retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe
There was a story that broke while I was on vacation that I didn’t report on yesterday. I can’t even tell you why I ignored it, but apparently I made a mistake, because I got a lot of email from readers that urged me to pay attention, saying that it was an important issue demanding discussion.

It had to do with a 57-year-old fellow named Geoffrey Owens, who has been working at a New Jersey Trader Joe’s. Owens had his picture taken while working last week, and the photo went viral … because between 1985 and 1992, Owens was featured on “The Cosby Show,” where he played Cosby’s son-in-law.

It only became a problem when some media outlets - Fox News is most often mentioned in the coverage - belittled Owens and his job, which created a backlash on social media. Many people argued that work is work, and that job shaming never is appropriate; there were a lot of actors who pointed out that their careers often require them to work other jobs in order to make ends meet in between gigs.

This, in fact, is exactly what Owens was doing. Even though he has a long list of credits on his IMDB page (a lot longer than mine!), Owens has said that he simply wasn’t getting enough acting work to pay the bills, and so he took the Trader Joe’s job more than a year ago.

Owens, in a “Good Morning, America” appearance yesterday (during which he wore his red Trader Joe’s badge), said, “I’d been teaching, acting, directing for 30+ years, but it got to a point where it just didn’t add up enough and you gotta do what you got to do … I didn’t advertise that I was at Trader Joe’s, not that I was ashamed of it, but because I didn’t want the entertainment community to kind of decide, 'Well, he's doing that; he’s not pursuing acting anymore.' I felt like I had to be careful about that.”

The New Yorker wrote that “it was a fitting subject going into Labor Day weekend. We don’t tend to think of actors as laborers, despite the robust unions that represent them—Actors’ Equity and SAG-AFTRA. The most visible actors serve as aspirational figures, celebrated (or vilified) for their glamour and luxury. When we do hear about salaries, even in the context of gender discrimination, it’s often in the million-dollar range.” And while members of the entertainment community often are painted as coastal elites, the fact is that creative people are every bit as diverse as the rest of society; there are a lot more of them working as waiters and in similar jobs than making big paychecks. (Even when they’re working, they often don’t make enough money to live, and have to take side jobs to support their art.)

(The New Yorker also points out that Owens probably has been luckier than most, because for years he could count on residual checks from “The Cosby Show” to see him through the tough times. But, it notes, those checks almost certainly have dried up, since the sex scandals precipitated by Bill Cosby’s behavior have caused most outlets to stop running the sitcom.)

The good news - for Owens - is that all this publicity probably means he’ll be getting some acting work. Director/producer Tyler Perry reportedly has offered him an acting job, saying that he has “so much respect for people who hustle between gigs. The measure of a true artist.” Though, to be fair, Owens says, “I wouldn’t feel comfortable getting acting jobs from this event … I wouldn't mind getting auditions, I don't mind if people call me in to try out for things, due to what's happened, but I actually wouldn't feel comfortable (with) someone giving me a job because this happened. I want to get a job because I'm the right person for that job.”

But here’s where Owens gets it absolutely right:

“"This business of my being this 'Cosby' guy who got shamed for working at Trader Joe's, that’s going to pass. ... But I hope what doesn’t pass is this idea ... this rethinking about what it means to work, the honor of the working person and the dignity of work.

“And, I hope that this period that we're in now, where we have a heightened sensitivity about that and a re-evaluation of what it means to work, and a re-evaluation of the idea that some jobs are better than others, because that’s actually not true.

“There is no job that's better than another job. It might pay better, it might have better benefits, it might look better on a resume and on paper, but actually it’s not better. Every job is worthwhile and valuable, and if we have a kind of a rethinking about that because of what’s happened to me, that would be great.”

Exactly. And an Eye-Opener, and not just because it is on the front lines where companies succeed or fail, and where true value often is created. The executives I really respect are the ones who know that, and act on it.
KC's View: