It’s been a rough, but enlightening, year. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves, our industry, our tolerance for BS, and what makes a workplace worth it. Better wages are in order. But what about all the other factors that contribute to a healthier, more equitable workplace? What other practices build harmony, prevent burnout and needless stress?
Here, The Dish presents a few options to chew on; ideas for you to bring to your coworkers, your employers, possibly your unions. We may not be able to turn our industry into a worker-owned and-run paradise in 2021, but we can push for some best practices moving forward. Even if you don’t yet have a workplace in which to push for these things, express your interest in these practices in interviews, let employers know the standards have to be raised moving forward, and that workers are going to be insisting on better baseline treatment.
- Regular staff meetings, with staff input.
Staff meetings may sound pretty basic; maybe we’ve worked somewhere with staff meetings, but they were ineffective and lacking staff input. Issues are often noticed in the midst of a dinner rush, revealed in chaotic moments. It might take days (or weeks!) for concerns to reach the ears of a manager, who may or may not get it addressed and may or may not ask workers for input or solutions.
For many, the pandemic was the first time their workplace had regular meetings to discuss safety protocols, changes in workflow or changes in hours and staffing. Regular facetime makes a difference, especially if meetings aren’t just a time for management/owners to dictate new policies, but are structured to include worker input (maybe even voting!). Some managers avoid meetings for this reason, since a divided workforce that discourages communication is easier to manipulate.
If you think management would be hesitant, approach them with a meeting proposal and a list of low-key issues that you and coworkers would like to discuss. Make a commitment to keep those early meetings running smoothly to help establish them as a regular, productive practice that could then take on tougher issues as you find your voices (and power!) as a workforce.
- Workplace safety/wellness committees
The creation of a group of employees who take on responsibility for seeking worker input on issues of safety and wellbeing is often a first step towards forming a union. The pandemic made the need for worker input on safety practices abundantly clear, as managers and owners demonstrated repeatedly that they didn’t understand how new protocols were going to play out on the actual floors of their establishments.
But even post-pandemic, an official group that meets regularly to discuss workplace safety and wellness issues can be an effective way to amplify your voices. Instead of griping to each other in the walk-in, a worker-formed committee demonstrates knowledge and capability that employers often overlook or downplay to shut workers out of the decision-making process.
- Scheduling notice
Some states and regions have laws requiring workplaces to post schedules with a certain amount of notice (often 14 days). These are often called “predictive scheduling” or “fair workweek” laws. No one should have to wait until 10pm on Saturday night to schedule the next week’s (or day’s!) child care, medical appointments, or anything else that needs planning. But even if your region doesn’t require it by law, there’s nothing to say your workplace can’t adopt this policy voluntarily. (Maybe it’s something that could be brought up diplomatically by a Workplace Wellness Committee or in a regularly scheduled staff meeting).
Anti-worker propaganda sometimes claims that workers themselves don’t like advance scheduling because we “enjoy the flexibility” of our scheduling, a disingenuous claim that posting a schedule somehow means it can’t be changed for any reason. This just isn’t true; laws allow for mutually agreed upon swaps. One bar I worked at posted schedules months in advance; – we’d work out time off, special requests, and other modifications as needed, sometimes weeks or months in advance. Remember, posting early also means allowing people to get coverage early, instead of scrambling at the last moment on pleading text threads. If your employer needs convincing, there have already been studies showing increased productivity and sales in workplaces with advance scheduling.
This may seem counter-intuitive. Why would you want to share the $20 tip from table 4 with your co-workers when you are the one who waited on them? Trust me,it’s better. On a given night you may make a little more or less than you would have otherwise, but over time, it makes income more predictable, which allows for a less stressful life. It brings us closer to actually making an hourly wage instead of relying solely on the generosity of customers and nice weather for our income. More importantly, it fosters better relationships between coworkers and a more cooperative mindset where we are all working together.
One issue that must be further explored is how to ensure pay equity between front-of-house and back-of-house. When waiting tables, you might make more than a line cook overall, but you really only get paid if there are customers. Meanwhile, BOH slaves for long hours and while their hourly pay is higher than the servers, they often don’t make a livable wage. Why not have a set, living wage for every restaurant worker and then pool the tips across the whole house, front and back? This would ameliorate the divisive dynamics of the restaurant, and help us foster trust in one another as co-workers which could be the basis for organizing to demand more from our jobs.
- Open book management
As you might have noticed, this listicle is moving from a generally “easier to accomplish” to “bigger goal” direction. Open book management may be harder to push for in a culture notoriously tight-lipped about finances, but it’s something to have on one’s radar and to discuss with co-workers. This system entails sharing financial information with workers so that they understand what money comes in, what money goes out and where/who to.
Proponents point to the educational value of giving workers the big picture of what affects profitability, and greater worker engagement connecting their actions to the overall success of the company. I’ve always been baffled by some establishment’s secrecy around basic numbers. Opening books can also be implemented to varying degrees, and unsurprisingly, some in the business community think bonus and salary info really need not be shared (insert eyeroll here) but even getting access to info on cost (what does each cocktail cost to make? how much profit is made on each sandwich?) is an important step.
- Vacation. Real F*#king Vacation. Preferably paid.
Ok. I know. The European-social-democracy standard of four weeks paid vacation for everyone, regardless of their job, is probably far off for the US at the moment. But the pandemic has made thousands of hospitality workers realize that downtime is important. And some employers are taking notice. This small restaurant in Michigan decided that in the wake of the stresses of the pandemic, they were going to close for a week and give everyone a paid vacation. In Charlotte, N.C., where chefs are organizing to push for higher wages in their industry, one chef is offering four weeks paid vacation. He says he’s not experienced a hiring shortage.
- Co-operative/collective ownership
Yup, a restaurant or bar entirely owned by the people who work in it – no managers, no owners – just a team running all the operations, sharing all the profits. Seems pretty out of reach right? That’s probably exactly what the workers at White Electric Coffee in Providence, R. I., thought before they ended up forming a union and later buying their workplace when the owner decided it was time to sell. You never know! So it’s good to read up a bit and be prepared in case your worker-owner chance comes along.
I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where everyone knows about the Cheeseboard – an amazing cheese and pizza shop that’s been a worker-owned cooperative since 1971, as well as newer experiments like it. Worker co-ops remain rare, and securing financing for one is a major hurdle as our lending systems just aren’t used to this kind of model. There are also other difficulties; some people don’t want the decision-making responsibilities that will come with this model, and even if you’re a co-op, you’re still competing as a business in a capitalist marketplace. There’s a lot of debate about co-ops on a deeper strategic level: some believe they are ideal vehicles for building worker power and fostering democracy, while others counter that they take workers out of the fight directly with capitalism. But if you’ve ever had a moment when unresponsive management frustrates you and you see your co-workers on the floor doing the heavy lifting and have thought “we could do this all ourselves,” then this might be an idea to ponder.