By Alex McIntosh
My parents started their swimming pool service business in 1999. My mom had just gotten out of the shower when my dad burst in with a tentative grin on his face. She recognized the expression, a mix of embarrassment and self-assurance, a look she knew meant that he had quit his job.
“Let’s start our own company,” he said as my mom towel-dried her hair.
This decision shaped my family life and allowed my parents to build the kind of workplace they desired. Even in the lean, early years of the business when they were struggling to pay their own bills, I remember my parents giving generously to their workers, bagging up our hand-me-downs to give to an employee whose kids were younger than us. When my brother and I outgrew the swing set in our back yard, we loaded it piece by piece into one of the employee’s trucks for his kids to enjoy. Now that I’m older, I’ve realized my parents gave away much more than hand-me-downs; I can’t count the number of times they’ve given out paychecks early to help ease an employee’s stress; they’ve helped with medical payments, been flexible with time off, and even bailed employees out of jail without asking too many questions. I see the way they worry about their workers, the way they wish for the best for their families, and the way they try and pass down the wisdom and experience they’ve gained to empower others to be as successful as they’ve been. I’ve seen them live out their commitment to the trade, to providing excellent service at a fair price, and their belief in the dignity of blue collar work. In short, they’ve run their business with humanity, and treated their employees like humans.
I’ve also seen the stress in their faces when we pass a sign for an Amazon warehouse job starting at $18 an hour. I’ve heard their strained discussions when another young hire leaves the company to work somewhere else for more money, for a job that is indoors and doesn’t require as much technical knowledge. My parents’ business pays high above minimum wage and provides stipends for health insurance and cell phones and gas, but they struggle to compete with the pay or health benefits of a huge corporation.
There are a lot of memes floating around posing the worker shortage as a rebellion against the archetypical wealthy business owner—the billionaire who is paying his workers pennies, wearing a top hat and grinning sleazily. My disdain of late stage capitalism tempts me to categorially distrust businesses; the startling discrepancy between minimum wage and the cost of living makes it easy to group all business owners into this wicked caricature. But watching my parents’ attempt to maintain a small, healthy, profitable, and equitable business tempers my rage. What I’m basically saying is, “Not all businesses…” which is a statement layered in irony and founded on avoidance of white middle-class responsibility. But surely there is a difference between Amazon and my parents’ business. For one thing, my parents know all of their employees personally. They see them as people because they know them as people—they know their families, their hopes and dreams, their work ethics, and funny catch phrases.
When my dad complains of the worker shortage—or as he sees it, “young kids not wanting to get their hands dirty”—I try and remind him there are plenty of people who want to work, but there are also plenty of people who are fed up with working 40 hours a week and struggling to pay their rent, afford groceries and health insurance, childcare, and the countless other expenses of modern life. I try and remind him that we are on the same side—all of us working class people, all of us people who believe in contributing to our community and benefitting from that contribution. When I hear my peers complain about the soulless conditions of the modern workplace, of their disdain for the billionaires whose money is multiplying exponentially as I type this, I try and remind them of the value of small businesses.
I know that a good work environment alone doesn’t put food on the employee’s table; I know that fair pay is essential. I don’t know the complex economic answers that will solve America’s living wage problem—though, I’ve read that housing stipends, socialized medicine, and public childcare might help even things out. But I do know that we can’t lump small business owners into our cultural disdain for “the boss.” And I know that small business owners need young employees who are willing to work hard.
What I’m saying is that we need each other. All of us non-billionaires need to realize that we want the same things out of the American workplace—safe, meaningful jobs that provide for our financial needs. Small businesses—where workers are treated as humans, where they have a stake in the company’s success— may be a good place to start. I’m certainly not advocating for capitalism as a value system—I realize the toxicity of the vision of growth for growth’s sake, and the devastating potential of American consumerism. But I see small businesses as harm reduction in a society that is desperately hurting from the inhumanity of late stage capitalism. Until my communist friends’ dreams of a Worker State are realized, small businesses are some of the most ethical, caring places to find work.