Deciding that I needed to get out more, I went looking for a job. I wasn’t expecting an executive position, as the Jim Croce song has it, but it didn’t seem out of the question that I would find something befitting my experience, age, innate dignity, winsome ways, fair looks, bad knees, and dapper wardrobe selections from second-hand clothing stores. So I got an hourly job where a seventeen-year old girl was my training coach.
A few days ago I underwent my thirty-day evaluation and got a star on my apron. (My coach has four; she expects me to salute.) It was a rocking evaluation, let me shamelessly add. I owe that to my almost-eighteen-year old coach, who plans to study civil engineering when she enters college this August.
I have never had an hourly job. My first after school high school job was as a newspaper reporter for a county weekly. I was paid thirty cents per column inch and three dollars for published photos. It might have paid better had my editor not whacked at my copy like it was underbrush. He claimed he was the god of the newsroom consuming my dross.
This time around, I am a restaurant host. I sought a job that would toss me in with people, co-workers and customers (we call them guests). A little money for the effort wouldn’t hurt, either. I assign available tables, escort the guests to said table, and do this in rotation between three dining rooms, ensuring no server is overwhelmed and each gets a fair shot at tips. Part of the job―no surprise―is to treat each customer fairly and respectfully. This is drilled into new employees.
Also drilled into employees is a company philosophy: Their individual work is important, valued, needed. It contributes to something bigger than themselves―making people happy. The corporation is in that business first; making money is an agreeable benefit. If this echoes “Seek first the kingdom, and everything else will be added,” I think the echo is deliberate.
A month of this, working three to four shifts a week and, honest, I have come to feel like the dining rooms are my dining rooms. I’m thinking like a possessive captain on the bridge of his vessel, constantly stalking the deck on watch for errant bits of paper and other things askew that offend my sensibilities. Frankly, I am a little bemused by it.
I find it great fun, chatting with customers and messing with kids. If you ever overhear a restaurant host asking children whether they want left-handed or right-handed crayons for the coloring sheet with their menu, yeah, that’s probably me.
It is clearly work for students, and for retired folks supplementing their Social Security. A five-star employee may earn twelve dollars hourly, roughly $24,900 annually on a forty-hour week. Yet no one is expected to work a full forty-hour week. Twenty-eight hours is more realistic. This is work to aid tuition or add to the family income. For a few, as I hear it, it is their family income, and for others, a second job. Some employees have cross trained for other staff spots; more work opportunity. One worker told me she was having a rare but needed ten-hour day; one shift done, a brief break, and another. The management, so you’ll know, is as flexible as possible and employees are encouraged to pursue their apron stars for the pay increases that go with them.
The federal minimum wage, $7.25, has been stagnant since 2009. Missouri last raised its minimum wage in 2015, to $7.65, and local municipalities are forbidden from raising their minimum above the state’s. I earn $1.25 above the Missouri minimum, an average starting rate for service workers.
Having an hourly wage has altered my relationship with money. I’m not sure a minimum wage will ever become the living wage many people seek, but I do know that now when I look at an item I invariably calculate how long I have to work to own it or eat it or wear it. I never bothered with that before. Every spending choice has become an existential crisis. It’s not even money I depend on. Yet hour by hour, there it is, looming over me. A lot of people, doubtless, have the same dilemma.Russell E. Saltzman writes from Kansas City, Missouri, is also a contributor at Aleteia. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @RESaltzman. His previous First Things contributions are here.