Restaurant labor conditions have officially entered “the discourse.”
Arguments back-and-forth over an alleged “labor shortage” has persisted as the topic of the day for over a month now, and seemingly overrun Economics Twitter, pop culture memeing and the opinion columns of most major news outlets.
The background is by now well established: In April, with vaccination becoming widely available and public health mandates lifting, owners of food service establishments large and small decided it was time for restaurants to come roaring back to life. The workers they had laid off a year prior seemed to disagree.
As news articles interviewing bereft CEOs and images of signs in shop windows decrying that, “people do not want to work” proliferated, the sides formed.
On the one hand, a contingent of business owners and conservative politicians claiming the continuation of unemployment benefits has removed any incentive to return to work. On the other, labor friendly economists and left-of-center commentators identifying a host of reasons workers might be holding off: COVID safety, a lack of vaccination, continually depressed tips, lack of access to childcare, or the simple fact that if you are facing a shortage of labor then you should probably react by increasing wages rather than throwing a fit.
The position of the editors of this publication should likely come as no surprise to anyone who has found their way here. We do not consider this a shortage of labor. Many specialists have explained why, both in economic terms and in covering the myriad reasons people, rightly, are looking for a way out of the industry.
What is happening is a naked attempt by industry owners and bosses to regain their former economic stranglehold on the lives of a workforce that has been granted just enough breathing room to try and escape. After a year where being a line cook was suddenly one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, tips plummeted, and harassment skyrocketed, it isn’t surprising that service workers sought to remain afloat without setting foot on a restaurant floor. But, rather than raise wages across the board, lobbyists and lawmakers are seeking to simply starve out as many bodies as possible by slashing unemployment.
All this and more has been said. Is there anything left to debate as workers in the field? Beyond higher wages and reasonable expectations of a social safety net?
Perhaps one comment is, why are we only willing to engage in this debate on the terms set by those who want us to work as much as possible for as little as possible? Why is the response to industry workers being called “lazy” a deluge of articles that begin something like, “actually, workers want to work but…” As though we must defend some magical, ideal value of work-in-and-of-itself, as much as we defend our basic right not to starve, not contract an airborne disease, to demand dignity.
It’s easy for a corporate lobbyist to take for granted the fundamental value of sitting down for a minute. Or a year. Of doing nothing. Of rest.
Does anyone who has worked in a restaurant for any length of time really think laziness is an issue? In an industry where people regularly go two weeks without a day off, work every holiday and birthday, take one ten minute smoke break in a ten hour shift, eat the remains of family meal over a trash can in the loading dock, come into work sick or bleeding or with a day old fryer burn that took them to the hospital, maybe the issue is not, “why won’t we work” but why won’t we stop working? Why is the first holiday season many restaurant workers have had off in years due, not to a well deserved break and family time, but to a virus induced crisis?
We should be able to ask for more than a higher paycheck in return for going back to work. Including the ability to choose how much we work and when. For many who managed to get and stay on unemployment insurance over the last year, this is the first paid time off in their lives. For some it’s the first extended time off in years.
What is stopping us from holding on to that value as, for one reason or another, we slowly trickle back to our old jobs? If food workers in Charlotte and Austin, not to mention workers in nearly every other country in the world, can demand paid time off, why can’t we all?
As an aside, we pushed our publishing deadline this month back a week. We had nothing to do, and we enjoyed not doing it.