Service-sector workers say jobs complicated by social distancing, masks

Sam Tuttle’s job at a bustling restaurant on the Las Vegas Strip is as much about providing diners a temporarily escape as it is about serving their meal. But making that happen has gotten much trickier.

He tries to be upbeat and smiles broadly, mindful that he needs to speak a bit louder and enunciate clearly. But the effect is lost behind the mask.

“People are mostly put off by the masks and feel uncomfortable,” said the 37-year-old waiter, who says his tips have dropped off roughly 30 percent since the coronavirus outbreak. “The interaction is inhibited, sometimes our attitudes are misinterpreted and guests leave disappointed.”

The pandemic that has ravaged the service industry and cost millions of jobs is changing the nature of customer-facing work at stores, spas, restaurants, barbershops and other service sector jobs. Workers across the country say even the most basic interactions with customers and colleagues have been complicated by social distancing and mask requirements, as well as the underlying fear of contracting the deadly virus.

The added complications, they say, often results in lower paychecks because they’re losing out on tips, commissions and bonuses predicated on keeping customers happy and engaged.

“Front-line jobs that were already precarious and insecure to start with are increasingly more challenging and irregular,” said Stephanie Luce, a labor professor at City University of New York, whose research focuses on low-wage employment. “Workers can’t engage with customers in the same ways they could before the pandemic, which ends up penalizing their pay.”

The nation’s 17 million leisure, hospitality and retail workers were among the first to be engulfed by pandemic-fueled layoffs and business closures. The jobs are at the lower end of the pay scale, commanding about $20 an hour, on average. And many workers don’t qualify for health insurance or sick leave benefits, adding another layer of vulnerability.

Now, labor economists say, service workers must cater to customers in more subdued ways. Interactions at restaurants or salons are increasingly utilitarian, more quick stop than experience, with little need for small talk or other niceties.

“The pandemic is having a profound impact on the way we think about every interaction,” said Ryan Buell, a professor at Harvard Business School who studies interactions between service businesses and their customers. “We’re at an inflection point: Our interactions with others are that much more sensitive now, and it’s up to companies to redesign service jobs in a way that they are more favorable for employees and more sustainable for customers and owners.”

In Milwaukee, Gerry Hartman says most of his exchanges with customers at the liquor store where he works are down-to-business: “Most people are good about finding what they need, paying for it and getting out,” the 21-year-old said. “Everyone is a bit less touchy-feely. On some level, the virus is always in the back of our minds.”

Some workers say they are forgoing employee break rooms for lunch alone in their cars, and many have stopped socializing with colleagues outside of work. They especially miss the camaraderie, which often kept them going in low-paying jobs with unpredictable hours.

“I’ve been working here for two months but it still feels like we’re strangers,” said Tykeara Philips, who works at a Finish Line store in Baltimore, where she says face masks and loud overhead music make it difficult to hold socially distant conversations. “I don’t even know what most of my co-workers look like without masks. It’s like: Go to work, go home, and that’s it.”

Adam DuPaul used to love chatting with the regulars at his New Hampshire barbershop, where the door was always open. He kept bottles of water, food and extra clothing on hand for those who might be down on their luck.

But that’s over. The front door is locked these days, and haircuts are appointment-only. DuPaul checks temperatures at the door and requires everyone to wear a mask. And instead of having three barbers and 50 clients a day, he works alone, cutting about 25 heads a week.

He makes about one-fourth of what he used to. Like many of the country’s 700,000 barbers, hairstylists and cosmetologists, DuPaul says demand for his services has taken a hit during the pandemic.

“I want my barbershop to be part of the community but it’s really hard to do that right now,” said DuPaul, 49. “I can only have two people in here at a time so as people show up, I have to turn them away. That’s something I never want to do.”

DuPaul, who is Black, knows the odds are against him: More than 40 percent of Black-owned businesses have folded during the pandemic, compared with 17 percent of White-owned enterprises, according to an analysis of government data by an economics professor at the University of California Santa Cruz.

Like millions of other businesses deemed nonessential, DuPaul had to abruptly shut down his shop in mid-March. By the time he reopened 13 weeks later, he had depleted his savings. His income, which once comfortably supported his family of five, now barely covers the bills. His girlfriend has taken on temporary work to help ends meet, but he worries about what will happen when that ends.

Those fears, he says, have cast a shadow over his business but also help connect him to his clients, many of whom are grappling with similar worries about their health and finances. Though he misses how lively the barbershop was before the pandemic—boisterous, full of commotion and laughter —he says he is learning to appreciate the quiet. It’s easier to have personal, one-on-one conversations now.

“People are concerned,” he said. “They’re putting on a good face—saying things like, ‘It is what it is’ and ‘You just got to put one foot in front of the other,’ but underneath it all, we’re all very worried.”

Nearly 60 percent of businesses that closed during the pandemic—many of them in retail, food, travel and entertainment—have shut down for good, according to the reviews site Yelp. Economists say they expect that figure to grow as the crisis drags on and Americans pull back further on discretionary spending.

Caught in the fray are tipped workers who often rely on customer gratuities for most, if not all, of their wages. Ariana, a dancer at a gentleman’s club in Chicago, says tips have become more unpredictable during the pandemic. There are fewer customers now, which means she sometimes goes home with as little as $60, after paying the club’s nightly fee and sharing tips with other staffers.

She worries, too, that a second wave of the virus could force another shutdowns of the $8 billon industry and its 4,000 clubs, leaving her without a job or unemployment benefits because she is technically a contractor, not an employee.

The pandemic, she says, has altered just about every part of her job. She avoids the communal dressing room and carries bottles of hand sanitizer as she walks the floor. She has other rules, too: She only approaches customers who are wearing masks, and asks that they don’t touch her.

“I am very strict about taking precautions but I’m going to be honest: It’s very difficult to make money that way,” said Ariana, 29, who spoke on the condition that she be identified by only her first name. “When people come to the club they want to forget about everything that’s going on in the world.”

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