Amy Bowlen keeps smiling behind her bar at Little Pearl Restaurant. HAYS BLINCKMANN / Keys Weekly

Imagine being polite, happy, gracious, knowledgeable and helpful every minute of the workday because your pay depends on it. It’s referred to as service with a smile and Florida Keys workers excel at it. But at what cost to themselves?

What if the customer isn’t always right, or polite, or even respectful? How does that affect the 102 million Americans who work in the service industry (according to the Pew Research Center)? Or specifically, Key West, where the service industry makes up roughly 24 percent of jobs, the largest industry by far in the Keys.

A study by Oregon Health & Science University published in July may shed some light behind the scenes of the industry. 20,000 individuals were followed over 14 years, both in tipped and un-tipped service positions, and researchers found that service workers who rely on tips are at greater risk for depression, sleep problems and stress compared with employees who work in non-tipped positions. The strongest impact is on women, who make up 56 percent of all service workers.

“The higher prevalence of mental health problems may be linked to the precarious nature of service work, including lower and unpredictable wages, insufficient benefits, and a lack of control over work hours and assigned shifts,” said lead author Sarah Andrea, a Ph.D. candidate in epidemiology at the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health. “On average, tipped workers are nearly twice as likely to live in poverty relative to un-tipped workers.”

Industry workers in Key West have added stress variables, like the cost of living, hurricanes, and the unpredictable nature of tourism that affect their bottom line. And worse, mainly women are prone to sexual harassment from customers causing them to suppress anger and resentment. 

“Either you are tough as nails or a pushover, and no one wants to be a pushover,” said server Amy Bowlen, 36, who has worked in the industry for two decades. “It’s okay to show anger but you do not show sorrow.” Bowlen works at Little Pearl Restaurant, a higher-end establishment, but started with tourists and big-volume places like Rick’s on Duval.

“It’s inconvenient to show your
emotions, so it teaches you to hide them and compartmentalize,” said Bowlen, who lost the contents of her home during Irma and is still recovering, “We are under stress at home, but you can’t portray that sadness to customers because it would be bad for tourism.” 

It’s the unfortunate catch-22 for the Keys’ service industry. The study concludes: “Improving working conditions to provide higher wages, predictable and stable schedules, and adequate benefits may alleviate the stressors common in tipped occupations. Solutions will likely be found through collaborative efforts from policymakers, employers, and workers and their unions.” 

Something to keep in mind to keep our industry healthy, and remember they need a friendly face too.

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