He thought tending bar sounded like fun. Then the entire kitchen staff quit on Christmas Eve.
Bill McCamley was NM's labor secretary, but working at a local movie theater taught him the truth about what's ailing the workforce.
I’ve known Bill McCamley from when we were both in politics, he as an elected official and me as a campaign consultant. We lost touch when I left the game for public service, and in that period he had a harrowing run as New Mexico’s Secretary of the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions. Death threats drove him from town and to Austin, where we reconnected. Gifted with boundless energy and optimism — picture a Great Dane that just wants to play — he took a gig tending bar at a movie theater in a wealthy suburb of Austin. And that’s where this former labor secretary found out what’s really behind the so-called worker shortage.
by Bill McCamley
It’s 1pm on Christmas Day, and I just got in for my shift. I closed the night before so I was already tired, and it’s a zoo from the start. The line is stretched almost out the door. One of the managers told me they had 900 people in the door by 2pm, and they could only get five people to work until later that afternoon. The entire kitchen staff quit Christmas Eve, so none of the regular food is available. Disgruntled parents and screaming children are everywhere. A guy could be heard saying, “Shut the hell up, Mom. It’s Christmas” after she was loudly complaining about not being able to get a burger. Around 5, a 40-something dad threw a kindergarten-esque fit at a couple of high schoolers working the counter because we didn’t have a full dinner available for his kids.
I was definitely thinking, “What the hell am I doing here again?”
My name is Bill McCamley. I have pretty much been in politics my whole adult life, and until April 2021 I was the Secretary of the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions… the state labor department. I left that job for personal safety reasons, and other than a couple of years back east for graduate school, I’ve always lived in New Mexico. I thought I would never leave, but… 2021.
So, not quite throwing a dart, but not really knowing where else to go, I did what many others are doing and came to Austin with a car and four bags of clothes in June for a fresh start.
I’ve been able to work a couple of jobs and contracts, but for something new I took a class from the Texas School of Bartenders (which I highly recommend… it’s no joke) and got recruited to pour drinks at a theatre in a wealthy suburb of Austin in September. The combination of working this front-line service industry job and my last gig running a state labor department has led to some interesting observations.
The combination of working this front-line service industry job and my last gig running a state labor department has led to some interesting observations.
I used to look at the news incessantly, knowing any change in federal policy would cause huge repercussions for us. For my mental health, since I left I’ve purposefully only looked at the news a couple of times a day since. When I do, though, any mention of workforce issues still catches my eye. And mostly these stories concern the “worker shortage” employers are experiencing nationally.
While there have been complaints from employers that workers “don’t want to come back to work” just wanting to “stay on unemployment,” data shows that isn’t true. States that stopped increased unemployment payments early didn’t see much if any change in employment numbers. Child care was hard to get before COVID. The pandemic has increased shortages, building huge barriers to women who may otherwise want to get back into the workforce. The most recent reports show the shortage isn’t from “lazy young people who don’t value work like older generations do (and get off my lawn while you're at it).” It’s from older people who have opted to either retire early or simply aren’t returning to work.
This vacuum has created a situation where people who are willing to work have more options; meaning they can choose jobs with more pay, benefits, and flexibility. Americans are tired of working bad jobs leaving crappy, front-line positions unfilled in countless industries… including movie theatres. And I’ve certainly seen examples of this situation first hand.
Before I go on, let me say that many of the customers I’ve seen are great. The store managers seem to care about workers and try their best to treat us with respect and dignity. But that hasn’t stopped the exodus of workers from the place for a variety of reasons.
The first and biggest is wages.
The first and biggest is wages. In New Mexico, the state minimum wage will be $11.50/hour in 2022. Here in Texas, it’s still at the Federal level of $7.25 per hour. And they can still pay just $2.13 if you make tips (we’ll address this later). In order to attract bartenders my pay is $10 an hour, but that is offset by the fact that almost all the tips we get are split between the whole staff. I am really lucky in that I am not doing this for the money… I have some savings and other contracts that have helped me live in a very expensive town. The other bartender has a small apartment in Austin and splits the cost with her boyfriend. Another adult worker who plays a sort of catch all role (and was recently “promoted” to an assistant manager position) works another job as a hairdresser. She once told me she recently worked 12 days straight between the two gigs. One of the other managers also cannot afford a place by himself, and lives 40 minutes away with a roommate.
The median household wage for the zip code where the theatre is located is about $108,000 per year. This dichotomy leads to problems. Places like this rely on high school students for jobs like working the counter and delivering food. But since the kids out here don’t have to work because for the most part their parents are rich, getting them hired and wanting to stay is really hard. And the adult staff, with the exception of one person, cannot afford to live in the area. Like me they commute from 20-40 minutes away. It's one of the reasons I’m not staying… the hour round trip (up to two with traffic) every day simply isn’t worth my time.
The store managers get this. They have requested that corporate heads raise wages across the board, but have been told no as “wages are already higher than in any other theater.”
The benefit situation is no better. Workers get to see free movies when theaters aren’t busy, and get half off of meals purchased while at work. But that doesn’t help when you need to see a doctor or get a prescription (Thank you Obama for your Care).
The first Friday after Spiderman came out, I worked from 1-9pm. From 2:30 till the end of the shift, I never stopped moving.
