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So yesterday, I wrote this series of tweets in response to someone who wrote a piece slamming another woman for writing an open letter to the CEO of the company she was working for. (She has since been fired.) Since then, I’ve collected my thoughts in a more long-form format, which is what brings us here today.
In her Open Letter to Millennials Like Talia, Stefanie Williams compares her own life experiences to Talia’s in order to demonstrate that Talia’s complaints are not valid. She talks about the difference in their ages (5 years) and explains that when she was in her early 20s, she too struggled to make ends meet, but she managed to pull herself up by her bootstraps. So what’s the problem?
Well, actually, there are several. As it turns out, Stefanie’s experiences in the New York City metropolitan area around 2009 are not at all comparable to Talia’s experiences in the San Francisco metro area in 2016. To start, Stefanie mentions walking into a bar where a family friend worked in hopes of a drink, and being offered a job on the spot. Here’s the problem: not only did Stefanie have an inside connection that allowed her to score that job, but also the service in the Bay Area has become saturated with workers who are not only experienced, but are also actually skilled labor. In order to find a restaurant job in the Bay Area, one actually needs a broad knowledge of spirits, wines, beers, food preparation practices, local suppliers… and more. Additionally, in order to even be considered for a hosting job (which is where Stefanie started out), one needs to be proficient in the use of restaurant-centric systems like OpenTable and the various POS systems restaurants rely on to do their business. Because the service industry is one of the only areas outside of the tech industry where workers have a chance at potentially making money decent enough to scrape by, even veterans with 10 years of experience, and special skills, are vying against one another for jobs for which they are overqualified and often being passed over for hire. One does not simply walk into a restaurant in San Francisco and get hired in the same way they did a decade ago.
Additionally, Stefanie mentions making $15 per hour, which at the time, was more than twice the minimum wage in New York City. Stefanie says her paychecks, after taxes, worked out to $168 per week for the two shifts she started with. If Stefanie had been working 8-hour shifts (which is rare for hostesses, but let’s give her the benefit of the doubt), that puts her take-home pay per hour around $10.50, which is still over 25% more than Talia’s post-taxes rate of about $8 per hour. Putting this further in context, the current minimum wage in the City of San Francisco, where Talia was working, is $12.25 per hour, which means her pre-tax compensation is, at best, only slightly above minimum wage, rather than the double-the-minimum wage Stefanie was earning at the job her family connections landed her.
Stefanie insists that Talia’s problem, that Milennials’ problem in general, is laziness and an unwillingness to do “demeaning” labor, but the real problem is that in most cases, the opportunity simply doesn’t exist. “God forbid she have to give up a weekend day to be a waitress,” writes Stefanie, but the truth of the matter is that no restaurant, bar, or cafe in the Bay Area is going to hire an inexperienced worker who also has scheduling restrictions. Every once in a while, it’s possible to elbow your way into the restaurant industry through connections and perseverance, but a crucial part of that is having open availability, the ability to cover shifts last-minute, and the willingness to work the shifts no one else wants to work (like Monday lunches or Tuesday nights anywhere tacos are not on the menu), not smacking down a resume and declaring, “I WILL WORK SATURDAYS.” Everybody wants to work Saturdays. Saturdays are where the money is. Inexperienced, nontenured newbies do not work Saturdays.
Stefanie also blames Talia for accepting a salary that wouldn’t cover her expenses, rather than blaming Yelp for under-paying its employees, and says Talia’s case shouldn’t be prompting a discussion about wages, but actually Talia’s situation is EXACTLY why we should be talking about wages. Stefanie says Talia shouldn’t have expected to be able to live alone on what she was taking home from a job at Yelp, and there’s a lot to unpack here. To start, in 1938, when the federal minimum wage was first written into law, it was enough to support a household of two on a single income. At its peak, in 1968, a full-time (40 hours per week) job paying the minimum wage was actually enough to support a family of three at or above the poverty line on a single income. This changed in the 1980s under the Reagan administration, and the minimum wage has been insufficient to support a family of two on a single income ever since. If any economy has reached a point where minimum wage is insufficient for a single person to live alone and support themselves, then a discussion about wages absolutely becomes necessary.
Additionally, Stefanie suggests that Talia shouldn’t be living alone in San Francisco, and should instead be living with roommates. However, given Talia’s cost of transportation into work ($5.65 each way), we can extrapolate that Talia is not living in the City of San Francisco, or even in neighboring Oakland. Talia is actually living in the outer reaches of the BART system, most likely either in the Walnut Creek/Concord area, or in the Hayward/Castro Valley area. The cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Walnut Creek, Concord, Hayward, or Castro Valley is actually approximately equivalent to (and often below) the cost of a bedroom in shared housing in San Francisco. In fact, it is possible (albeit rarely) to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Hayward for approximately the same cost as a shared bedroom in San Francisco. This reduces Stefanie’s argument to a suggestion that she is being wasteful in paying for transportation, not that she is being wasteful in her housing expenditures. This also fails to take into account that nowhere in the Bay Area is the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment near BART (our primary and most reliable source of public transit) less than $1000 per month, and the median rent in San Francisco has risen to over $4000 per month. In fact, a quick search for available rooms for rent in San Francisco demonstrates exactly why Talia has chosen to live alone towards the end of the BART lines, rather than seeking a house-sharing solution in San Francisco itself. (Nevermind the fact that Talia probably has good reason for not wanting to live with strangers.)
