Eric Adams and the "Low-Skill" Workers
The not-quite gaffe of the new mayor
Several days into his mayoralty, Eric Adams is already attracting attention. It is the peachiest of times to be a politician, when all is new and expectations have yet to be dashed. The people who are yoked to the process—the journalists, pundits, donors, operatives, lobbyists, and even the voters—are excited for the potential of it all, a future that can, in theory, be anything. The outer boroughs will be forgotten no longer! Crime will be tamed! Small businesses will be heard! The mayor bikes to work and even rides the subway. He must be on to something.
So far, the usually cynical New York City press corps, so used to beating the political carcass of Bill de Blasio for eight long years, is quite enraptured. Casual lies are no longer bemoaned. Questions have their edges shaved off. “Mr. Mayor, why do you think it’s so important to have this press conference today…” And Adams, with the salesman’s smile, like a character out of Tom Wolfe’s fiction, begins to answer.
None of this will likely last. Adams is serene now, but no mayor of New York remains that way, no matter how much they might meditate. Adams, who has a penchant for incendiary statements, may find his fuse running shorter in the coming weeks and months. Crises beyond the pandemic will emerge. The media will grow less friendly. Voters will become more demanding.
On Tuesday, Adams drew the ire of at least one prominent state senator and many on Twitter when he spoke at a press conference about his desire to have more companies bring workers back to their companies in-person, especially in Midtown. Though the darkest days of the pandemic, for New York City, came almost two years ago, the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high. The outer boroughs have largely recovered but Manhattan commerce is still nowhere near what it was in 2019. Tourists have not returned to the same degree. With the Omicron variant driving an explosion of cases, many offices, understandably, are reluctant to fully order workers back. For the commercial real estate industry, which certainly has the ear of Adams, the long-term trend of remote work could be disastrous. More and more large companies are learning they can maintain productivity without paying many thousands of dollars to lease office space in the most expensive city in America. As more leases expire in the coming years, expect fewer renewals.
No worker should be shamed for enjoying remote work. Personally, I like remote work. Commutes are draining. Certain professions must ultimately be in-person but there are many that don’t have to be. Many people have found remote work rewarding, allowing them to spend more time with friends and family. A work-life balance can be restored.
Adams, however, has many economic incentives to fight this trend of remote work, even if it’s inevitable. Remote work means less foot traffic in Midtown, Tribeca, and the Financial District. This punishes the many blue-collar workers—the food cart vendors, security guards, lunch spot cashiers, dishwashers—who have relied on the presence of white-collar workers to make their livings. Though he’s plenty wealthy now, Adams does have roots in the working-class and is able, in his own way, to relate to these struggles.
“I want my businesses in this city to come up with a closer deadline and say, ‘we’re gonna start placing our toe back in the water, come in for two days, three days, and then let’s get this city back up and operating,’” Adams said at the Tuesday press conference. “I don’t know if my businesses are sharing with their employees, you are part of the ecosystem of this city. My low-skill workers, my cooks, my dishwashers, my messengers, my shoeshine people, those working at Dunkin Donuts—they don’t have the academic skills to sit in the corner office. They need this. We are in this together and we should be saying to ourselves, ‘if I remotely do my job, then that stock clerk is not able to have the business he deserves.’ That’s what I need us to understand.”
Jessica Ramos, a progressive state senator from Queens, shot back at Adams on Twitter, joining a chorus of critics who believed the new mayor was denigrating “low-skill” workers by saying they didn’t have the “academic skills” to sit in corporate offices. “Mr. @NYCMayor, there’s no such thing as low skilled workers. That is a concept designed to suppress wages. You’re talking about people whose labor is essential to our everyday lives. Smh.”
Indeed, the phrasing can come off as condescending. There is no mystical power required for sitting in a corner office. Some nice luck in life—family wealth, good health—can get you there. Service sector workers deserve the same dignity and much better pay than they currently receive. Ideally, they’d enjoy union protections and a chance to live, in this often unforgiving city, a middle-class life.
Adams, elevated now far beyond the service class, makes the mistake of assuming work in a kitchen or on a street is any less daunting than showing up at an office, where higher wage employees enjoy the kind of freedom a busboy or cashier will never know. The so-called “low-skill” workers have to follow more rules and live in fear of instantly losing their jobs. An office worker can stroll in late from time to time or miss an email; lateness, for many in the service sector, is a fireable offense.
But some may misinterpret Adams’ remark at their own peril, especially if they plan to challenge him politically. “Low-skilled” is a poor phrasing, yes, but Adams is arguing for them, not against. He is demanding corporations send their workers back to offices because a strong local economy will benefit an underpaid and more interchangeable workforce. Outrage over the Adams remark recalls the anger liberal pundits expressed when Donald Trump, early into his first presidential campaign, declared that he loved the “poorly-educated.” It was supposed to be, from the reading of Democratic observers and members of the media, another gaffe, an inopportune put-down of his own base. But Trump voters didn’t read it that way at all. In Trump, they saw a little bit of themselves and believed he was, in the bluntest way possible, speaking to their anger. Many of them were, in the most literal sense, poorly-educated—high school drop-outs, high school graduates, or maybe graduates of community colleges or a local four-year school few had heard of.
We know, then, that the white-collar workers Adams wants back in Manhattan are college-educated, many with advanced degrees. These companies have hiring requirements that would exclude the vast number of service sector workers Adams is fretting about. Pretending otherwise isn’t terribly helpful. Adams, a former police captain and child of South Jamaica, likely has a better feel for this rung of the working-class than most politicians.
The left, in general, can have a hard time acknowledging some people are not suited for “academic” work and shouldn’t be force-fed into college. Education is enriching but is not the magic tool for social advancement that the left and the right believes it to be, especially when schools tend to socially reproduce whatever class of students enter them. A better society, one striving toward utopia, would guarantee everyone, the “poorly-educated” or “low-skilled” included, has guaranteed access to free or heavily-subsidized housing and healthcare, as well as employment.
What the Adams critics could focus on instead is this system propped up entirely by consumer spending—a system that demands sometimes-inefficient office work subsidize minimum wage employment down the block. Adams is nothing close to a socialist, so he won’t bother to argue that a greatly enhanced social safety net could begin to solve some of these problems. A federal jobs guarantee with healthcare benefits could ensure the laid off dishwashers or cooks can go elsewhere. Or, at the minimum, a permanent child tax credit could help support them if they are raising families. On the city and state level, Adams could call for the further strengthening of rent laws and appoint tenant-friendly members to the Rent Guidelines Board. He could pursue serious, ambitious policy to create a true movement for social housing in New York City.
None of that is probably forthcoming. Adams campaigned and won as a business-friendly moderate, a friend to a real estate industry that very badly wants to ensure Midtown remains incredibly valuable. He will do what it is they want him to do. For now, he’ll enjoy the political capital to forge ahead. It won’t get easier from here.