Unfortunately, a global pandemic hasn’t changed this dynamic much. Last month, New York City joined Washington, D.C., and a number of other cities in entering Phase Two of reopening after three months of mandated closures. Perhaps the most surreal image of these wary reopenings has been restaurant-goers dining alfresco with masks on. In more normal times, outdoor dining is emblematic of summer, with the sunny, chaotic confidence of cities on full display. But for the workers who prepare and serve the food, these restaurant reopenings mean a return to a dangerous system that didn’t work even before the pandemic forced businesses to close.
According to recent Department of Labor data, eight of the 10 lowest-paying jobs in the United States involve the food industry. By many accounts, this includes the full range of workers, from the sauté cook at a Michelin-starred restaurant to the barback at your local dive to a cashier at Burger King. The ranks aren’t small either — restaurant employees make up 10 percent of the American workforce.
Restaurant workers also take on long, grueling shifts with few benefits, which can occasionally mean the choice between working sick and making rent. They rarely receive health insurance and often labor for a tipped wage, which has long enabled built-in inequities like sexual and racial discrimination in the industry, while also sometimes encouraging workplace harassment. Overwhelmingly, restaurant workers are women and people of color; many live in poverty and rely on public assistance.
And now, these same workers are getting sick. Across the South, from Florida to Phoenix, newly reopened establishments are closing again with workers testing positive for the novel coronavirus and cases on a tragic upswing. Other restaurants, with their bottom-line survival at stake, are forging ahead without instruction from local government officials. “What steps owners take when faced with a sick employee — whether it’s deep cleaning the entire space, informing customers or testing other staffers — are largely up to them,” Emily Heil reported last month.
One major reason restaurant workers are exceptionally vulnerable now has to do with the industry’s lack of worker protections. And previous efforts to bring widespread reform to the restaurant business have faltered in large part because diners have either failed to understand the consequences of the current system or chosen not to care.
Past individual initiatives to eliminate tipping, from big-name restaurateurs like Gabe Stulman and Andrew Tarlow to chains like Joe’s Crab Shack, failed in part because diners balked at service fees. Meanwhile, following the passage of the Affordable Care Act, many restaurant owners set out to adjust their hiring and scheduling practices to avoid having to provide insurance to their workers. But with the unique clarity of an ongoing pandemic, ignoring these problems is a luxury we can no longer afford. After all, it was already immoral and dangerous for service workers to labor without sick days or health insurance. To do so now could unleash new catastrophes. And this is why diners have to change.
As restaurants begin to reopen — under limited and potentially dangerous conditions — diners should take the opportunity to ask new questions. What measures are being taken to keep the kitchen safe? Can the line cook take a shift off to look after a family member? How can the servers get tested if they don’t have health insurance?
While some savvier businesses have begun to address worker safety with comprehensive reopening plans, diners should do research before making a reservation or ask owners about enhanced policies before being seated. And, much like the customers who have made top-shelf ingredients their highest concern, if the answers aren’t good or coherent enough, support restaurants that have invested in their workers. These are all small ways to emphasize new consumer priorities. If we can be fussy enough to send a medium burger back for not being rare, we can be discerning enough to ask managers questions about CDC dining guidelines.
As a former service worker, I can tell you firsthand that these questions have expensive answers. And the answers won’t come from people like me or from the restaurateur crunching numbers to try to turn enough tables to make rent or repay their PPP loan. The pandemic has bequeathed countless tragedies, but it’s also given us the rare opportunity to change the calculus of the restaurant industry. It’s always been difficult and even irresponsible for a business to propose that their patrons pay more. It’s up to diners to ask.