The restaurant industry is often referred to as a microcosm of capitalism.
Workers routinely face wage theft, sexual harassment, low pay, unsafe working conditions, and other layers of exploitation at the hands of owners who seek only to protect their profits.
The pandemic only made things worse.
While laid off from my job as a hotel cook in Santa Monica, I have repeatedly read headlines highlighting the unique dangers of working in the COVID era.
Last month, after a year of being unemployed, I was recalled to work.
My first day back was filled with fear and sensory overload, to the point where I almost walked out at several different points throughout my shift.
The hotel has been operating with a limited staff for months, but is reopening more of its dining spaces as restrictions have loosened in the county.
This means that others are more comfortable in this space than me, a person who has been LOCKED THE FUCK DOWN for an entire year.
My first two hours were spent walking around the underground maze of the hotel, prepping in the underground kitchen, and being shown our various spaces by the chef.
Room attendants, custodial workers, laundry attendants, and managers all zipped through the same hallways and used the same packed elevators to do their jobs.
I would later find out our COVID-19 protocols explicitly state no more than two people are allowed in an elevator at a time.
Over 90% of my coworkers were wearing their masks loosely, not covering their noses, and taking their masks off for extended periods of time.
I was wearing two masks as tightly as possible.
Later, the hotel had a group of us go to a closed conference room.
We sat at desks that had not been spaced apart to discuss two trainings: sexual harassment, followed by COVID protocols.
Sexual harassment training was going fine until the topic of gender came up.
As a nonbinary person, I braced myself for what was about to come.
When our HR person gave us a transphobic definition of gender, I was not even close to surprised.
They then proceeded to give mostly incorrect information about gender expression and identity in general.
One of my coworkers from another department, a man, floated a transphobic comment to test the limits of how much he could get away with on the job.
It was all very predictable, but that doesn’t mean I found it acceptable.
People will do the bare minimum and expect you to deal with whatever comes up afterwards on your own.
I also spent the whole time terrified and unable to focus because of how obviously wrong it was to be in an enclosed space for that long with other people sharing the same air without adequate ventilation or social distancing.
This didn’t bode well for our COVID protocols training.
Later, in another sealed, crowded conference room, we read about how managers should not hold meetings in the kinds of spaces we were currently meeting in.
We were told that the hotel didn’t have a testing plan and would only do useless temperature checks.
Even if they were to notify us of an exposure on the job, they only recommended testing if we felt sick.
Nor did they plan to have an employee vaccine drive, instead directing us to come to them individually for vaccine information.
The rules on safe mask wearing, elevator capacity limits, bathroom capacity limits, and elements of keeping a safe distance were already all out the window less than three hours after starting my shift.
My coworkers had received this information months ago, and had already been ignoring it for some time.
Sitting there in that conference room at that point was more than useless, it was potentially dangerous.
The HR person spent the meeting holding up what looked like a funnel with her finger to use as a mask instead of wearing a tightly secured surgical or N95 mask.
Why would I return to this environment?
I was re-hired at my previous pay grade, which pays a living wage (just barely!).
I even received a pay bump.
The hotel previously offered a robust healthcare plan that didn’t require an employee contribution.
Yep, free healthcare with actual coverage.
I’m still figuring out how soon I get that back.
We have a strong union at the hotel, which I will finally be able to officially join after being laid off just before being able to join in 2020.
All of these factors made the job more desirable than simply returning to exploitative wage levels without benefits or a union.
However, none of these factors mitigate the environment I face upon return.
I am fortunate to cook because it is my career by choice, and something I am passionate about.
There is a sense of peace I feel maneuvering a shift in a kitchen, doing work I enjoy.
All of that has been taken away and been replaced by an unrelenting fear and paranoia.
There are too many vectors of potential infection to count on the job, and not enough leadership from the hotel on keeping people safe.
With so many potential variants lurking, potential surges of the virus that could spread throughout our communities, I am not confident in the safety of our workplaces.
I find myself realizing that I have returned to work without accounting for the last year (if not longer) from a personal standpoint.
I’ve been unable to access therapy or mental health services.
I returned to work before I ever did any in person socializing with friends. I’m not able to access gyms in order to get my stamina back.
I was mentally unprepared for the sensory overload of my first day back and didn’t even know what I would be facing.
I am not doing well, I don’t feel okay, and I’m not getting any better just because I’m working.
This isn’t healthy, but what options do I have as our safety nets expire?
I stand in awe of my industry comrades who have been doing this for an entire year.
They all deserve far more than hazard pay, and far more than anything this embarrassment of a country would ever offer them to deal with the effects of living through the last year.