Don't Feel Bad For Failing Restaurants Post-Covid: A Bartender's Perspective
Don’t feel bad for local restaurant owners who can’t get employees back to work. The truth is, those restaurants had a choice to treat their employees with respect and professionalism before the pandemic happened. This includes by paying living wages, and offering medical and dental benefits to their hardworking employees breaking their bodies for tips.
Critics of pandemic unemployment cite supplemented unemployment payments throughout the Covid-19 crisis as the reason people don’t want to return to work, and restaurants have been cited as some of the slowest businesses to recover employees. The truth is, restaurant work has always been difficult work, and restaurant workers have always been abused.
Like millions of Americans, I was employed in restaurants for my entire adult life, and left the restaurant industry when the pandemic hit. To be fair, I am now 34 years old, and had been planning for years to make my exit from my more than 15 years of bartending. It was hard on my body. I developed plantar fasciitis from long hours hustling across concrete or tile for night after night of 8, 10, and 12 hour shifts. Sometimes more. Sometimes my body ached so badly at the end of a shift that it became difficult to stand. Some nights I had no idea how long my shift would be, or what time I’d get home, but in my years of bartending experience it was never as early as I would have liked it to be.
Restaurant work is hard on the body in other ways too. Only once in my career did I work at a restaurant that mandated breaks. It was a big, corporate restaurant owned by a wealthy couple, who owned both the Buffalo Bills and the Buffalo Sabres. There were rules about breaks though, like when you could take one (always before the shift got busy, never when your bones were throbbing ⅔ of the way through a shift.)
Irregular hours, irregular meals, irregular sleep. Eating what you can get your hands on, like the fries dying under a heat lamp in the kitchen. Ignoring your bladder for hours running back and forth from kitchen to table. Getting demeaned by both self-important customers who forget that restaurant workers are human, and pretentious chefs whose creative vision you’re perpetually fucking with when a table asks for their cut off beef very well done. Sweating through your clothes, sweating off your makeup, never drinking enough water.
The mental demands on bartenders and servers in this industry are worse. Some of them are easy to imagine, like the aforementioned picky customer and demanding head chef combination. But others are not so obvious, like having to smile and be friendly to every guest you interact with, like the family whose baby is grinding food into the booth, and the lady who swears her martini isn’t the vodka she ordered, but some other vodka, even though you made it yourself. The entitled who think they can crowd your personal space, ignore you when you speak, and waste your time flirting or making dad jokes during the dinner rush. The ones you give extra fries to, comp some add-ons on their bill, joke with, laugh with, bond with, and get no tip from. Even worse, the countless number of men who think it’s okay to publicly harass, sexualize, fetishize, demean, and sometimes grab or grope you, because you’re a bartender or server. These are just some of the day-to-day stressors of working in the restaurant industry and are well known to anyone that’s been a server or bartender for more than a week.
Then there are the wages, a completely ignored injustice in the industry. The tipper’s minimum wage in some states is as low as $2.13 per hour as of today, May 25th, 2021. Many more states offer a tipper’s minimum wage of $2.83 per hour, including the state in which I finished my bartending career last year. The expectation is that the tips you receive from the guests you serve will more than compensate for the lack of living wage. This is true for some bartenders and servers, in some establishments, some of the time. In more than 15 years behind a bar, in working everywhere from neighborhood dive bars to gentlemen’s clubs, to pizza spots, to fine dining restaurants, to breweries and distilleries and corporate sports bars, I never did find that place that offered a steady minimum wage (or higher) all year round.
The laws around the tipper’s minimum wage are loosely based on another expectation, which is that your employer will make up the financial difference between what you earn in a pay period and what the minimum wage would have worked out to be. There are a few problems with this system. Firstly, with the transition away from cash and toward predominantly plastic payment methods, bartenders and servers are paying more in taxes than they’re legally obligated to pay when all credit card tips are paid through their paychecks. This means that while you might gross over minimum wage on paper through the pay period, you’ll lose more than your fair share of that in taxed wages. When tips were predominantly cash, bartenders and servers were legally able to claim only a percentage of their cash tips, giving them the net pay to make up the difference in shortage of wages.
Another issue is in the tracking and calculation of hourly wages, which I’ve not seen standardized well throughout the industry. In one of the very few times I’ve been part of a staff that demanded the employer make up the difference in wages, the employer (through their corporate resources) created a wage-breakdown schematic that justified not paying the employee more money.
