's not the end of the world if you don't get to the customer's home at the time they were told their pizza would be delivered, but if it's going to be more than 10 minutes late, you're expected to call them. Which is kind of messed up because you can't just whip out your phone while driving and call (that's against company policy and also illegal in Washington State). But if you pull over and call, then obviously the pizza will be even later.

Plus you're driving around with the knowledge that late pizzas can mean a lesser tip. And, of course, the minimum wage in my area is not a living wage (I live and work outside of Seattle), so tips were essential for survival. At the same time, there was almost no predicting what kind of a tip you would get. You could try to act super cheerful, be on time, say all the right things, crack a joke, wear extra eyeliner, etc. But the majority of your pay is essentially at the whim of the customer. That's rough.

And there's more. Did you know that delivery driving is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, often listed above being a police officer? And I'm not talking about delivering to the creepy, run-down shacks way back in the trees at night where no one could hear you scream, but driving in itself is dangerous. I'm a good driver (thank you video games) but other people are not. Traffic and weather conditions add extra stress, especially when houses are not well-lit and you're trying to figure out which is the right one to bring the pizza to.

So basically, I've worked busy Fridays in winter when it's dark by 5 pm and it's rainy all evening, sitting through rush hour traffic while the time ticks by, then driven up ridiculous hills with narrow roads or down long gravel driveways, squinting at every house to try and spot the house number (which is sometimes in the most random places or not on the actual house at all), then maybe stopping and getting out to trudge around in the puddles while getting rained on to try and find the number or walking up steep, narrow driveways I do not want to back down, concentrating on not slipping on wet gravel. Or trying to navigate apartment complexes that make no sense in terms of the order of the building letters and that are not marked well to then hike up and down stairs, trying to find the right apartment number (oh great, odd numbers appear to be on the other end of the building for some reason!).

And after all of this, I have to greet the customer with a smile and a cheery voice, no matter how frustrated, miserable, and wet I actually am.

You try it for 10 months.

And as much as I tried to enjoy and appreciate the job, as much as I wanted to (because life would be a lot simpler that way), after a while, I started to get depressed on the job. And I mean really, really depressed. I would feel so tired for seemingly no reason, and then I would begin to spiral, feeling shitty because I felt that I couldn't handle what society has told me is an easy job, and the shittier I felt, the harder the emotional labor was on me. Eventually, I knew I needed to get out for the sake of my health. I had no more emotional strength left in me.

It didn't help that the more exhausted I got, the more I realized that even a local pizza chain that claimed to value the safety of its drivers above everything didn't really care about me as a human being. This particular chain, let's call it Bagliacci Pizza, has three stores outside of Seattle. All employees in the Seattle stores are getting a raise and have already gotten raises in accordance with the new minimum wage law that is gradually raising to $15 per hour. Those of us outside of Seattle? Nothing. No raise. At all.

And when in eight months of working there, I got five "complaints" for things like not catching a mistake on the pizza that a cook made or bringing someone a 6-pack of Coke instead of a 2-liter bottle (the 6-pack is more expensive anyway), they punished me by withdrawing the about $1-per-delivery allowance for gas, oil, and maintenance on my car for two weeks. I essentially got my pay cut. For five mistakes. That felt good.

So after 10 months of being treated like a cog in the machine, braving the roads and the rain (so much rain oh my god) and the bad drivers and the aptly-named Goat Hill, all with a smile on my face at the end, I felt like I had reached the very end of my rope. But again, I felt like I shouldn't have. I felt like I should have so much more rope. Isn't a minimum wage job supposed to be easy?

Bagliacci Pizza relies on workers who risk their lives to fill their customers' demand and who have to perform emotional labor upon every delivery, and they don't value that at all. I'm sure they'd pay those workers less if it wasn't illegal. So many companies put no value on this very draining labor that they expect of every employee automatically, like it's nothing. You're just expected to shut down your real emotions and personality and be a customer service robot with a painted smile and unlimited patience. Yet I bet if the CEOs of those companies were paid $9 an hour to put on a fake smile for customers who often treat them with contempt, they wouldn't make it 10 days.

There have been studies done on emotional labor and its exhausting effects, and I plan to read and talk about those studies if I can do so without paying for them. I want everyone to know about emotional labor and how hard it is to perform on top of everything else minimum wage workers are expected to do for a non-livable wage. Don't fucking tell them to work harder for better pay. If you've ever had those words come out of your mouth, then you've clearly never had to work as hard as they have. I am in awe of the people who work those jobs for years, but I know so many of them do out of necessity, because they don't have the privilege that I do.

I will work hard at my writing, and hopefully my words will help to inspire others to appreciate the word my now-ex-coworkers do and convince everyone that they deserve so much better. So much better than Bagliacci is giving them. You hear me, Bagliacci?

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