Restaurant workers speak: Some are done; others want industry changes

By: and - July 9, 2021 7:39 am

Bob’s Java Hut at Lyndale Avenue South and West 27th Street in Minneapolis, Minnesota is closed during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, with a sign. Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer.

Sophia Bishop, 20, left the food service industry a few weeks ago to work in health care.

After doing some restaurant work in college, she was at a Burnsville restaurant for about a year and a half.

“For me, basically it was complete chaos,” she said.

Mother’s Day 2020 was a disaster, she said, when they got some 400 orders in a few hours. She was one of the few people trained to do takeout orders, so it was just she and the managers and the cooks. 

“The lobby was full of maskless people screaming at us,” Bishop said. “It was hellish.”

Bishop is hardly alone in leaving the service industry. Although hiring has picked up in recent weeks, workers interviewed by the Reformer say the pandemic has changed their perspective on their jobs, with some deciding to quit jobs many of them once loved. 

They say their eyes have been opened to the often extreme working conditions — including an expectation that they work while ill — and few benefits and uneven pay. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in May 2020, the mean hourly wage for a restaurant cook was $15.40 per hour, while hosts made about $12. 

In Minnesota, more than 150,000 people work in the industry. 

Bishop said that for the chain restaurant’s hosts — often the youngest, least experienced workers — work was particularly terrible during the pandemic. They were forced to try to convince people to wear masks, or prevent 10 people from sitting at a table when that was barred by state regulations.

“We had a regular who just never wore his mask and at some point you just can’t argue anymore,” she said. “We kinda felt like lambs to the slaughter.”

Bishop managed to avoid getting COVID-19, but most of her coworkers caught the virus. After the first lockdown, the restaurant was “super short-staffed,” as many workers took other jobs.

Rather than continue to “fight with grown adults to wear their masks,” the nursing major took a job as a nurse’s assistant at an assisted living center, where she dispenses medication, changes diapers and moves people around. She likes it better than working in a restaurant.

“I miss the restaurant a lot but I think it’s better for my soul,” she said.

Other industry workers talked to the Reformer about their pandemic year: 

Amelie Prevost. Photo by Cam Crawford.

Amelie Prevost, like many high school students, never anticipated she’d be searching for her first job during a pandemic. She found a job and began working part-time at a St. Paul eatery in August 2020. Amelie said she wishes customers understood what it felt like to argue for their own protection.

“People took their masks off to yell at us,” for things like long wait times, she said. 

Those days may be mercifully over, but while restaurants and other businesses transition back to pre-pandemic practices, workers say some changes might be for the better. Prevost says she prefers wearing a mask at work and hopes she’ll be able to continue wearing it despite the mandate being lifted. 

As for the industry as a whole, she echoed the sentiment of many of her peers, who said the food and beverage industry culture is to work even if you’re sick.

“I just hope that they still take sick leave seriously and don’t start cutting corners because the pandemic is ‘over.’”

Johanna Mason, who has worked in restaurants for six years, said the pandemic made her realize she wanted to leave. 

“Serving people that seemed so indifferent to the pandemic and our health was soul-crushing. It really made me think twice about how much our society respects restaurant workers,” she said. 

Mason said she hopes the industry learns from the pandemic and provides better support and protection for workers. And increases wages. 

“There’s a reason (the industry) is hurting for workers right now, and why we’ve always suffered from low retention rates. To move up you need to work and work and work, push yourself beyond 110%, and for minimum wage, which doesn’t cut it in Minneapolis. It’s dehumanizing.”

Mason said although worker sick leave is being taken more seriously as a result of the pandemic, the idea isn’t universal.

“I had multiple (COVID-19) scares where I was asked to come in regardless,” she said. 

Kiko Laureano worked as a substitute teacher when the pandemic hit last May, and took a job at a Wayzata restaurant where her friend’s mother was a manager to help out.

But she left the job earlier this year.

“I really couldn’t take it anymore,” she said.

The restaurant was under-staffed and its stressed-out managers “kept secrets from us” about sick coworkers, she said.  

“They just didn’t have our backs,” Laureano said.

She had worked in customer service before, but she found restaurant patrons lashed out when situations were out of their control, like having to wear a mask or keep their distance.  

“I have never seen anything like it,” she said. “Everyone was just absolutely on edge, and it showed.”

She thinks the frustration had something to do with the wealthy locale. 

“It feels like people think that they’re entitled to things. And people who have never heard the word ‘no.’ ”

One regular came in two or three times a week and never looked up from his phone once.

“You’re there to serve them and that is all you’re there for.”

After the second shutdown, the place was so understaffed that workers didn’t get lunch or dinner breaks.

“I was doing every single job, along with the other employees,” Laureano said. “We felt like robots; we didn’t feel like people anymore.”

She left to take a job with a children’s theater, and doubts she’ll return.  

Dan Whelan. Courtesy photo.

After four years working an office job in marketing, Dan Whelan decided to go back to restaurant work in 2013, and was working as a line cook at Alma and server at Foxy Falafel in 2019.

“I like the energy of a restaurant,” he said.  

When the pandemic hit last year, he was out of work that March, but by April, he was eager to go back to work. He was the only server to return to Foxy Falafel, so it was just he, the owner, a line cook and a prep cook, compared to 12-15 employees before the pandemic. As the pandemic ebbed and the restaurant was able to expand its hours, management struggled to get people to commit to interviews.

“It’s been very difficult to find staff,” Whelan said. “A lot of people chose not to come back.”

Not just because some were able to get unemployment benefits, but also because people struggled to get child care. Younger, college-aged people just weren’t interested, he said.

One candidate chose landscaping because it felt safer working outside; another left the industry.

When Alma eliminated hourly positions and went to a flat wage for all employees as COVID-19 spiked again last fall, and returned to limited takeout, he left and now just works at Foxy Falafel. He’s found customers to be “incredibly generous” now that restaurants have reopened.

“People are just so happy we’re open,” he said.

Nathan Schut of Minneapolis works two jobs in the restaurant industry due to low wages — as a line cook in Blaine and a grill cook at Chipotle.

When the pandemic hit, he said, workers were laid off and management cherry-picked the best employees to stay, he said. Then when they tried to staff up, they struggled to lure workers back.

“After we realized we needed those people, it was really difficult to find them and convince them (to return),” he said. They were either on unemployment or had taken new jobs.

He was recently promoted to manager at Chipotle, but still works two jobs and with a staffing shortage, he’s had to work longer hours and more days.

“Now that everyone’s starting to come out, it’s gotten busier than before,” he said.

At the onset of the pandemic David DeMark was able to transition smoothly from in-person to remote work at his primary workplace, the University of Minnesota, where he is a graduate student and instructor. The same wasn’t true of his other job, working front and back of the house at a restaurant, which closed in March of last year and re-opened only last month. 

DeMark said what he missed most about his job was the sense of community and connection he had with his coworkers. 

“But the fact that those are the important parts of my job to me is probably a product of the fact that I was not relying on it for my primary income in the first place.” 

David returned to his job when the restaurant reopened last month, and with a $5 wage increase he hopes will be permanent. Aside from that, he hasn’t noticed much difference from before the pandemic to now. 

“Things already feel like they’re close to their pre-pandemic state at work.”

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.

Cam Crawford
Cam Crawford

Cam Crawford (he/him) is a Minnesota native, writer and food service worker.