National Opinions

Restaurants are desperate to hire. My coworkers aren’t ready to come back.

Sara Selevitch is a writer and waitress living in Los Angeles.

I tried to quit my job three times in the past year. It’s a part-time second gig at a pizza place in downtown Los Angeles that I picked up last summer, when hours at my other job at a Vietnamese restaurant were cut and the first round of federal unemployment benefits was about to run out. I put in my two weeks’ notice in November, after shifts at my usual position became available again. The owners kept asking me back, though, and I kept accepting - on my terms. I want to work only on Tuesdays? They can accommodate. I’m going out of town for three weeks? No problem. It feels like I’m doing them a favor every time I show up. And in a way, I am.

As the country has reopened, and restaurant job openings have increased more than in any other sector, an industry-wide hiring crisis has set in. The effects can be seen just by browsing the food/beverage/hospitality jobs page on Craigslist. Restaurants are no longer holding out for a “rock star” server with at least five years’ experience and as many references — they’re just hoping for someone to show up, and they’re bribing them to stay. A bar in L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood, for example, will pay $240 to employees who last 30 days, and another $300 after 90 days. A McDonald’s in Illinois offered prospective employees a free iPhone if they worked for six months, and Applebee’s launched a nationwide “Apps for Apps” program rewarding applicants with free appetizers. (This, in an industry where I was once denied a position after filling out a multiple-choice personality test.)

And yet beneath all the sweet-talking is grumbling that people just don’t want to work anymore — a complaint shared by politicians, business owners and pundits, and conveyed through fliers posted in restaurant windows across the country. This gripe demonstrates how deeply we’ve absorbed the Protestant work ethic and its assertion that people should want to work for the sake of their own virtue, regardless of material conditions and compensation. I’ve only recently begun to question this conditioning.

There’s a stereotype, especially in Los Angeles, that every server is a struggling actor. The public generally views a restaurant service job as a stopover on the way to something else. This dismissive assumption is used to justify low pay: Tipped workers are subject to sub-minimum-wage laws: $2.13/hour, federally. Only seven states have mandated that they receive a full minimum wage as a baseline, with tips on top. Meanwhile a survey from One Fair Wage, a group that advocates for service workers, found that tips in New York City are down at least 50 percent during the pandemic.

With full-time restaurant jobs extremely difficult to come by, server positions are often filled by people who are piecing together an income from multiple sources. Before the coronavirus hit, every one of my co-workers had another job, whether freelance work in film and dance or part-time positions in child care or other restaurants. Several were in school pursuing careers in library studies, social work or cosmetology. The turnover rate for restaurant employees hit 74.9% in 2018. Within the industry, there’s long been an understanding that physical strain and unreliable pay make restaurant work largely unsustainable for the long haul.

The service industry, with its tipping and online ratings, also offers any customer a chance to play boss and to police workers. And when people think they’re being served by a wannabe or an ambitious young upstart — though in fact, nearly 20 percent of the people working as servers are over 40 years old — they feel free to treat that worker as somehow less-than.

I started working in restaurants the summer after I finished graduate school, in 2018. I’d applied to dozens of full-time jobs in creative-adjacent fields, from nonprofit work to arts administration to adjunct teaching. None of those panned out. I liked serving, so I stuck with it. I enjoyed the fast pace, I had fun with my co-workers, and I had time in the day to work on my writing.

The pandemic stripped away the enjoyable parts of the job, leaving it purely transactional. Takeout-only service cut down on casual chats with customers, increased the number of online delivery orders and decreased tips. It also introduced new pressures, as everyone struggled to comply with ever-evolving coronavirus regulations: Guests glared at me to make sure I sanitized pens properly; I snapped at customers to pull their masks above their noses; my co-workers repeatedly asked management to post more direct signage about dining room rules during pick-up.