Other problematic pay practices are common in the restaurant industry, like changing the employee’s role indicator mid-shift in order to justify tip reallocation among a pool of individuals. That reallocation is always as a money-saver for the house. Another is the complete refusal to pay overtime hours, as I’ve seen often in this industry. Telling employees to clock out two hours into a shift because it’s slow, go home, and return for the night shift instead. Charging for uniforms and aprons that cannot be used outside of that restaurant. Charging for staff meals that they offer daily, even when you’re a vegetarian, and the meals are not.
None of these practices should be shocking to the general public, as bartenders and servers have voiced their complaints via Op-Eds, discussion forums, social media, and news media for decades. Some of these practices are illegal, but most of them are not. Regardless, they’ve become part of the culture, and while restaurant employees might be vocal about it, little happens in the direction of change. I, like millions, was just about at my physical and mental breaking point, and felt trapped in this industry of injustice when the pandemic hit.
The pandemic gave me an opportunity to take time out of my normal 55+ hour work week, which wasn’t earning me enough to survive, and look for other options. I bartended with a Bachelor’s degree for many years. But the 2019-2020 job market was demanding more than just a degree to break into the field, and my student loans would wait for no one. It gave me an opportunity to stay home, give my body and mind the peace and rest they desperately needed to recover, and to put together a list of goals, a stronger resume, a great cover letter and some independent pieces of creative writing. I was able to find a very low paying writing job that was enough to keep me going. It was also fully remote, allowing me time for self-care, and to better care for my child, who has only me as a parent or support network. Now when I work, she can sleep next to me on the couch, instead of curled up in a diner booth or on the carpet of a second-floor dining room that’s closed for the season.
My problem is this. Before I began bartending, I was in a profit sharing partnership for a small pizzeria in NY. I was also the general manager of that establishment for the 3 and a half years we were in business. I did every single interview. I did all the hiring, firing, and payroll. I was 19 years old when we first bought that place and had already been managing pizzerias for 3 years, including one multi-level, million dollar spot in a prime location downtown.
When I had my own place, I granted wages based on merit. My personal salary was modest to start, and it took us the first three years to start turning an actual profit that we could dig into. But I always rewarded hard work with a decent wage, because I knew how hard it was to find, and how hard good-paying jobs were for hardworking people who still struggled to make ends meet. When I hired an employee, I gave raises when they were earned, and not because of a hire date anniversary, an annual evaluation, or because an employee had to ask for one. In fact, it wasn’t often that they did ask, because they were paid according to their performance and knew what their growth expectations were as an employee of my business. Costs were high and only getting higher, but I refused to budget my staff’s ability to pay their rent out of my expenses.
The thing is, every restaurant owner has the ability to make ethical decisions like these in running their own businesses. They are choosing not to do that. No matter how much I invested in my bartending craft, including in researching, personally marketing through social media, investing in my clothes, makeup and personal appearance, working on my hospitality and service standards, etc., I was never in my career as a bartender offered a raise without having to beg for it. This includes a multimillion dollar business that was taking in more than $100,000 every Friday and Saturday night (my shifts) for about 9 out of 12 months a year. There, the tipper’s minimum wage was $7.25 at the time, and if you could make $9.00 per hour on payroll, you were doing well.
Restaurants that are having trouble bringing their employees back to work, I ask you to reflect on one thing. Would you and your family be able to survive if you and your spouse earned the wages you’re paying? Do you know, accurately, what your employees are earning?
I cannot find it within myself to feel sympathy for these businesses. I became a bartender because I absolutely loved the craft. I loved the energy, the atmosphere, the connections I made with people, and the way I could make them feel leaving my bar with a full belly, having had a well-crafted cocktail, and having found the connection, humanity, and conversation they needed to feed their souls. I invested time and energy into the happiness of others, and spent countless nights away from my child while she was putting herself to bed, waiting for me to get home. I went out of my way to support the employers I work for, and more importantly, the team of bartenders and servers I was often proud to work with. These restaurants and bars had the opportunity to sacrifice for those who sacrificed the most for them, and they failed to act. They didn’t speak out against the laws or the social norms, and they certainly did not treat their employees with the respect they expected for themselves.
Now with beaten down bodies and minds, new opportunities, and very little initiative in protecting service staff during a pandemic many bartenders and servers will never return to the industry. Sometimes a massive disruption is the jumpstart we need to change. Restaurateurs, the ball’s in your court. How does it feel to be drowning and ignored?