Photo courtesy of Ben Rector

By Natalia Tylim 

Natalia is a server in New York City and a founding member of the Restaurant Organizing Project and of her city’s chapter of the group. Below she shares her ground-level view from the tumultuous past year in the bar and restaurant industry. 

I work in a Manhattan-sized space with only ten bar seats and nine tables. Call it cozy or cramped, but every new hire learns to twist, contort and shout “BEHIND YOU!” over blaring speakers to navigate tiny spaces, narrow passageways and a miniature open kitchen. 

We work busy shifts with high turnover, and in March 2020 the drop in business was extreme. I looked around the space and wondered if we should feel scared? Normally, we set up and over-stock to be ready for anything that might hit us on a given shift, but there is no side-work to prepare for a pandemic. We came to our increasingly slow shifts, furiously washing our hands after each move, trying, and failing, to keep a safe distance between the few customers who came in. How long would we keep taking the virus-ridden subway into work? Were we going to be stuck in an empty restaurant while those who could work remotely were encouraged to stay in place? 

A friend told me her coworkers were organizing a petition demanding temporary closures. I also talked to my coworkers; something had to be done for our health and safety – the next day, March 15th, a month after the first confirmed US case of Covid-19, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo mandated that bars and restaurants close temporarily for dine-in service. Almost a year later, some ‘temporary’ measures are still in effect.

    Our struggle was playing out in restaurants long before COVID hit, now the stakes are so much higher: we are fighting for our lives and health.

More than 15 million restaurant workers went through something similar to what I faced at the start of the pandemic. We’ve all been living through an ongoing struggle between businesses fighting to stay open and workers struggling to stay healthy and safe. Our struggle was playing out in restaurants long before COVID hit, now the stakes are so much higher: we are fighting for our lives and health. Restaurants and restaurant workers have been navigating COVID for a full year. From unprecedented closures, to helpful but insufficient stimulus, this year will leave its mark on our industry. 

 

Bosses React to a Bailout That Never Was

Photo courtesy of Ben Rector

Every industry has been impacted by the COVID pandemic, but few have been impacted as catastrophically as the restaurant industry; by August 2020, one in four jobs lost in the US belonged to a bar or restaurant worker. In one fell swoop, restaurateurs’ illusions of ever-expanding restaurant sales came to a crashing halt. 

The federal government could have mandated the closure of indoor dining in all states, paid workers to stay home, and granted full rent and utilities forgiveness to every small business until the health crisis passed. Instead, it passed the CARES Act. Money for workers came though the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) that gave loans and loan forgiveness to small businesses, loan forgiveness is contingent on owners using at least 60% of the loan on payroll directly (negotiated down from 75%). Only about 8% of PPP funds went to “accommodations and food businesses” combined, and many workers were not rehired even when employers received substantial loans. With an initial eight-week period to pay the funds out, the PPP timeline was woefully insufficient for an industry looking at months of closures.

Even though safety regulations for indoor dining varied by state, the decline in revenue was felt nationally. The National Restaurants Association projected $225 billion in lost sales – the worst decline on record. 

We got temporary relief packages, but COVID is not temporary. The gaps between the stimulus and uncertainty about getting relief at all created an acute crisis for small businesses with already slim profit margins: 60% of independent restaurants close within one year and 80% do so within five years – and that was in the good ol’ days. 

We have the worst of both worlds: small businesses left on the hook for rent and bills scrambling to stay open during a deadly pandemic, while millions once employed in a booming industry now find themselves in a protracted unemployment crisis, forced into dangerous work conditions.

The bosses from the National Restaurant Association and its local incarnations have dominated the media with calls to keep things open, to maintain indoor dining, and to get money without strings attached for restaurant owners. They see no other way of getting their business through the pandemic. We saw how this played out in real time; on April 20th, Georgia was the first state to re-open indoor dining, with other states beginning to follow suit, and one month later the COVID death rate in the U.S. reached 100,000 people. 

