Jeremy Hobson: Today we’re going to go right to the core of the American economy, and every economy, really. And every job, and every household and every task that we do every day.
I’m talking about hard work. It’s what defined this country at its birth — and it’s part of what has made us stand out from the rest of the world.
But if you turn on the news these days, you might hear reports that our hard work ethic is going away.
Montage of news reports: After a full day’s work of picking sweet potatoes, these employees will take home at least $100 today. Certainly a lot of work, but work that farmers say normal Americans just won’t do. They wanted a position, not a job. What kind of jobs are employing they can’t fill with Americans? Doing a lot of jobs that I think you can argue Americans wouldn’t do.
So is that really true? Have we lost our hard work ethic? And how do we get it back?
Today on the show, we’re going to explore hard work: Who does it? Who doesn’t? And why it’s crucial to our economy and our country.
We’re gonna start at the south end of the 110 freeway here in Southern California in the city of San Pedro. We’re at a fish market, which is kind of like a huge warehouse with a great water view. There are long glass cases filled with scallops, trout and salmon. There are tourists and families lining up for trays full of fried calamari. And there are hard workers everywhere — scrubbing the floors, hauling the catch, gutting the fish and frying it up.
Sergio Rodriguez: I cook the fajita trays, I barbecue the fish and fry the fish and I give out orders.
Sergio Rodriguez is just 20 years old and he’s been working here for four years in a job that his co-workers consider the hardest in the building. That’s because he works all day in a small open kitchen with multiple cooks and — this is the key — a blazing hot stove.
Rodriguez: Working in the heat… There’s like 15 people in here at one time sometimes and you bump into everybody.
Hobson: Do you feel like you get paid enough to do that kind of hard work?
Rodriguez: Yeah, I think I do. I get paid pretty good.
Hobson: How much?
Rodriguez: I get paid $11.50 an hour.
Hobson: So, do you think that your friends in other professions, doing other things, understand how hard of work you have to do everyday?
Rodriguez: No. They think I got it easy.
Seventeen-year-old Allyse Kadota works here during the summers. She sells fish to the customers. She says it’s tiring but fun. Well, most of it.
Allyse Kadota: It’s usually on Sundays that I hate, because we have to clean everything with our hands. And it’s just gross, ’cause it’s just dirty and clean bathrooms and do all the dirty work. That’s the hardest part for me, ’cause I don’t know… I can’t do that.
Hobson: A lot of fish guts on the floor and stuff.
Kadota: Yeah, but I’m kinda used to all the fish guts and all that. So it’s not too bad in that respect.
Hobson: Do you like to eat seafood?
Kadota: It’s not an option.
The job that didn’t look easy — or particularly pleasant to us — has been filled for the past 27 years by Chino Pena. He cuts the heads off of fish and scrapes off their scales.
Hobson: So is that hard? Do you consider that hard?
Chino Pena: Easy.
Pena: It’s like anything. When you peel a chicken… You ever peel a chicken?
Hobson: I usually don’t, no. I usually get the store-bought ones that are pre…
Pena: You never get a light chicken?
Pena: Oh my…
Hobson: So that’s it: You just cut it open and slice it down the middle and you’re done?
Chino slaps five pounds of fish on the table in front of me, splatters a little fish blood on my shirt.
Hobson: So you brought one for me.
Pena: Two. If you mess up one, you get another one.
Hobson: If I screw it up, I get another for a second time. Got it. So what am I doing here?
Chino hands me a metal device that’s sort of like a cheese grater.
Hobson: So we’re just cutting off the scales here.
It’s not the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I’d probably feel differently after about 20 minutes of this — let alone eight hours.
Hobson: How many times do you have to do this over the course of a day?
Pena: A day? All day long?
Hobson: How many fish?
Pena: How many fish? No idea, you never get an idea.
Hobson: A hundred?
Pena: Maybe more?
Hobson: More, wow. Did I do a good job?
Pena: You do beautiful, man. See that?
Beautiful isn’t the word I’d use, neither is the “e” word, but that’s exactly how the owner of the fish market, Tommy Amalfitano, describes it.
Tommy Amalfitano:The job is easy. You’re scalin’ the fish, workin’ hard is just what we do. Puttin’ up with all the other people that I have to work with around me, that’s the hard part.
Hobson: What would you say is the hardest job in this place?
Amalfitano: I don’t consider any job hard.
Hobson: You don’t think any of them are hard to do?
Amalfitano: But it’s hard as far as a person has never done it before.
Hobson: There would be a lot of people who would not think that it’s fun to clean a fish or scale a fish.
Amalfitano: That’s correct, a lot of people say “no way Jose” and they run like heck.
Hobson: Do you think other people, when they come in, think that it’s hard?
Amalfitano: Definitely. They all think it’s hard.
Hobson: Why do you think that is?
