"Just How Kitchens Work": Cooking on the Line and Catching Covid

"While I understand the business needs to make money, the health and safety of employees and guests has to come first"

Line cooks were one of the hardest hit professions by the coronavirus, and have one of the highest risks of dying from the virus.

I talked to line cooks who contracted Covid over the last year-and-a-half. They all had different stories, but some themes were constant: businesses disregarded safety protocols and restrictions and tried their hardest to force people back to work as soon as possible. 

Being a line cook is one of the most demanding and taxing in America, with poor worker protections and frequent mistreatment par for the course. Covid just reinforced those existing conditions.

"We were just so used to working when we were sick, even bad off, that nobody really did anything," one line cook, Dawn, told me. "That's just how kitchens work."

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"I was confused, stressed, exhausted"

For John, a former cook at Children's Hospital Colorado who contracted Covid in May 2020, the way that he and other staff were treated shows the carelessness and disregard faced by kitchen workers. John got Covid—which, he said, "kick my ass"—on his birthday. He described having a dry cough, headache, and exhaustion, symptoms that only got worse with time. 

Sent to quarantine, John haddark thoughts. He was terrified he'd infected his adoptive parents, who he worked with. 

"The isolation was crippling for my mind," he told me. "With everything going on it made me debate taking my own life."

Once his quarantine was over, John was put back to work. It was too soon. 

"When I returned I nearly collapsed," John said. "My body was drained and still weak. I was calling out or leaving early for a week or two before I worked my first 40-hour shift."

Even with that extra time off, John wasn't close to ready to return to the line, so he was moved to a different station that was seen as "easier." But that wasn't the case. Slowly but surely his new manager piled on added responsibilities, even as John dealt with continuing bad effects on his memory and speech.

"I was confused, stressed, exhausted," he told me.

After an outburst, he was fired. The hospital, in his view, had forced him into a no-win position and made working there impossible. 


Covid and the restaurant industry


“The work space was too small to guarantee a safe work environment”

John wasn't the only person who told me about owners and management flouting health and safety rules. 

For Jose, who worked at a brand new restaurant in tourist-heavy Newburyport last summer, it was more of the same. The new place's setup was heavy on packing people in and light on function and flow, leading to a lot of people on top of one another and cramped working quarters. 

"One day I went in and heard two servers caught the virus," Jose said. "They had already been out two days so I figured I was in the clear. A day after I had a tickle on my throat and was getting strange hives on my back. I showed up to work that day, thinking nothing of it. I had my temperature taken by one of the managers and it came back 100.4."

He was out of work for two weeks, leading to lost pay—some compensation was given, but not much—and when he finally returned he found that three other people at the restaurant had come down with the virus. 

"They finally started taking proper steps to ensure the employees were safe," Jose told me. "But the work space was too small to guarantee a safe work environment. I left shortly afterwards as I was not impressed with how they handled the situation."

For Jose, the treatment of staff and the disregard for health and safety were too much to overcome, an example of how little the owners cared about anything other than the bottom line.

"While I understand the business needs to make money, the health and safety of employees and guests has to come first," Jose told me. "And this place didn’t care about any of that."


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“Horrible”

James, from Michigan, had a similar experience. He told me that after three servers at the Applebees he worked at caught Covid in December, management declined to tell the rest of the staff. After confronting the manager, he was told that the servers had contracted the virus but that it was not a big deal. Masking at the restaurant was hardly enforced, so the back of house workers were going without.

"A few weeks later I had a positive test," James said. "After letting work know I told any coworkers I had worked with directly the last two weeks. I was on reduced hours so there weren’t that many to let know. But not once did management let anyone know that they might have been exposed."

The way the situation was handled was "horrible," James said, because of the cavalier attitude with which management treated the outbreak and their refusal to contact trace or enforce mask-wearing. 

"All that they seemed concerned with was filling the restaurant as much as possible and burying any news of covid outbreaks to keep people coming in," James said.


Retail employees during the pandemic


"I still love to cook”

In January, Derek found himself at the end of his finances and needed to get a job fast. After acing a math and aptitude test for an ironworkers union in St. Louis, he thought he was good to go—but the process would take months for him to get an interview and a job. So, in a moment of desperation, Derek took a job at the Fainting Goat in nearby Bond County, Illinois. 

"I thought I could stick it out the few months left until the union hit me back," Derek said. "But it was unbearable, owners drunk everyday by 2pm, in and out the building not dealing with any issues."

The neglect extended to staff and by mid-May Derek had had enough. 

"One day the head server was also out with covid, and another server as well," Derek told me. "So the other cook was gonna be the server while I was stuck in the kitchen on a busy Friday night by myself when we usually had three or four people in there. I just couldn't do it anymore. Sneaked out the back and never looked back."

Today, Derek is still waiting on the ironworker union and works in a factory. He’s not saying no to ever going back to the service industry, but the situation would have to be just right.

"I still love to cook and would like to own my own restaurant one day, but I can't ever see working for someone else at one again," he told me. "I can't help but feel like they're just the most exploiting microcosms of capitalism."


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