Millions Of Service Workers Will Never See The Praise Geoffrey Owens Received
Retail workers’ rights shouldn’t only be a priority when a famous face is attached. All jobs matter.
September 12, 2018 at 12:33 am
Geoffrey Owens’ face was recently on millions of phone screens but it had nothing to do with his stint as Elvin on The Cosby Show.
A New Jersey woman caught him working at her local Trader Joe’s grocery store and secretly took pictures of him. In the candid photo, the Yale educated actor runs a cash register and bags groceries like millions of other people across this country.
Instead of minding her business and going about her day, the woman, Karma Lawrence, sent the photos to The Daily Mail and gave an interview.
“I used to watch The Cosby Show all the time; it was my favorite show. It was definitely him. I would have thought after The Cosby Show he would maybe be doing something different,” Lawrence said.
“It was a shock to see him working there and looking the way he did. It made me feel really bad. I was like, "Wow, all those years of doing the show and you ended up as a cashier.'"
When Lawrence eventually apologized and tried to explain why she took the picture, her words pointed to a bigger problem.
“I actually wanted to go up to him and say something, but I thought, ‘you might embarrass him,’” she said. “But then I did something that actually embarrassed him more.”
Owens had no reason to be embarrassed. He was doing work that was legal and harmless. He wasn’t publicly intoxicated. He didn’t beat up his wife or say anything crazy like other celebrities. He was working.
Lawrence’s words sting because less than six months ago, I was working retail just like Owens.
When I resurrected my journalism career, I was still working my retail job at Michaels. Like Owens, I worked retail to supplement my passion projects.
Owens eventually received support and job offers after the public heard about his employment, but I wasn’t that lucky.
Whenever someone asked me what I did, I was honest and their facial expressions said everything their mouths couldn’t at risk of being cussed the hell out.
I received looks of pity and furrowed brows along with questions about me going back to school or if I was still writing.
I left that job less than six months ago and the way people treat me is vastly different. I rarely get asked about my education anymore and when I tell people I am now a full-time writer, I get pats on the back and congrats. Like many writers, I ain’t ballin’ but that doesn’t matter because the title of writer is more respectable than that of a retail manager.
Outside of a few understanding friends and my family, no one offered me writing leads or money towards going back to school. I had to swallow my pride a couple of times and crowdfund to get what I needed. There was a time when I worked Michaels along with two other service gigs. Still, people have asked when I would get a “real” or “grown” job.
Millions of people deal with the same issues that plagued my retail experience. While the world was supporting Owens, someone was probably demanding a manager or berating a cashier for something that was out of their control.
Many exalted Owens for making an “honest living” but many people in the industry aren’t making ends meet. The median wage for part-time retail workers is $9.61 while full-time workers earn between $9.61 and $14.42.
If you throw race in the mix, s**t really gets real.
White workers in America get paid about a dollar more than black workers, according to CNN. Additionally, black folks receive less hours and opportunities for promotion. We’re also more likely to live under the poverty line.
Experts recommend raising minimum wage to solve these issues. According to Demos, the amount of working poor in the retail industry would be cut in half if pay was raised to $15 per hour and the change would affect 70 percent of Black and Latinx workers.
Whenever reform is brought up, people balk at the idea as if the money would come out of their own paychecks.
Owens worked for Trader Joe's, a company known for giving its employee exemplary benefits. However, most retail employees aren’t that fortunate. Jobs with good benefits are hard to come by so if a retail worker gets sick, they might be placed in a position to choose between their health and their job. Taking time off for a doctor’s visit means less money. Consequently, I went to work sick several times. One time, I was so sick I couldn’t stand for long periods of time so I laid behind a counter and puked in a trash can.
Like Owens and I, many people are working these jobs so we can eat while we pursue our dreams and get our education. Others do so because they have families to support. Regardless of the reason, retail and service workers deserve better conditions and respect. Owens gave an interview after the hoopla and he said something that should have already been understood.
“I hope that this period that we’re in now, where we have a heightened sensitivity about that, and a reevaluation of what it means to work and the idea that some jobs are better than others — that’s actually not true,” he said. “There is no job that’s better than another job. It might pay better, it might have better benefits, it might look better on a resume and on paper. But actually, it’s not better. Every job is worthwhile and valuable.”
Retail workers’ rights shouldn’t only be a priority when a famous face is attached.
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