Amalfitano: Well, because most people don’t like to get their hands dirty, number one. Everybody wants to be behind a computer. I don’t know how a computer is going to fillet the fish for the people, I don’t know if the computer’s gonna tell anybody that the fish is fresh. I don’t know how anybody’s going to cook the fish for ’em. I don’t know how anybody… All these guys are computer geeks, they make a lot of money — God bless ’em, they don’t have to work very hard. But I think we’re healthier.
Hobson: You don’t think they don’t have to work very hard.
Amalfitano: I think they work hard in their field, as far as mentally hard, they work a lot harder than we do.
Hobson: But in terms of physical labor…
Amalfitano: But in terms of physical labor, we work much harder.
Hobson: What would you say is a comparable job to this in terms of hard work?
Amalfitano: I just had cement laid in my house. Those guys worked hard. I’ve never seen anybody milk a cow with that much… They were up in the middle of the night milking the cows, they have to fee the cows. That must be a hard job. THey have to put up with the smell. I don’t particularly like the smell. Just like anybody else that comes in, if they came from the farm, and they said, “Hey, this place smells.” Well, if I went to your farm, I’d say, “Your farm smells.” I mean, it’s just what you’re used to having and not having.
Hobson: How do you teach a work ethic to your employees?
Amalfitano: The work ethic is taught by everybody in here, not just me. Because everybody has to clean fish, everybody has to sweep the floor, everybody has to wash the walls — everybody has to do everything.
Hobson: You know, when I look around here, as probably with any business that’s within the food industry, there are a lot of Latinos working here. And I wonder if the work ethic is different with the people with that heritage, and let’s say, somebody who was raised in Kansas?
Amalfitano: No, not necessarily. If you come here and work in this place, I don’t care what nationality you are, where you come from — you’re gonna work. So it doesn’t make any difference, ’cause we’ve had a lot of different people from all ethnic backgrounds, everything. They work.
Hobson: Final question: If I were to offer you the chance tomorrow to switch all of this and go take a high-paying lawyer job in some office building, would you take the switch?
Amalfitano: I’d throw you outta here.
Ashley Andrews: Hello.
Hobson: Hi, I’m Jeremy Hobson. How are you?
Andrews: Jeremy! Ashley! Nice to meet you. Thank you for coming. Go ahead and have a seat.
Well now we’ve come to a very different place in search of hard work. It’s at the other end of the 110 freeway in Sierra Madre, just north of Los Angeles.
We’re at a law firm called Hoffman and Andrews. Lawyers, of course, can make a lot more money for the hard work that they do. And a lot of them don’t want to talk about it. We contacted several lawyers at large firms and they were afraid to talk to us about their workloads for fear of being off-loaded.
But then we found Ashley Andrews. who’s a partner here at Hoffman Andrews. She used to work at a big firm, putting in 12 hour days, sometimes six or seven days a week. Then she decided to become her own boss, which means less money for now, but probably an easier life.
Andrews: I don’t think you become an attorney for the compensation. I think you are an attorney because you like the challenge and you like helping people. Quite honestly, the compensation isn’t worth it.
Hobson: It isn’t worth it.
Hobson: Because a lot of people that work in those big firms, especially when they get right out of law school in the major cities are making upwards of $160,000 a year.
Andrews: They’re making upwards of $160,000 a year, and they don’t sleep at nighttime, they have significant health problems, I think; their families suffer. It’s not worth the income. If you were to divide the number of hours that we work by our salary, I would think that we probably make, if not minimum wage, less than minimum wage.
Hobson: Oh come on.
Andrews: Oh it’s true.
Andrews: I believe so.
Hobson: It’s funny, because parents love when their kids say they’re going to be a lawyer.
Andrews: I’m sure parents do, until their kids actually become an attorney, and they don’t see them and then they change their minds.
Hobson: Get yourself outside of the legal field and look at the economy as a whole. What is a comparable field in terms of the amount of work that you have to do?
Andrews: I would probably say an emergency room doctor.
Andrews: Because you have the pace, you have the split-second decisions that you need to make and you’re dealing with very very critical issues in people’s lives, where if you make a wrong decision, you can screw them up permanently.
Hobson: A lot of pressure.
Andrews: A lot of pressure.
Hobson: If I were to offer you the opportunity right now to switch places and take a job that pays a lot less, but spend the day scaling fish at a fish market in San Pedro, would you take it?
Hobson: Why not?
Andrews: Because it doesn’t offer the intellectual challenge that brings me to work everyday, that makes me wake up in the morning excited for my day and it doesn’t offer the same opportunity to take care of people, share with them through a very difficult place in their life and help them.
So a few minutes ago, I mentioned the “e” word — easy — well you just heard Ashley use a more important e-word when it comes to work ethic — that would be “excited.”
There’s a lot happening in the world. Through it all, Marketplace is here for you.
You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible.
Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.