Food Service Workers Demand Our Attention

           Families are seeking out restaurants to ease the stress of food preparation and mitigate the risk of infection while shopping. However, as the quarantine stretches onward, food service workers are facing increasing financial stress that is only being partially addressed by the federal government. 


            As restaurants change their primary business operations to delivery and takeout, employees are seeing their hours cut, paychecks plummet, and benefits vanish (if they had them to begin with). Some have even lost their jobs altogether, joining millions of Americans waiting in the unemployment lines. Bottom line, we need to support them as they continue to support us.  


            To gain a better understanding of this mounting burden, we took the initiative to transform our classroom into a digital advocacy group, and created a survey that provides a means to gather information directly from impacted individuals. We surveyed over 100 service industry workers, and among those surveyed, 33% have had their healthcare benefits reduced or lost due to loss of hours – a deplorable situation given they are among the most needed during a pandemic.  


            Unable to sustain the working wages of their staff, restaurant owners are forced to make difficult choices that balance continued employment and the restaurant’s sustainability. Jim Holben, owner of El Pelon, recently asked his staff to apply for unemployment.  According to Holben, his employees fear U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) might act on information provided to the Unemployment office, which caused a drop off in employment applications across all his restaurant locations. In an effort to support his staff, Holben devised a rotating schedule and dipped into his own savings to make up for lost income. “I have tried to make up for the lost wages with my personal savings and we are rotating hours so everyone gets some work,” said Holben. 


            Long term planning has proven to be incredibly difficult for restaurant owners like Holben who took on an additional loan to support his business. “I applied for both the EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan) and the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) and expect the funds to come next week,” said Holben. “From what I read, I have to go to full employment within the next 8 weeks, and I won’t be back in full operations by then.” For restaurants who are too slow to return to operating capacity, these loans will represent a substantial cost that will eat into earnings for nearly two years. In taking on government assistance, some owners have done little more than take on additional debt.


            While some restaurants are able to maintain their hours by focusing on deliveries, only 7.2% of our survey respondents said their hours had not been cut. We spoke with Marcus Bennett, a full-time delivery driver for Gourmet Garden in Canton, MA, who hasn’t had his hours reduced during the pandemic. “Gourmet Garden is only able to do pick-up and deliveries” said Bennett. “Up until March, I was splitting time between Gourmet Garden and Golden Temple in Brookline as a host. But I left Golden Temple because as a host I was shaking hands with people and touching menus, which I did not want to continue doing with the virus spreading.” 


            But not all service workers have had the opportunity to choose between jobs for one that’s safe and stable. 70% of our respondents said their current place of employment was their primary or only source of income. More than 50% of our respondents reported having their hours and benefits cut drastically or completely. 


            Due to loss of steady income, some service workers have begun to dip into their savings. 75% of survey respondents said their savings would last up to 6 weeks, while 30% had only 1-3 weeks of savings put away. 

            “We need to start making sure restaurant workers are paid a living wage,” said Loren Bornstein, an industry veteran with over 10 years’ experience, and board member of the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for restaurant employees. “If you look at countries in Asia and Europe, almost all of them pay their hospitality workers a living wage. The U.S. really is the only country that is not, which is ridiculous.”


            The U.S. has been consistently criticized for being the only developed nation in the world that does not provide universal healthcare, and likewise struggles with providing a standard for a living wage. Bornstein emphasized the need for more advocacy in pursuit of these human rights, saying “If someone is essential, then they should be paid as essential.”


            Service industry workers have proven to be a lifeblood of our economy, and while it should not have taken a pandemic for us to realize this, we can still use it as an opportunity to advocate for their support. States must fill the void left by the federal government by supporting service industry workers through wage supplements, Medicare benefits, and job security. In our nation’s history, the White House has led us through tumultuous times. In the crisis of our times, our crisis, it’s on us.


            We can’t let ourselves down. Call your local legislators, and make your support for our essential service industry workers heard. 


Sincerely, 

The Get Covid Facts Team at Northeastern University

The Get Covid Facts Team is a collection of Graduate Research Students in the Media Advocacy Program at the Northeastern School of Law and School of Journalism

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