Aside from a brief window of benevolence when shutdowns began and pity tips flowed, customers became more demanding. Owners focused more on the bottom line, pivoting to alcohol sales, cutting some employee discounts and pushing to stay open and keep things quiet, even as the virus swept through the kitchen staff and at least six employees got sick. My co-workers and I were left to advocate for ourselves on both ends. The emotional labor, draining under normal circumstances, took on a surreal and darkly comic sheen. During one Sunday night shift, a customer started to film me, for example, as he ranted about the terrible service he said he’d received. His Postmates order had been batched with another delivery, and the app requires the driver to wait for both orders to be ready. The customer impatiently came to pick up his food himself and threw a fit when I was unable to refund him (because he had paid through the app).

At times like these, I’d roll my eyes and commiserate with the kitchen staff; joking with back-of-house co-workers is one of my favorite parts of the job. But beneath our camaraderie lie real differences. They sweat through 12-hour days for an undisclosed hourly wage; I count my tip money after my five-hour shift and wave goodbye while they mop up after me. They also have borne more of the pandemic’s burdens: Line cooks had the highest covid-19 mortality rate among working-age Californians, according to a study from the University of California at San Francisco. One Fair Wage estimates that undocumented workers compose up to 40 percent of the restaurant industry in urban areas; such workers are ineligible for most of the government relief that became a lifeline for my fellow servers.

So after 5.5 million restaurant jobs were lost from March to April 2020, is it any surprise that former employees spent the year reassessing their options? When I wrote about my experiences as an “essential” restaurant worker at the beginning of the pandemic, a surprising (but also unsurprising) number of comments suggested that if I didn’t like the way things were, I shouldn’t work in restaurants. Now it seems that people are heeding this advice. Many are switching to other fields, citing harassment, stress and low pay. The quit rate reached an all-time industry high of 5.6 percent in April.

Working through the pandemic was something I did mostly without thinking. For a while, I was able to work a few days and get supplemental unemployment to cover my lost hours. The manager was scrambling to find employees, and I worried about the burden falling on the handful who decided to stay. I figured I was in good health, and what else was there to do? I grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood, and I’ve long believed in the dignity of workers. I conflated that with the belief that hard work feels good and makes you a better person. These days, I wonder who benefits from the latter notion.

The industry’s shiny new hiring incentives have not, of course, been accompanied by structural changes to make workplaces safer and more equitable. Still, we’ve started to see some give: A few chains, including Chipotle, Olive Garden and corporate-owned McDonald’s locations, have raised wages this summer. (Though they’re still below $15 an hour at the latter two.) Some critics have called for individual restaurant owners to make changes like offering health benefits, paid leave and profit-sharing. Others, such as the chef and activist Tunde Wey, believe we should’ve let the industry fail rather than lobby for a government bailout. Blaming enhanced unemployment benefits for the so-called “labor shortage” may be premature, as states that lessened aid haven’t seen hiring rates rebound any faster. Still, I worry that the pressure on employers will soon ease, as the extra unemployment aid ends and abstaining from the job market becomes less viable for many people.

Though there have recently been several high-profile efforts to unionize workplaces, it seems that the more threatening conflict, causing the most widespread consternation and hand-wringing, has been quieter, more diffuse: not a negotiation but a simple refusal. In an industry that’s been historically difficult to organize, workers are now striking with their feet, individually and collectively deciding that the costs of returning to work outweigh the benefits.

Amid the political and social reckonings of the past year, I’ve noticed a smaller, personal shift: My relationship to time has changed. There’s an adage in the restaurant world that “if you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” Everyone knows to grab a rag and look busy when the boss walks in. I’ve since learned that wage theft annually accounts for half of all reported property theft in the country. Now I’m careful not to do extra work before clocking in or after clocking out. I don’t feel guilty requesting time off. I resist any language insinuating that the staff is a “family.”

Sometimes I wear a T-shirt to work that says, “Everyone’s work is equally important.” It’s fun to observe customers’ reactions. Sometimes they compliment it and awkwardly throw an extra few bucks in the tip jar. Others thank me for my service like I’ve just returned from war. Most don’t say anything.

Originally published by The Washington Post.

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