While NYC’s dining scene is once again alive (albeit employees and indoor diners will soon be required to have at least one vaccine dose) you may have noticed that some things — your extra side of ketchup or drink refill — are taking a bit longer than they used to.
New York City — along with much of the country — has been experiencing a restaurant worker shortage. While management scrambles to fill perpetually open positions, service staff, typically at the bottom of the food chain, have seen the power balance shift in their favor as they are no longer easily replaceable.
Epicenter-NYC reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado spoke with Yamila Ruiz of One Fair Wage — an organization, coalition and campaign committed to raising wages for tipped or sub-minimum wage workers — and veteran hospitality workers Emily Childers and Tommie Dinh to learn more about what it’s like to be a server in a post (or should we say ongoing) Covid world.
Why are servers leaving?
According to a recent report by One Fair Wage, around half of New York City food service workers are considering leaving their job. Ruiz said there are many reasons for this staggering number, including low wages, Covid-related health risks and harassment.
“Every year the Department of Labor puts out the lowest paying jobs in America,” she said. “And every year, about seven of 10 of those jobs are restaurant workers and many of them are tipped restaurant worker jobs as well.”
Many restaurant workers make a “tipped minimum wage,” which is less than the standard minimum wage most people are familiar with — $10 an hour as opposed to $15. The pandemic and all of its implications — social distancing, outdoor dining only, restricted hours — have made it nearly impossible for service staff to reach their pre-Covid levels of income.
“Servers were being called back to work and having to enforce social distancing from the same customers for whom they are supposed to get tips to survive,” Ruiz said. “But tips were down significantly and customer hostility and harassment was at an all time high.”
Emily Childers, who works at a restaurant in the Upper East Side, said that many of her long-time coworkers never returned.
“There were a lot of long-term servers at my restaurant pre-pandemic that were kind of looking for an out, and so this kind of clean slate that the pandemic brought for a lot of people,” Childers said. “I think it gave people the opportunity and the time and the unemployment money to kind of get themselves on their feet and go in a different direction.”
Additionally, Ruiz tells us that many servers don’t want to return because of the harassment they’ve faced working in the restaurant industry.
One Fair Wage last year published a report called “Take Off Your Mask So I Know How Much to Tip You,” that found that many service industry workers reported “a dramatic change in sexual harassment during the pandemic.”
The report, Ruiz said, “is based on stories of women from all over the country who we are hearing from, who are being told by customers to pull down their mask, because that way customers could decide on how much to tip them. This is just like one example. But we heard thousands and thousands of stories of women in New York specifically putting up with all sorts of customer hostility and harassment to earn a living.”
While this type of harassment has increased due to the pandemic, it’s nothing new to the industry.
Servers “have to put up with whatever a customer might do or say to them … you’re more likely target of sexual harassment because you’re relying on tips to,” Ruiz added.
Lastly, one of the reasons servers don’t want to come back is simply the Covid-related health risks. Although they are not considered “essential workers,” many servers are constantly put at risk because they interact with maskless individuals. One Fair Wage reported that in New York, 78% of servers are within six feet of unmasked customers, and 22% of them have contracted Covid.
Tommi Dinh, a server who works on the Upper East Side, said she faces rude customers who jeopardize her health. She recalled a couple came into a restaurant mask-less, and after striking up a conversation with them realized they were anti-vaxxers.
“They were like ‘Oh it’s so dangerous for your heart, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Make sure to do your research before vaccinating. You can just protect yourself with vitamins and staying healthy and all of that,’” Dinh said.
When Dinh shared that she was fully vaccinated, they immediately changed their attitude towards her. Luckily the customers had already signed their bill.
“I don’t know if they would tip me less because of that,” she said. “I feel like they would.”
The perpetually low wages, chronic harassment and health risks have begun to outweigh the appeal of “fast cash” for those working in New York City’s restaurant industry, and it will take major changes to bring them back — and keep them.
What would make them stay?
The first step, Ruiz said, is to pay restaurant workers a fair wage.
Seven states that actually have already eliminated lower wages for tipped workers. California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Minnesota, Nevada and Montana have eliminated the lower wage for tipped workers.
In those states, Ruiz said, sexual harassment is cut in half and the poverty rate among tipped workers is more than one-third lower. “It’s a proven policy solution that shows that women will benefit and working people will benefit if folks are paid a full fair wage.”
This is what servers want you to know:
If you’ve never worked in the service industry, it can be hard to imagine what it’s like to be a server in New York City, especially amid a pandemic. Those who returned to their jobs endured working in 100-degree weather, hostile customers, health risks and a general atmosphere of uncertainty.
Childers said that because of the pandemic, there may be a lot of things that are out of the server’s and restaurant’s control. In addition to staff shortages, there have also been widespread food shortages due to supply chain interruptions. Sometimes customers may not be able to get their favorite meal, or they have to wait longer for their food.
“I always just want people to have a little bit more compassion when it comes to service, especially right now, because any open restaurant today has overcome odds that they never thought that they would overcome,” she said.
Dinh seconded that sentiment.
“If we don’t have enough people in the restaurant to serve you, you are unhappy because there are empty tables and you can’t get seated. And if you get seated, we don’t have enough servers on the floor to provide you good service and you are unhappy,” he said. Try to empathize with your servers, actually be nicer. It’s hard to run a good restaurant business right now.”