Brave new jobs

My menial job at a world-famous Washington resort was a crash course in today's screw-the-worker zeitgeist -- and the charming, monied guests who thrust bloody bandages into my hands and made my dignified old co-worker perform like a seal.


Claudia O'Keefe
April 28, 2004 11:30PM (UTC)

I've always thought of myself as a winner. Then, last year, my outlook on the world was dramatically altered by the "jobless recovery." I was laid off from a directorship at a prestigious nonprofit due to an economy-related funding shortfall. I found myself stranded in a remote arts community, unable to locate work with comparable duties or salary, either in town or in the nearest city, two hours away. My local area had only one other significant employer, a world-famous hotel and resort catering primarily to the Washington elite, as well as conservative money from around the world.

I felt backed into a corner, but knew I had to take responsibility for my family's declining finances. I bit the bullet and applied for the only position available to me: as a waitress serving millionaire politicians and billionaire CEOs. During a season working at this playground for the well-heeled set, I received a crash course on what it means to go from a quality job to one of the newly made service-industry jobs so often touted by our leaders as replacements.

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Don't get me wrong. I'm not some pampered Cinderella stepsister who suddenly had her charge cards yanked away and had to do her first honest day of toil. I've held survival jobs before and this was not my first stint as a waitress. As recently as 2000, the "new economy" threw me for a loop that required a tough scramble for employment. I believed I knew what to expect when I fell back to the lower rungs.

But this job was different. I discovered life at the bottom surprisingly altered in just the short time between the end of the dot-com boom and the present, and I found my employer to be the perfect embodiment of an ongoing shift in corporate culture. Policies at the resort were indicative of changes that are transpiring at companies across the country. Wring every minute of work you can out of your employees without paying them for it. Increase profits and cut costs at their expense. Keep low-wage employees solidly in their place.

After applying, I was fingerprinted to rule out criminal activity in my past. Two distressingly large locks of my hair were snipped from my head for drug testing. My blood was drawn, and I was X-rayed in case I had TB.

Then came orientation. Human Resources handed us a demoralizing set of rules that nearly all the resort's more than 1,200 employees had to follow, excluding midlevel and top management. Employees weren't allowed to eat in any of the hotel's restaurants or to use any of its facilities, whether or not we could pay for them. We couldn't vacation there for an hour, let alone a week, couldn't have our hair cut by the salon, bowl in the bowling alley, swim in the swimming pools, buy a movie ticket, partake of the restorative waters in the spa, or be seen on the grounds when not on shift. Guests often asked me what the food tasted like. I had no idea.

"We don't want our guests to be confused or their experience here compromised," went the official explanation for these rules.

Just one exception to these rules existed. We could shop in a small corridor of stores on the bottom floor, but only if we dressed ourselves in attire similar to that of the clientele we served. I tried this once and felt painfully exposed after managers on duty spotted me and carefully followed my progress from shop to shop. I guess my Ann Taylor slacks and Coach bag didn't cut it.

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There was nowhere to store personal belongings during my shift, a way of discouraging me from bringing them onto the grounds. For the first time in my life, I had to leave my purse at home and stuff my driver's license and car key into a pocket of a polyester uniform. The one time I forgot and walked in with a handbag on my shoulder, I was rewarded with a search by security guards when I exited.

I could have shrugged off all of this, though, if it hadn't been for the degrading way management and guests treated me. Guests weren't just rude and demanding, a common negative in hospitality jobs anywhere. These guests had power, knew they had power, and used it as a club, with management championing their cause.

"What do you mean you don't serve Oban? You had it the other night at the golf club. Can't you go get some? Oh, is it really half a mile away? That's OK, I'm not in any hurry. I'll wait."

I'll wait -- which meant that they expected me to dash off on a mile-long round trip for a glass of their favorite scotch, while the rest of my tables suffered my absence. It didn't matter that we had two shelves of excellent single malts within reach. If they couldn't get the one they wanted, they wouldn't be happy. They were also allowed to drink without fear of ever being cut off, some becoming so falling-down drunk that they had to be hauled away to their rooms in wheelchairs.

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Once a woman spent an entire night telling me that next morning she would be phoning her friend, the hotel's CEO, to have me fired because I'd dared to card her 21-year-old daughter. I had a couple who wouldn't remove their bare, dirty feet from the table where I needed to set their lunch and kept me standing there, hot plates burning my fingers, until I gave up and hauled over a second table for their food. I recall a child projectile vomiting over not just one, but two tables. Instead of apologizing, the parents complained when wait staff didn't clean up the mess immediately. (Management policy was to phone for housekeeping to deal with bodily fluids.) Twice during my tenure guests removed bandages from open sores on their bodies and thrust them into my hand, exposing me to direct contact with their blood and bits of gooey scab.

"Throw that away, won't you?" one said to me without even looking up.

Management took the-customer-is-always-right principle to new heights. It didn't matter how humiliating the task. If a guest asked it of us, we were expected to comply.

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One of my least favorite memories involves a fellow waiter. He was stooped and gray, but he worked harder than anyone else in my department. I'd never seen him bothered by anything. Then on a fall afternoon a party of golfing buddies came into the resort's sports bar. From their last visit, they remembered that he knew some good stories about a famous golfer.

"Tell him to come over here," the men said. "We want him to entertain us."