So let’s do some math, shall we? If the minimum wage in San Francisco is $12.25 per hour, a worker putting in 40 hours per week is making approximately $2254 per month before taxes. Working with Talia’s stated post-tax income of approximately $8 per hour, that number shrinks to only $1472 per month. Remember what that Craigslist search looked like? Accepting the fact that a room for rent in San Francisco with a reasonable amount of access to public transportation is going to cost roughly the same as Talia’s 1-bedroom apartment rented at $1250 per month, that leaves a mere $222 per month for food, transportation, utilities, and everything else someone might need to spend money on. Put into this context, that $20 copay Talia was so concerned about makes a lot of sense, as it’s approximately 10% of her “disposable” income. Even if we assume the new normal is actually sharing a bedroom, a bunk in a shared bedroom in San Francisco goes for $800 per month, which is still more than half of Talia’s post-tax income. Houston, we have a problem.
So, how did we get here? It’s a long story, but in the interest of providing sufficient context for understanding where we are now, I’ll go over it briefly. 2007-09 saw the subprime mortgage crisis wreak havoc not just on the Finance industry, San Francisco’s primary industry at the time, but also on people who had bought homes in areas like Antioch, Tracy, and Stockton. As people outside the reach of BART lost their homes and their cars to the economic crash, they began moving back towards the urban city centers of the Bay Area, causing rent prices to climb at a slow-but-steady rate after the initial fiscal catastrophe. With the advent of the current venture capitalist-backed tech boom, rents began to skyrocket at a significantly more rapid rate as demand for housing quickly outpaced supply. Suddenly, workers outside of the tech industry were beginning to experience displacement from their homes, and starting to be driven from San Francisco altogether.
Fast forward to today. Why are people making such a big deal about Talia’s situation? It’s simple, really. For many of us, Talia and others like her are the canary in the coal mine. We’ve grown accustomed to people outside of the tech industry scraping by to survive, but seeing employees of the industry credited with causing this sharp increase in the cost of living starting to join the rest of us in being priced out is a startling development. Where the Dot Com bubble of the late 1990s and early 2000s certainly had an impact on the economic climate of the San Francisco Bay Area, this current boom has seen the technology industry develop into the backbone of San Francisco’s economy, and stands to do a lot of damage if (when) it collapses. Those who exist outside the industry are scraping by, and the implication that those inside the foremost industry propping up our local economy are also scraping by is indicative of impending economic ruin for us all. It’s not that Talia is the first person to struggle to make ends meet while living here, it’s that people working places like Yelp were supposed to be safe.
In essence, not only is it not at all Talia’s fault that she can’t survive here, but the fact that she can’t survive working for a multi-billion dollar company in the leading industry in the area is exactly why people are discussing poverty and wages; because if people in entry-level jobs there can’t survive, what hope do the rest of us have?
Now, one of the other things I’d like to address about Stefanie’s letter to Talia is the part where Stefanie mentions living with her mother while simultaneously insisting millennials are just too lazy to put in work and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. I will never, ever shame anyone for accepting familial support: times are hard, we all do what we need to in order to survive, smoke ’em if you got ’em. But that doesn’t mean that everyone has that same support, and people (like Talia) who do not have that support (remember this?) absolutely do not deserved to be shamed for not having that safety net to rely on. Stefanie had family friends who helped her find a job paying double the minimum wage, and Talia had family friends whose role was decidedly different. Everyone’s circumstances are different, but we’re not looking at an individual issue here, we’re looking at an economic rift built on housing accessibility and income inequality. What one millennial is or is not willing to do is not actually the issue, the issue is the fiscal climate we’ve been dropped into.
Now, admittedly, it was probably a terrible idea for Talia to write a letter calling out her boss and her workplace by name, and it’s pretty unsurprising that she was let go over it. (PS: Girl, go apply for unemployment if you haven’t already! You are almost definitely eligible!) That said, the desperation that drove her to write this letter is very real, and very valid, and the conversations it is facilitating are actually extremely necessary conversations regarding both the cost of living and the valuation of labor in the Bay Area (and beyond.) Stefanie says Talia shouldn’t have such high expectations of an entry-level job, but history indicates that entry level in any field ought to at least be enough to survive on, and it is extremely evident that is not the case in the Bay Area.
Now, of course Stefanie is entitled to both her opinion, and the expression thereof. However, as someone who has never lived in the Bay Area, and especially someone who does not live here now, I venture that it would have behooved her to do at least a little research into the cost of living, economy, and history of San Francisco and the surrounding areas before launching into her screed against Talia. But I won’t dig too deeply into what that says about Stefanie’s work ethic, and I’m certainly not going to assign that same work ethic to an entire generation. Because it turns out, Stefanie is only a few months younger than I am… what a difference those months make.