When it’s busy, the hours are brutal. The first Friday after Spiderman came out, I worked from 1-9pm. From 2:30 till the end of the shift, I never stopped moving. I washed dishes, moved trays of glasses, hauled ice, built drinks, poured beers and wine, and then either served people at the counter or ran them to the four theaters with patrons expecting wait service at their seats. I could barely walk when I got home. The Christmas Day described above was similar, having a line that never seemed to go down.
When I was a 16 year old kid working as a “Courtesy Clerk” for Albertsons Grocery store, we got a 15-minute break for every 4-hour shift and an hour lunch for an 8-hour shift. At the theater, they don’t give set breaks or lunches. Granted, it can get slow and when that happens there is time to eat, go to the bathroom, and sometimes just sit (which is probably how the company justifies not meeting break obligations). But on some of those busy days mentioned above getting to the bathroom is actually hard.
Scheduling is also rough. The low pay combined with the necessity for most adult workers to commute means that there aren’t enough workers to staff all the positions needed. So the people already in place are asked to work more hours leading to more dissatisfaction.
The lead cook, a cantankerous, darkly funny dude from England once worked 16 straight days over the Thanksgiving period, then got called in on his first day off because it got too busy. He was visibly pissed. He quit Christmas Eve because he thought it unfair the head theater manager took four days vacation over Christmas, and he didn’t get time off. The rest of his team pretty much left with him. He was right, but the manager also needed for a break. She only got a few days off from Thanksgiving until Christmas and was putting in 10-12 hour days constantly for a couple of months. It’s truly a vicious cycle.
The theater’s best high school worker also left right before Christmas. He is a smart, polite kid who was great with guests, always showed up on time, and was put in a supervisory position because of his quality. But he requested some lighter hours over the holiday as his girlfriend was coming in from Oklahoma for a short time and he wanted to spend time with her. They gave him a full schedule. So he said goodbye.
And then there are the customers.
And then there are the customers. Many are kind, respectful and understanding. But so many are not. I am talking about the lady who, when we were obviously short staffed on Christmas Eve, dropped her entire bag of popcorn and demanded it be picked up and that she be given a new one right away even though the line for the front counter was 20 people deep. Or the older gentlemen who got red-faced yelling at a high school server in a theater because his little seat table was broken. Or the person who pooped in a theater on December 28th, making one of the workers clean it up that night... the term “no shit” taking on a whole new meaning.
You would think, as this is a visibly wealthy area, that tips would generally be good. You would be wrong.
Which leads us to tips. You would think, as this is a visibly wealthy area, that tips would generally be good. While there are certainly good egg exceptions to the rule, for the most part you would be wrong. I once worked at our outside bar for five hours during a movie night for kids and left with $3.80 in tips… for the night. On Christmas Day a family bought over $100 worth of tickets and food two days after Christmas.
The tip? $2.00.
Staff rely on tips because wages are not at a living level. Crap like this is so demoralizing because workers need the money to live. But even simpler knowing these people can afford it, and the hard work you are putting in, to be treated like that is dehumanizing as hell.
To add more acid to the burn because most tips don’t come in cash, the company puts workers’ money on an ATM card after the split. There are two ways to access these funds. You can either pay a fee and have the company who runs the card transfer it to your bank account. Or, you can withdraw your money in cash from an ATM… after paying the host bank a fee.
This nickel and dining of workers already meager funds to pay wealthy bankers even more feels like a scam.
I’m actually happy I took this job. I really like pouring and serving drinks. I enjoy learning new things and now know how to arrange a beer cooler, make a good margarita quickly (either singular or in a batch), and change drink recipes effectively when customers want something individualized. When the recent James Bond movie came out, I even got really good at making an excellent martini (Yesh Moneypenny, they were shaken). I like the kids I work with, and even the managers. They are good people.
But I’m also glad I’m leaving. As the saying goes, the juice just ain’t worth the squeeze.
People want to work. I’ve seen time and time again that they show up on time, stay late, do things outside of their job descriptions, and deal with jerks over, and over, and over again. The myth that Americans, and especially younger Americans, aren’t willing to work is flat wrong.
The myth that younger Americans aren’t willing to work is flat wrong.
But there are breaking points, and if employers continue to pay low wages, withhold health, child care, and other benefits, refuse to be flexible with scheduling, don’t give breaks, etc… workers will quit. And they will go to employers who will.
Labor is supposed to have value. A good days’ work deserves a good days’ pay. Though we seemed to have lost that as a culture these last few decades, the realization is certainly back upon us now. And with the stock market at an all-time high, corporate profits soaring, and CEO pay exponentially higher than their workers, execs can afford to share the wealth a bit.
As for customers… You want to see Spider Man? You desperately want to bring your kids to Encanto or Sing 2? And you want your popcorn, food, and drinks? Cool. But if you don’t tip or act like an asshole, taking your personal anger and frustrations on workers who don’t deserve it, workers will not be there to serve you.
Good old Adam Smith and his invisible hand of supply and demand works both ways, and the reason why you won’t get what you want will be staring right back in the mirror.
Bill McCamley is an ex County Commissioner, State Representative, Non-Profit Director, and State Department Secretary. He has a Bachelor’s in Government from New Mexico State University and a Masters in Public Policy from Harvard University. Connect with him on LinkedIn here, and follow him on Twitter @BillMcCamley.
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