By Larisa Mednis

As we combat the COVID-19 crisis across the US, and as labor and economic dynamics continue to shift, restaurants remain in the spotlight. 

Noticing a disconnect between owners’ and workers’ narratives, members of Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid (PRWA) opted to go to the source and issued an informal survey, which you are invited to replicate and distribute to your communities to learn which issues are most pertinent in your area. Use it to open up a dialogue for speaking directly with your coworkers and peers and understand what needs to change. Distribute it to workers in your city or region, or get more specific and use it as an organizing tool! If you’re currently organizing your workplace, send your co-workers the survey (discreetly, of course) to learn which issues are the most pertinent among your coworkers. It can be used as a component of a workplace structure test, helping you gauge who is ready to take action. 

This summer, PRWA asked Pittsburgh-area workers to tell us directly how the pandemic has impacted their work environments. Restaurant owners, from Guy Fieri to Pittsburgh-area restaurateurs are quick to blame unemployment benefits for keeping workers off the line and on the couch. This argument is convenient, but it breaks down significantly once restaurant workers’ voices are heard. 

Of 115 area workers that we surveyed, across positions worked, years of work experience and eligibility status for unemployment benefits, we found that workers are concerned with a variety of issues related to the physical work environment. 78.6% of respondents expressed that they were hesitant to return to the restaurant industry at some point during the pandemic. As can be seen in the chart below, the most common reason for hesitancy was stress from working in a dangerous environment, followed by low wages, difficult or unruly customers, unpredictable and/or inconsistent schedules and a lack of benefits.hesitancy to return to restaurants

We also asked respondents to identify which issues they felt were present in the restaurant industry before the COVID-19 pandemic: the most common responses were low wages and a lack of benefits. Although fewer respondents reported issues with working in hazardous environments pre-pandemic, it is still important to acknowledge the frequency of this response and the implications that this has for overall workplace safety. Restaurant workers, especially those working in the back-of-house, are surrounded by sharp knives, blistering hot stovetops and slippery floors. Without adequate protections in place, including slip mats, knife guards and first aid kits, as well as appropriate benefits and protections, a potentially hazardous situation can quickly develop into an emergency. Out of all respondents surveyed, only 8.4% reported that there were no issues with the restaurant industry before the pandemic.

Clearly, the pandemic has amplified pre-existing issues. An unwillingness to continue working in these conditions has impacted workers’ decisions to return to the industry now that jobs are available again. With the looming threat of COVID-19, many workers did not feel it was worth it to deal with jobs that pose health and safety risks with little-to-no protection, including lack of healthcare, paid sick leave or worker’s compensation insurance: As of 2019, only 31% of restaurants nationwide offer health insurance benefits to their employees; If someone is injured on the job, only 23% of restaurants offer worker’s compensation insurance. 

Compounded with the ongoing pandemic, (A University of California study determined that, out of all professions, line cooks are at the highest risk of dying from COVID-19), it comes as no surprise that a significant portion of restaurant workers refuse to return to the industry under these conditions.

When asked how the pandemic changed their feelings about the restaurant industry, many workers explained how COVID-19 illuminated the exploitation and lack of autonomy they felt in their workplaces. Many workers reported that customers have become increasingly rude and hostile during the pandemic by ignoring health and safety protocols and tipping inadequately. 

Workers who have spent decades in the industry expressed that the opportunity to take a break opened their eyes to the toll it has taken on their bodies and their ability to maintain their personal lives:

“After almost 18 years in the industry without much time away, it was nice to have a chance to gather some perspective. The work is difficult and constantly moving at such a fast pace that problematic issues such as training inadequacies, management turnover, chronic understaffing, low wages, lack of adequate family health care and difficult customers were constant and consistent daily battles with little trust that they would ever change.” -Anonymous restaurant worker

“The pandemic has made me realize that I’m not sure I want to continue to work in the industry… After 21 years in the industry the wear and tear on my body has become to much (sic). I miss holidays with my kids, I constantly have to change my personal life around… because my schedule changes.” -Anonymous restaurant worker

 “I am not working at this time but have serious reservations of returning to the restaurant field. It has been my career for 33 years. Reading all the negative situations from all aspects of the restaurant during covid has soured my return… There needs to be drastic change for my returning.” -Anonymous restaurant worker

Restaurant workers are now able to step back and consider how issues within the industry are normalized, even romanticized. The work environment is hectic and schedules are inconsistent. When the day to day is unpredictable and stressful, it is challenging for workers to unite and make positive changes in their workplaces. Before the pandemic, these issues were framed as commonplace and unlikely to change. Now, perspectives are shifting, and restaurant workers won’t tolerate subpar working conditions. The responses from our survey make it clear that workers need better wages, benefits and health and safety protections to make their jobs worthwhile.

With owners paying subpar wages and offering zero benefits, all the while complaining that people don’t want to work, restaurant industry workers have more power than ever to demand the rights that we have deserved for years. Some restaurant owners across the country have taken note and now offer livable wages and benefits, including paid time off and healthcare, to their employees. But progress does not stop there. The key to an equitable industry for all workers is one that takes our needs seriously and treats us with the dignity that we deserve. 

As an organization, PRWA supports restaurant and hospitality industry workers dealing with financial, food, healthcare, housing and other forms of insecurity. Our staff and board are comprised of current and former restaurant industry workers united by a common goal of advocating for the dignity of our workforce. We provide direct aid in the form of care package deliveries containing groceries, diapers, pet food, and cleaning products. Our comprehensive resource guide connects community members with a variety of local mutual aid groups, social services and healthcare providers to help meet their needs. Through these programs, we have been able to stay connected with one another through the pandemic and through this connection, we have begun  to have organic discussions about how to fix the industry. Currently, we are offering legal aid and mental health workshops, and we are continuing to plan more programming based on the needs expressed by our community. 

Are workers in your area concerned with the same issues that we are? Are certain issues felt across the nation that we can rally around? Contact us at info@pghrwa.org with any questions or inquiries. We look forward to hearing from you!