Covid Destroyed the Illusion of the Restaurant Industry
Service workers told The Flashpoint what the lockdowns and government aid showed them about the business
Restaurant owners are complaining that their workers won’t return to the industry now that restrictions imposed to deal with the coronavirus pandemic are loosening because of generous unemployment benefits.
But reporters are seldom talking to workers about their side of the story.
Over the weekend I spoke to people who have left or are leaving the industry in the wake of the pandemic. Here’s what they said.
Your support makes these stories possible. If you’d like to make a monetary subscription to help fund my reporting, please become a paying subscriber and sign up for a monthly or annual donation.
“The pandemic kind of stripped away the illusion of fairness/equity in the industry”
The restaurant industry is a hard business. Staff are expected to make the most of their shifts, whether the place is slammed or dead. And with hours likely to be cut at a moment’s notice and low pay, the insecurity in the work can be stressful and exhausting.
Sarah, a restaurant professional who is leaving the business, once enjoyed the fast pace and camaraderie that service can inspire in staff. Covid was a wakeup call.
“I think like with everything else in society, the pandemic kind of stripped away the illusion of fairness/equity in the industry, or that it operated differently than other industries,” she said.
The return of in-person dining has brought with it the nastier side of the customer experience, she said.
“Serving during a pandemic was truly awful, and during my bouts of unemployment this year I applied to grad school,” said Sarah.
Jennifer, another industry professional who has returned to work, told me that at first after reopening, people were friendly and understanding—but around the holiday season, things got bad.
“People started getting really angry and nasty,” Jennifer said. “They hate the lines and the waiting and that we are often out of something.”
Unrealistic demands are being made on workers to sanitize and ensure public safety, said Jennifer. And this is all happening while management demands a level of service and customer attention at or beyond pre-covid levels.
"A lot of folks I know in the fine dining world are struggling because many places closed during the pandemic and some are re-opening but instead of hiring back their old staff they are trying to hire new staff for less money or less front-of-house staff,” said Sean, a 10-year industry vet who organizes with the Restaurant Organizing Project. “Which means more front-of-house will do more work for the same or less money.”
“I’ve got a wide variety of reasons why I don’t want to come back”
Jeremy, a former Applebee’s host, said he’s not returning to the floor for a host of reasons.
“I worked as a host at Applebee’s and I’ve got a wide variety of reasons why I don’t want to come back,” said Jeremy.
Chief among them, he told me, were the “brutal” shifts, the poor pay, and his fear that he could kill himself or the elders in his family if he went back.
Expanded government benefits helped make the decision to change careers an easy one, Jeremy said.
“It’s enabled me to protect myself and pursue creative projects,” Jeremy told me. “It’s the perfect example of what happens when you don’t have to work a brutal grind in some job that doesn’t need to exist because you actually have a cushion of some kind, you can actually live.”
Alan, a former dishwasher, said he’s finished with the business—and that pandemic unemployment insurance is a big part of the reason.
“I was a dishwasher until we had to shut down because of restrictions,” he told me. “The stimulus and unemployment benefits have definitely helped me be more picky about what jobs I'll take since I don't have to take anything I can get in order to cover rent and groceries.”
I asked Alan if he’d go back to the industry. He said no, citing the security provided by the government aid.
“I have a degree in forestry and since I'm currently relatively financially secure I can take more time to find a job in the field that I actually want to work in,” Alan said.
“I made more money on unemployment than I did working at the bar”
Many service industry workers came out of pandemic lockdowns with a clear view of just how underpaid they really are after making far more from boosted unemployment insurance than they had made at their jobs.
Mark was laid off at the beginning of the pandemic. Once he went on unemployment, he said, things changed—for the better.
“I made more money on unemployment than I did working at the bar because they only gave me lunch shifts and I was part time,” Mark told me. “They also over-staffed so there were fewer tips per person, I went from making $250-ish a week to a solid $600 a week from unemployment.”
Lucas, a former Uber Eats driver, had a similar story.
“On a good week I could make about $200-$250 a week,” Lucas told me. “When the CARES Act passed, I got 600 dollars a week unemployment.”
He returned to work briefly after the unemployment extension expired, but it wasn’t worth it between poor pay, bad tips, and wear on his car. Plus, he already has respiratory issues.
Now he makes $450 a week on unemployment, still double an average week pre-covid.
“Because of the stimulus checks and the unemployment, we've been able to stash away some money for the first time in a while,” Lucas said.
“Having some time off to think and plan helped focus my desire to be paid better and treated better”
The people I talked to who aren’t returning to the industry said the help from the government was a major motivator in getting time and space to make those decisions.
The break in work that the pandemic forced on Owen, a former line cook in Philly, allowed for a reassessment of his life.
“I left because having some time off to think and plan helped focus my desire to be paid better and treated better,” Owen explained, ticking off a number of familiar complaints about wages, hours, and a lack of respect from management.
Owen wasn’t able to rely on unemployment, but support from friends and his partner, plus the stimulus, allowed him to focus on finishing school and getting a job where he’s treated better. The search is on.
“I expect to make at least double and finally have nights and weekends off,” Owen told me. “Hopefully I'll be treated with a little more dignity but I know that's not always the case. Nowhere to go but up.”
Thanks for reading. More to come on this topic from retail workers later in the week. As I said above, your support makes these stories possible, so if you’d like to make a monetary subscription to help fund my reporting, please become a paying subscriber and sign up for a monthly or annual donation.
Capitalism is all about exploitation . I worked in a healthcare industry for 40 years that over time went from an all mom and pop industry to all of them being bought out and expanded by big national corporations. I was very lucky to be a very high paid employee , but that only happened because there was a perpetual shortage of physical therapists for most of those 40 years . The schools limited the amount of graduating students at a point where due to a shortage over decades we were treated with respect and high pay . The corporations couldn't have this ,so out out of the blue came the promotion and usage of lower wage P.T. assistants who were hired to do the work for 1/2 the pay . They made sure they got government agencies like medicare to accept this , paying the companies the same fees for service , but now paying employees less and reporting increased profits. Good for PTAs with a 2 year degree , but P.Ts now have to have 4 years of undergraduate school and 3 years beyond that to work for less opportunity than I had. It's all about exploitation where they can get away with it and I salute those in low wage jobs who don't want to take that crap anymore. I know I was one of the lucky ones in my working life , but i have experience with national chains who put on a happy face , but truly don't give a damn about you . I only survived due to worker shortages for decades.
When I was 20 and still in college, I mentioned to our Matre'd that I was considering the restaurant business. I was working in an internationally-famous restaurant. Both the owner and the chef (who previously was head chef at Chicago's posh Ambassador East Pump Room) were grooming me, and I was occasionally being asked to scout competitors for innovations we might wish to consider. So I was shocked when John replied; "are you out of your mind?"
In his late 50s, John had joined us from a major hotel chain. He reminded me that aside from the brutally out-of-step hours with the rest of the world (you do work holidays), that most restaurants - even franchises like McDonalds, Denny's, or Outback are sole-proprietorships. That meant your job security, pay, and benefits were at the whim of the owner. He also reminded me that employee turnover was a chronic distraction and cost. Then there were the payoffs to certain elements to ensure your liquor license was not sabotaged and that your meat supplier always had prime everything when you needed it. Lastly, of course was the admonition that you could make more money as a middle manager in any corporation. I eventually became a psychologist.