Opinion: The lessons in the Applebee’s email
“Most of our employee base and potential employee base live paycheck to paycheck,” he wrote. “Any increase in gas price cuts into their disposable income. As inflation continues to climb and gas prices continue to go up, that means more hours employees will need to work to maintain their current level of living.”
Pankratz himself is likely looking for a job today. He was fired by the Applebee’s franchise group for the content of his email and perhaps for saying the quiet part out loud. Kevin Carroll, chief operations officer at Applebee’s, said in a statement that Pankratz’s opinions were his own and that, above all, the company values its employees. “Our team members,” the statement said, “are the lifeblood of our restaurants, and our franchisees are always looking to reward and incentivize team members, new and current, to remain within the Applebee’s family.”
It is too early to know whether the United States is headed for a recession as prices rise, a war in Eastern Europe puts pressure on commodities and the country only starts to come out of a pandemic. But I doubt Pankratz will be the last manager to be caught, in effect, rubbing his hands together in happy anticipation of harder times.
I also think it might be helpful to pause for a moment and remind those who don’t work on their feet or with their hands how hard such a life often can be. I have toiled away at retail positions and been tied to a headset in call centers — jobs where employers saw me as a warm body and little more. Working hard in those sorts of jobs doesn’t necessarily mean advancement, ever. In many industries and sectors where work is considered unskilled and staying employed depends on constant contact with the public, the basic philosophy of employers is too often that most workers are easily replaced. A minimum wage, the thinking goes, is all that is required to keep folks coming back for more drudgery.
But the pandemic has led many folks to fully rethink how they regard their work — or, more specifically, the quality of their lives. After hustling small children off to day care, or working multiple jobs just to make ends meet, record numbers of Americans have simply up and quit their jobs — roughly 4 million each month from September through February.
Now, after two years of the pandemic, workers are tired of being asked to tighten their belts and work harder. Many are starting to realize that life is not work and work is not life, and they are done spinning their wheels.
People such as Pankratz don’t favor that kind of introspection. It ruins the bottom line.
Let’s be clear: It’s not that nobody wants to work anymore, as some in capitalism’s high command fear. Most people, given a chance, will work hard to make a better life for themselves. But wages in this country long ago lost pace with the cost of living, and our politics are not currently arranged to correct the imbalance. Little is formally compelling companies to pay more — not even a shortage of workers — and now sentiments such as Pankratz’s surface to suggest some companies might aim instead to sit back and wait for the economy to sputter.
My guess is that the recession, if it comes, won’t save them.
Of course, there is not much left to the old covenants between employer and employee, in part because the two sides are now separated by vast differences in incomes in ways that were unthinkable 50 years ago. Annual median pay for chief executives rose to $14.2 million from $13.4 million over the past year, increasing by double-digit percentages during the pandemic — faster than wages for workers in general.
Pankratz’s email spoke to that gap when it helpfully reminded his bosses how challenging their workers’ lives are: “Your employees that live check to check are impacted more than the people reading this email.”
Private employers might want to invest in their employees instead of waiting for conditions to decline. Workers are more productive when they want to come to work and when they encounter a culture that breeds loyalty. Worker turnover decreases when employees aren’t despairing the moment they walk through the workplace doors.
We have enough challenges as a country without self-styled managers such as Pankratz stoking class warfare. People who have grown accustomed to low pay and long hours don’t want to waste their lives any longer. It remains to be seen if U.S. employers would rather respond to that aspiration or double down on the misery.