At a press conference Tuesday, New York City's new mayor, Eric Adams, urged local white-collar workers to start returning to the office a few days a week. Remote work and COVID shutdowns, he explained, had seriously hurt businesses that rely on commuter customers to survive.
This observation is obviously true, and plenty of data backs it up. But Adams angered people when he noted that many service workers don't have the option to work from home and don't have the skills for many office jobs: "My low-skilled workers, my cooks, my dishwashers, my messengers, my shoeshine people, those who work at Dunkin' Donuts—they don't have the academic skills to sit in the corner office." So instead of actually talking about the impact of COVID on these jobs, people are clutching their pearls in faux shock that the mayor had called them "low-skilled" workers. This was construed as an insult, rather than Adams pointing out the reality of COVID shutdowns have harmed New York's least-privileged workers.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) weighed in on Twitter: "The suggestion that any job is 'low skill' is a myth perpetuated by wealthy interests to justify inhumane working conditions, little/no healthcare, and low wages. Plus being a waitress has made me and many others *better* at our jobs than those who've never known that life."
The outrage is phony. Everyone who actually heard the mayor's original statement knows what he meant. Yesterday he went on CBS to explain the obvious: "If you are a dishwasher, you can't remotely do your job," Adams said. "If we don't have an accountant in an office space coming to a restaurant…that dishwasher's not going to have a job….We need to open the city so low-wage employees are able to survive."
The phrase "low-skill" is a standard economic term for jobs that can be learned quickly by the vast majority of people and do not require months or years of training to understand. This doesn't mean that anybody can thrive at a low-skill job and perform it exceptionally well. It means that most adults can learn to perform the tasks.
The reason "low-skill" jobs typically have low wages is a basic Econ 101 matter of supply and demand. Because most citizens are able to learn these jobs, the labor supply for the work is well above average, so these workers usually don't have much leverage to demand more. It is not a "myth perpetuated by wealthy interests," as Ocasio-Cortez insists. It's just economics. In the ongoing "Great Resignation" of people quitting their jobs, the lack of supply has caused these very same wages to rise. These "low-skilled" workers are an important part of the economy. That has nothing to do with how they're labeled, or how thin-skinned some people are pretending to be about it.
And Adams is absolutely correct that shutdowns hurt low-wage workers. November data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan institute that researches policies to reduce poverty and inequality, show that the poorest workers have been taking it in the shorts in the shutdowns. From February 2020 to September 2021, jobs were down 5.3 percent in low-wage industries. The average for all industries was down 3.1 percent.
One in five New Yorkers report being behind in rent. A full 30 percent say they're struggling just to cover household expenses. Even as the job market tightens nationally in the recovery, New York City lags behind: Its unemployment rate stands at 9.4 percent, more than twice the national average.
You can feign anger over the phrase "low-skilled," or you can face the cruel reality that the city's shutdown has harmed the very people whose honor these tweeters insist they're defending. Call them whatever you want. Just open the city back up so they can survive.