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'All work produces value': What experts say Eric Adams gets wrong about 'low skill' workers

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People walk outside Dunkin' Donuts in New York City.
Noam Galai | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

On Tuesday, New York City Mayor Eric Adams signed an executive order to reduce fines and penalties for small businesses from a wide range of government agencies. After signing the order, Adams took questions from journalists and spoke about his hope for corporate workers to return to their Manhattan offices in order to stimulate local businesses. 

"Many employees are saying, 'We don't want to come back into the office… Now, that's fine, if we weren't connected," said Adams. "My low skill workers — my cooks, my dishwashers, my messengers, my shoeshine people, those who work in Dunkin Donuts — they don't have the academic skills to sit in a corner office. They need this. We are in this together."

The statement caused backlash from workers, politicians and experts alike who disagreed with Adams' characterization of workers' skill levels.

"No such thing as a 'low skill worker,'" tweeted New York City Council Member, Tiffany Cabán. 

"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," tweeted New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who worked at a restaurant before she became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress in 2018. "Plus being a waitress has made me and many others *better* at our jobs than those who've never known that life."

On Wednesday, Adams shared his own experience in some of the professions he mentioned.

"I was a cook. I was a dishwasher. If nobody came to my restaurant when I was in college, I wouldn't have been able to survive," he tweeted. "When you talk about closing down our city, you're talking about putting low-wage workers out of a job. I'm not letting that happen."

CNBC Make It contacted the office of the Mayor as well as Dunkin Donuts but did not receive a response. 

Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, says the term "low skill" is "offensive" and often inaccurately conflates low pay with low academic requirement.

"I try not to use that term myself because I'm not sure who that is possibly referring to. A lot of people talk about credentials or amount of education, but that's not the same thing as skills," she says. "It's a way to make an excuse for why some jobs in the U.S. economy are paid such low wages."

Gould points out that there can also be bias in how much certain types of skills (such as customer service, emotional intelligence and child care) are valued by the labor market.

"When we think about the valuing of many low-wage jobs, it's not just about the undervaluing of that work, it's also tied up in historical sexism, racism, xenophobia," she says. "It's often that these workers don't have the leverage or bargaining power to get better wage contracts or working conditions."

Brooklyn-based bartender and restaurant worker Cat Montesi, 33, says she has been working what may be categorized as "low skill" jobs for over 10 years. 

"Every job requires a skill," says Montesi, who noted that she has a master's degree but enjoys the community connection she gets from working in the service industry. "The same folks he was calling 'low skill' are people we were calling essential workers not too long ago. Low skill because it justifies not rewarding the people."

Freida Steiner, 28, also has a master's degree and says her two retail jobs (working as a cashier for a gift shop in Manhattan and for a homewares store in Brooklyn) are often more difficult than the profession she was academically trained to do: teaching students with special needs.

"Both jobs are difficult because no one is mentally well right now — children, parents of children, customers — no one's okay," she says, mentioning that the pandemic disrupted many full-time teaching jobs. "But I would argue that customer service is more difficult."

She continues, "I think [Mayor Adams] is using 'low skill' workers as a way to not have to say low wage workers. It's embarrassing for people in power to have to admit that we rely on people not making money doing certain jobs. But if we say that it's 'low skill', then we don't have to talk about it."

"All work is work and all work is dignified," says Patricia Campos-Medina, executive director of The Worker Institute at Cornell University. "All work produces value for our economy."

She says the minimum wage should be increased and that workers should be given health care.

"Because professionals need to stop and buy a cup of coffee," she says. "And that worker should not be thought of as less value for selling you the coffee than for going into a corporate office."

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