Nora Cooper, a bartender and server in Nashville, Tennessee, tested positive for coronavirus in the summer. Despite exhibiting symptoms she was still required to come into work by her employer until her test results came back, and three other employees wound up testing positive as well, even as her management told employees not to get tested unless they direct them to do so.
Cooper and her coworkers sent a letter to management outlining complaints and concerns about the lack of coronavirus protections being followed at the restaurant and improper personal protection equipment (PPE), though problems continue to persist and workers are making roughly half of wages they made before the pandemic because of the decline in customers. She asked to keep her employer anonymous for fear of retaliation.
“Our workload has gotten significantly larger because we’re doing more sanitizing – we’re spacing things out more, taking more time in between tables, and on top of that patrolling adults is exhausting,” said Cooper. “Our income is dependent on customers liking us to a degree so there’s an incentive to let people do what they want instead of yelling at them to follow the law.”
As coronavirus cases spurge across the US workers in the restaurant industry have faced mass layoffs, extended furloughs, and those who have returned to work are adapting to a new work environment that includes trying to manage the behavior of diners who are abrasive toward coronavirus safety protocols, increased workloads, cuts to wages and constant worry about contracting coronavirus.
A recent study published in Nature found highly visited “points of interest” – notably restaurants – are responsible for the transmission of a large majority of new infections. And with winter upon us, and diners likely to move indoors again, the situation is set to get worse.
“Bars and restaurants are one of the unsafest places to be right now because people hang out without a mask,” said Brenda Waybrant, a server at Wild Horse Saloon in Nashville, Tennessee who is on extended furlough until 31 December, and organizer with the Nashville chapter of Restaurants Opportunities Center United.
It took two months into the pandemic for her unemployment benefits to begin, and now she is trying to survive on Tennessee’s maximum of $275 as federal expanded weekly benefits of $600 expired on 26 July and she only received the extension of $300 a week for five weeks.
During the first six weeks of the coronavirus pandemic in the US, 5.9 million workers in the restaurant industry lost their jobs, as bars and restaurants shut down or reduced staff in transitioning to focus on take-out orders. The industry was the hardest hit by the pandemic in regards to unemployment.
Restaurants started to reopen in May 2020 and outdoor dining spaces were expanded around the US, helping the industry regain some job losses, but there remains a job deficit of 2.3m in the restaurant industry since before the pandemic.
According to estimates by the National Restaurant Association, nearly 100,000 restaurants and bars have closed permanently or long-term during the pandemic.
The Independent Restaurant Coalition has warned 85% of independent restaurants could close by the end of 2020 if the federal government doesn’t pass a relief package that includes a restaurant revitalization fund.
With winter approaching, outdoor dining space won’t be available to many restaurants. Some establishments are using heat lamps to try to extend the use of outdoor dining, but shortages have already been reported.
“As many restaurants as possible will try their best to put out heaters to keep outdoor dining running and people will push the limits of indoor dining, but I think it’s going to be a really hard winter for the restaurant industry,” said Natalia Tylim, a server in New York City and organizer with the Restaurant Organizing Project.
In the beginning of October, Tylim returned to her job as a server in New York City after being furloughed for six months, and is currently working in outdoor dining only.
“It’s very different than before the pandemic,” Tylim added. “The shifts are twice as long. There are less people working at once and more things to keep in mind that include deep sanitizing of things, patrolling people to wear masks, and it’s an incredibly new situation that has changed the nature of the work.”
Zachary Hoffman, executive vice-president of DC Bar and Restaurant Workers Alliance and a bartender at Cafe Fili in Washington DC, is working through the pandemic, but making much less money because of the decline in customers dining out, and is worried it will worsen once the weather gets too cold for the restaurant to use its outdoor dining space.
“It’s something I think about every day. It doesn’t look good,” said Hoffman. “i think there will be a reduction in staffing. That puts me on top of the list of people who may no longer be necessary. “
Hoffman explained most customers are fine with adhering to coronavirus safety protocols, but there are still people difficult to interact with who are frustrated with regulations.
“Our jobs are focused on facing guests and interacting with other people, and that adds a whole other level of nervousness about the pandemic,” Hoffman added. “Bartenders and servers are doing whatever they can to make ends meet and that means putting themselves at elevated risk of danger day in and day out.”
A bartender and server near Wrigley Stadium in Chicago, Illinois, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, explained her employer has cut benefits such as 401(k) retirement pay, while tips and take-home pay for workers has decreased due to a decline in customers. They have been working full-time since their restaurant reopened in early May 2020.
They noted many customers are hostile toward coronavirus protections, and workers are continuously struggling to enforce coronavirus safety protocols, such as social distancing and mask wearing, while trying to appease these same customers who they rely on for tips.
“My coworkers and I are frightened. Even though we are working and making OK money, we’re just keeping our heads above water,” they said. “It’s a frightening time to be working in any capacity. If you’re going out to a restaurant right now to eat, that’s very risky behavior and people willing to do that and acting like everything is fine I think are incredibly selfish.”