 

Restaurant Workers Left to Juggle Multiple Crises

Photo courtesy Benjamin Rector

Statistics can’t show the human impact on workers’ lives as state and regional governments continue to play a game of cat and mouse with restaurants and COVID infection rates. Restaurants would reopen, COVID rates would go up again, then restaurants close and reopen again on the manufactured premise that it is safer this time around, manipulating data to make it sound like eating inside restaurants is safe. That any worker was forced to work inside a dine-in establishment in order to keep their job and pay their rent is criminal. This is compounded by the fact that many lost their unemployment benefits as a result of being asked back to a dangerous job. Eating inside a restaurant is, in fact, among the riskiest things you can do during COVID. Throughout the pandemic, indoor dining has been restricted on and off in different states, but delivery and take-out has grown by 59%. App and delivery workers especially face enormous stress and strain to keep up with new demand while companies like DoorDash and Grubhub rake in the lions share of the profits. This increase is insufficient to make up for the revenue lost in restaurants, meanwhile it means that kitchen, prep and delivery workers have been working in unsafe conditions all year – evidenced by the California study that shows line cooks are the most likely profession to die of COVID.

    That any worker was forced to work inside a dine-in establishment in order to keep their job and pay their rent is criminal.

There are millions more restaurant workers who have lost their jobs indefinitely. The CARES Act provided an additional $600 unemployment bonus from April through July, creating a crucial cushion for unemployed workers, and keeping money pumping into the economy since almost all of it went immediately to paying for basic necessities like food, rent and utilities. Many restaurant workers receiving stimulus were making more while out of work than they did on the job – a testament to how low wages are in the industry. Any “extra” income soon disappeared as these benefits expired on July 31st, leaving people in states with low unemployment benefits dipping into savings, or debt, and scrambling to find work wherever they could. And it must be emphasized that the experience of both work and unemployment is much harder for immigrant workers, many of whom are undocumented, who make up a disproportionate percentage of essential and unemployed food industry workers. 

The anti-racist rebellion that erupted following the murder of George Floyd on May 25th compounded industry crises. Restaurants are hotbeds of racism, and other forms of oppression, they reflect the structural racism of the country. Restaurant owner after restaurant owner released public statements about how much they oppose racism, but on the job, their actions of releasing public statements or posting social media posts in support of Black Lives matter fell far short of what is really needed. This created a wave of resistance nation-wide, in city after city, that also made its way onto shops floors – including a day of action of thousands of fast food workers striking for Black lives.  It’s no coincidence that this dynamic was strongest in Minneapolis, the city where Floyd was murdered, and where nightly anti-racist protests swept the streets for weeks on end. Workers at the Tattersall Distillery in Minneapolis became the first craft distillery to win a union in August, and they did it by putting anti-racism at the center of their drive, thereby setting a new bar for organizing in the food and beverage sector.  

 

WHAT NOW?

Photo Courtesy of Benjamin Rector

It’s hard to imagine the COVID-19 crisis passing. The virus has set the stage for what restaurant workers have historically struggled (and still aspire) to: a transformation of the entire industry. At some point there will be vaccines in people’s arms, and restaurants will still exist. Somewhere between the push and pull of the profit motive and workers self-activity, a new normal will come into being. But what will that new normal be?

    If we are going to win any of those demands, it is essential that we organize ourselves.

Workers are already glimpsing one possible future, one defined by the typical responses of bosses trying to stretch profits after the prolonged experience of COVID: longer hours, skeleton crews and blurred distinctions between job titles. Most restaurant workers have not yet been vaccinated – and won’t be for many months – and yet are in increasingly high-risk situations as indoor dining restrictions and mask mandates are being lifted. But that’s not the only possible “new normal.” We can organize around our demands for when the industry fully reopens this spring and make it healthier, safer and more equitable than before. Restaurants have been deemed essential. If our work is essential, then it should provide stable jobs, with better hours, sick days, real wages, protocols for addressing sexual harassment and racism, equity for our immigrant brothers and sisters, and so much more. If we are going to win any of those demands, it is essential that we organize ourselves.

Natalia can be reached via email or twitter. Ben can be found on Instagram

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