Jobs in food service, janitorial work, security services, and human and health services often have unpredictable hours, lack health care benefits, or pay low wages.
COWS, a research and policy center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, released a report outlining the barriers workers face in the service sector. Laura Dresser helped write the report. She is Associate Director of COWS and is also a Clinical Assistant Professor of Social Work at UW-Madison.
In Milwaukee, there are many vacancies in the service industry with employers stating they are unable to fill positions. However, Dresser says the structure and instability of service industry jobs are not sustainable for a stable life for workers. She points out that this crisis in the industry has been a problem long before the pandemic.
“The issues faced by employers are exactly the same as those faced by workers,” says Dresser. “We had organized this work in a way that was not viable for the workers.”
She explains that Wisconsin is losing touch with the minimum wage structure. In Wisconsin the minimum wage is $7.25, while in our neighboring states of Illinois and Minnesota it is much higher.
According to the COWS report, taking into account all possible jobs in Milwaukee, the median salary in 2020 in the city is $20.00 per hour, or about $42,000 per year if you work 40 hours per week. Breaking it down within the service industry, the median wage for food preparation workers was $11.00 per hour, which is just over $20,000 per year.
The dresses emphasize that this is not viable for anyone. “Even if you had a full-time job, that wouldn’t prevent a family of four from living in poverty,” she says.
On top of all this, throughout the pandemic, service industry workers are constantly working with customers. Even sometimes faced with the new responsibility of enforcing mask mandates. “Customer service jobs have gotten tougher,” says Dresser.
In southeastern Wisconsin, more and more service industry workers are joining unions. From Colectivo Coffee to janitors in downtown Milwaukee, service workers are advocating for better benefits, higher wages and better job quality.
Peter Rickman, president of the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization (MASH), knows this struggle firsthand. In 2020, MASH was behind the historic union contract for service workers at the Fiserv Forum. Now they continue to support service and hospitality workers.
When talking about the importance of unionization in the service industry, Rickman goes back to the history of unionized blue-collar jobs in Milwaukee. He says, “When the factories and foundries in this city were the source of tens of thousands of union jobs, Milwaukee was at its best.”
And with growing efforts within the service industry to unionize, he believes it will only make our nation better.
“Every worker in the service sector, the approximately 69,740 service workers in this community, when this group of people – more than 10% of our city’s population – has a living wage, union jobs look at what our neighborhoods will look like. and our communities,” says Rickman.
With their efforts to empower workers, Rickman stresses that it is not just up to the employee to advocate for change. Employers and policymakers must step up their collaboration with workers to change the industry.
“We envision a world where workers and employers across industry come together around a table and put in place an agreement that establishes basic wage standards,” he says. “We imagine a world where employers and workers can unite at the center of the labor market to ensure workers have jobs when they need them and where they can find them.”
Ultimately, Dresser and Rickman point out that employers and policy makers can work with employees to change the structure of the industry.
“Workers want to see respect — respect for their time, respect for their contribution. And it’s not that there’s one thing employers do,” Dresser says. “And I hope that more and more employers find ways to evolve that respect for that workforce, and that we really change the structure of those jobs in that process.”