For most of the past 14 years, I’ve been a waiter. I’ve worked 70-hour weeks. I’ve left work at 3:00 a.m, only to show back up at 10:00 a.m., after getting robbed on my way home. I’ve ignored injuries to avoid the hassle of getting my shift covered.
The job is not glamorous, but it can be rewarding. Lately, however, I read a new story almost daily about a massive worker shortage that’s forcing restaurants to cut hours or close altogether. According to one such piece in the Washington Post, the culprit is “unemployment benefits and pandemic assistance,” which offer more money than a typical hospitality job — we’re being told that workers would rather stay home living off an overly generous government. The New York Post, for its part, blames “workers who say they’re better off collecting COVID-relief-bill enhanced unemployment checks.”
Presumably, people who say this have never had to rely on those “enhanced” unemployment benefits to survive, as I did for nine months of this pandemic. I know what it’s like to stay up all night worrying about bills. I once walked through my apartment making a list of all the belongings I could sell if I needed to.
Nobody chooses to live like this instead of going to a good-paying, reliable job. Instead, the industry was deeply flawed before COVID-19, and the pandemic only made things worse. Workers are staying away because the industry has never treated them with respect, and if restaurateurs expect to change nothing, and return to a time when they could count on a huge stack of résumés from highly skilled individuals who would put up with all manner of abuse for meager pay, they are mistaken.
Long before lockdown, I worked in a restaurant that charged $225 for a meal prepared largely by an army of stagiaires, unpaid kitchen staff working for “experience.” There, I saw every angry-chef stereotype you can imagine: plates and pans thrown across kitchens, screaming, even physical abuse. I’ve seen pot handles heated until they’re glowing and left on a stove top for an unsuspecting line cook to grab while the rest of the staff chuckles. Racism and sexism, both from guests to staff and among employees, are rampant.
That abuse has always been stacked on top of low pay and owners who can’t always be counted on to pay their employees in a timely manner. I’ve been told to wait a few days before cashing paychecks, and have had direct deposits not go through because of “accounting issues.” Front-of-house staffers are paid less than minimum wage in most states and make the majority of their income in tips, which disproportionately benefit white men. Cooks, when they’re paid at all, are frequently victims of wage theft and unpaid overtime.
Now, on top of all these issues, we’ve been asked to work throughout a global pandemic, one that has been particularly deadly for restaurant workers. Even though vaccines are widely available, only about half of American adults are vaccinated, and operators can’t be counted on to prioritize their own employees’ safety. This summer, I worked at a restaurant where the entire staff was exposed to someone with COVID. We closed for one day.
The nature of the work has changed, too. Under the best circumstances, I get to be part of dozens of small celebrations every night — people come to toast engagements, weddings, birthdays, and promotions. It is deeply gratifying to make people happy every night. But now, instead of being providers, servers have been turned into cops: We must enforce countless, ever-changing rules and regulations for diners who simply don’t care. Every night it’s, “No, you can’t move the tables; no, your friends can’t join your ten-top; no, you can’t stand up and walk around maskless.” Some people are understanding, but most times, guests react as though we personally drafted these rules specifically to ruin their night. They beg, they withhold tips, they scream at us, and in extreme cases, they assault us.
Asking for better working conditions is treated as a sign of laziness and entitlement. I can’t count how many times a complaint to management has been met with, “You could always work somewhere else.” Sucking it up and putting on a happy face is the only way to show that you’re a “true professional.”
This is the only career I’ve ever known and I desperately want this industry to succeed. There’s no reason it can’t. The majority of staff leaving their restaurant jobs say they would stay if they were just paid a stable, living wage.
I understand the devastation that this pandemic wrought on our industry — 80,000 restaurants have closed permanently across the country — and I am fortunate to currently work somewhere with great owners who pay well and treat their employees with dignity and respect. But I shouldn’t have to count myself among “the lucky ones.”
The restaurants that come out of this period the strongest will be run by owners who understand this, and who know that putting the welfare of their employees first is the only real way forward. We take pride in our work; we only want to work for people who value that commitment with simple respect that has disappeared from far too many dining rooms.