They kept him standing at their table for round after round, putting on an impromptu show. Watching his grinning but humble manner and age-distorted body, I felt like I'd been thrown back hundreds of years in time to see a jester amuse a bored group of courtiers. When he finally returned to the bar his eyes spoke volumes about weariness and the fragility of personal dignity.

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Like people who speak extra loudly around the blind, the privileged communicated with me as if I had the I.Q. of a canapé. Once when I used the word "synonym" in conversation with a guest, he and everyone else in the party broke out laughing. "My God, she just used a word with three syllables," his wife said.

On another night I approached a table in the dining room.

"Are you the Epsilon who's going to serve us tonight?" asked one of the men at the table.

He was making a reference to the classic novel "Brave New World," by Aldous Huxley, in which a future society is divided into strict castes according to intelligence and capabilities. The names of the castes, from the top down, are Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and at the absolute bottom, Epsilon, the semi-morons. He didn't think I would understand his reference, and exchanged amused glances with a friend, enjoying his joke.

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"No, actually I'm an Alpha in disguise," I told him. "I'll be happy to take your order, however."

Not all guests were unpleasant or tactless. In fact, the nicer ones outnumbered the snobbish and mean, but they didn't make up for the other side of the equation, management.

Listening to my fellow employees I received the distinct impression that the hotel had once been a desirable place to work. "People used to fight to get in here," I was told one evening when the waiters felt like talking. It was only in recent years that they'd witnessed deterioration in their working environment and incomes. Most employees equated these changes with the arrival of a new corporate team that swooped in to begin subdividing vast acres of previously unspoiled land belonging to the resort. My co-workers saw the resort become a selling tool for $300 million in land-sales profits, instead of being a destination in and of itself. Their biggest concern was that once every last lot was gone, the resort might be sold off and the hotel part of it shut down for several months, thus ending their union contracts.

"Then they'll reopen it under a new name and hire some of us back at half what they pay now," ran a common refrain.

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Management did nothing to dispel their worries, instead intensifying them by adopting further policy changes to maximize profit and productivity at the expense of the lower ranks.

"It used to be we made money from ..." or "They didn't used to make us do ..." or "Well, looks like we won't be able to do that anymore," were phrases I often heard from my co-workers. Tipping opportunities and benefits began to erode as management retooled departments to shift money that hourly workers would have earned into cost savings and new revenue streams for the hotel.

In my department a new bar was built that could be serviced by two waiters, one acting as bartender. At first the waiters were excited by the hotel's spin on it, and I was pleased, too, as the new bar had created the job I now had.

"An extra bar means extra tips for you to split on payday," management told us.

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Then two months later came the bad news. Since just after Prohibition, the lounge had always employed a year-round staff of waiters. Some had been there for 30 years or more and were favorites with the guests. Now the lounge would close for six months of the year, and most of the staff would be laid off, because the new bar could serve just as many during that time with only one waiter and one bartender.

Cost efficient, definitely, yet I dreaded those 11- to 12-hour shifts at the new bar. I was never given more than one 10-minute break per day and even that was pointless. There was no break area. To sit down anywhere in the hotel's public areas, even in civilian clothes on days off, risked a write-up in your employee jacket. On slow days, when I wasn't running back and forth through three grand lobbies, across two sweeping terraces, a piano room, game room, and multiple reading parlors, as the only person to serve a waitstation the size of a football field, I was expected to always be in guest view, standing at Buckingham-guard attention for hours. Before coming to the resort I'd never thought that I would look forward to using a restroom just for the chance it afforded me to sit down. (Management later reconsidered its cost-cutting plan when it met with mixed results; it changed the number of months the lounge would be closed from six to five and agreed to open it up on the busiest weekends, giving workers back some of the hours they had lost.)

I was amazed at the arrogance of the corporation when it came to employee relations. Most supervisors used intimidation as their principal management tool. I felt especially sorry for the shuttle-bus drivers who routinely worked 16-hour days with no break. If they ran inside to use the bathroom, a supervisor would usually be there to question what they were doing.

The drivers worked such long hours because not long after I started all nonmanagement employees were banned from parking anywhere on the resort's thousands of acres. They were to be bused in from a newly built lot near downtown. Whereas before, local workers could count on a five-minute commute door to door, they were now required to spend 40 minutes to an hour of unpaid time waiting for and riding a shuttle bus onto and off the property. No one explained why. Rumors circulated that it was because the corporation wanted to develop our former parking lots behind the laundry into luxury homes, but in the absence of an explanation the message sent was that same old refrain: Sorry, you're not good enough to drive onto hotel property.

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I don't consider myself a liberal, and in fact I was raised as a conservative. But it doesn't take the countless studies that have been completed in recent years to demonstrate to me that the gap between the rich and the poor is widening as the ground falls out from under the middle class. All I needed was six months on the receiving end. Of the 2.3 million workers who have lost their white-collar paychecks over the last three years due to outsourcing, productivity gains and, as some pundits claim, a shortage of start-up capital, I'm certain many have learned the same demeaning lesson I did when forced downward by the scarcity of quality jobs.

I wonder how many of us imagined when we left school to embark on the bright and shining futures heralded by our graduation ceremonies that we would be staring down our 30s, 40s and 50s as minimum-wage earners?

Thankfully I've moved on to more rewarding and pleasant work, but my season among the chronically underemployed provided me with a stark reality check. Don't fool yourself. Even winners are vulnerable in today's job market.


Claudia O'Keefe

Claudia O'Keefe is an author and freelance writer.

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