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The restaurant worker shortage is real but not in the way you're reading about it
As you may know if you’re the type of person that’s online a lot—and if you’re not good for you!—there’s been quite a lot of discussion lately about restaurant workers and the supposed lack thereof. I was particularly inspired by my old pal Em Cassel’s story on the matter in Welcome to Hell World which I suggest you read before you read this but you do what you want. She does a good job capturing the narrative coming out of news organizations and Reality On The Ground which are of course different.
Pandemic-related furloughs and layoffs and closures weren’t unique to restaurants, but something that is somewhat specific to the industry is that for decades its owner class has been able to underpay and overwork employees under the guise of being “like a family.” Covid showed their hand: Maybe we’re a family, but that doesn’t mean you have a safe or stable position here when it becomes inconvenient for me to have to pay you. A lot of families are dysfunctional after all.
It’s why former executive chef Brian Carson said the current situation is essentially a strike. “You fired these folks a year ago,” he said, “and now you’re mad that they don’t want to come back and do the same [tough] job for the same crappy pay?”
I’m a restaurant worker. I worked in a kitchen throughout the entire course of the pandemic and I have quite a bit to say about the reality on the ground. I also just put my two weeks in so I’m in YOLO territory. If anything I say in this story gets me fired then that would just be sort of funny wouldn’t it? Oh no now I’m fired I had three more shifts to work :’-(
BTW I’m leaving my job in part because I’m starting to make juuust enough money off this newsletter that I can consider it a full time job and if you smash that subscribe button I’ll be even closer! The incentive here is that the 30-40 hours a week I was spending in a kitchen I will now be spending on my laptop talking shit about stuff in this city.
Anyway, back to the news.
Typically these stories are framed from the perspective of the restaurant owners and they’re bemoaning the fact they’re so short staffed and crying about how paying the line cooks $20 as opposed to $13 will sink the whole endeavor. No one wants to work, they say. Back in my day people used to work, they say. This is what’s wrong with America, they say.
Of course the only reason why this story is tracking and getting the national coverage it’s getting is because here in America there’s a bipartisan consensus around social safety nets and the consensus is bah who needs em. Through COVID, the government was forced to provide some semblance of one, and now that states are reopening and the benefits have not quite dried up the Restaurant Worker Shortage Story has become the convenient center of the argument that the peasants are being treated too nicely and must be forced back into the hay fields lest we run out of hay. The Boston Herald had the courtesy to put this vampiric argument bluntly and not coat it with the customary liberal niceties.
The government reported last week that just 266,000 jobs were added in April, while U.S. employers posted a record number of available jobs in March.
The number of openings will likely add fuel to a political dispute about whether the extra $300 in weekly federal unemployment aid, on top of a state payment, is discouraging those out of work from seeking new jobs.
“We have employers who just tried to hire back past employees who were laid off, and they turned down the job because there’s a whole lot of incentive to spend the summer at the beach,” said Jon Hurst of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. “They’re happy at the beach, and they’re happy taking benefits until Labor Day.”
Understaffed stores, restaurants and travel venues face a “real tough road ahead” to serve customers returning this summer, he added.
Jon Hurst of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts says only I should be spending my summer at the beach, not the proles.
But the staffing shortage is a real thing and it makes an already hard job even harder. For the past couple months, everyone at my restaurant has been working way more than they should. The burnout is reflected in the atmosphere and in the quality of the product and it’s going to get even worse as people like myself leave and the restaurant struggles to hire replacements. People are getting called in all the time. People are calling out because they’re burnt. I’ve seen more fights on the line and more people storm out than I have at any other time in my years working in kitchens. People are bitter and exhausted. This is not, however, because people who would be working are just at home collecting unemployment and living in the lap of luxury off $300 a week. Anyone who believes that has never had to try to live off $300 a week. In Massachusetts, it’s simply impossible.
At my restaurant, it’s more that people are leaving because there are other places that are willing to pay a lot more money and they work you a lot less hard. The sous chef is leaving for another restaurant where he’s getting a lot more money. One of our better line cooks did the same a few weeks ago. I’m sort of doing that as well. In the past month, all I’ve had to do is float a rumor that I was considering leaving and I got two raises. There’s a worker shortage and restaurants are being forced to pay more because they laid everyone off a year ago and people had to find other work and they probably found that the other work is a way better deal than working at a restaurant. There is a long, long history of exploitation of workers in the restaurant business. There is almost no unionization in the industry and many of the workers are undocumented, at least in the back of the house. For servers and bartenders, the conversation is a little different, but I’m a back of the house kind of guy so that’s what I’m going to focus on. For cooks and dishwashers, pay is negotiated individually and the starting point is almost always minimum wage. You have to ask for more money, and before this worker shortage, asking for more money didn’t really work. To the ownership you’re seen as expendable. If you leave, they’ll find someone else to do the same job and start them at minimum wage. Now, because so many people are out of the game, it’s more of a seller’s market. Negotiating more money is a lot easier because you are no longer expendable. If you leave, they don’t really know if they can replace you. It’s cold simple math, and it’s actually a very good thing for workers. People who work in a kitchen deserve to be paid more. It is a good thing that restaurant owners are having to cut into their profit margin to give people the money they deserve. The family that owns my restaurant does just fine for themselves. If they’re suddenly able to come up with more money for people, like they did for me, the money was always there.
My restaurant just rolled out a bonus program. Management framed it as a way to thank everyone for working so hard through a stressful and dangerous time. The bonus program is good. An extra $200 a week if you work more than 32 hours, an extra $100 if you work more than 18 if I remember correctly. And a one-time $200 if you show proof of vaccination. The money is coming from federal aid the restaurant received and it goes until the end of the year. It’s great for everyone getting it and I’m happy they are, but this was no attempt at thanking anyone. It’s an incentive to get people to stay, and it comes a full year after everyone had already worked elbow to elbow in a hot, submarine-like kitchen or else had to talk to maskless people and carry away the plates and silverware that the maskless people had been breathing and spitting on for an hour. You couldn’t design a better virus factory. The money was there to roll out this bonus program that entire time. It took the prospect of losing so much staff that the restaurant could cease to function for them to offer it. The bonus also does not permanently increase anyone’s pay. Come January, it’s back to the same old no good wages.
And my restaurant was actually better to its employees than others. They used federal money to subsidize people’s checks over the first few months of the pandemic and worked with people to make sure they were getting the most out of unemployment benefits. Other restaurants just wholesale laid people off and I know of at least one restaurant in Worcester where the owner straight up pocketed the federal relief money. There's rumors floating around about a little bit of skimming off the top at my restaurant but nothing so bad as what happened at other places. The person who pocketed all the federal relief money, though, I don’t feel bad for him that he’s having a hard time finding workers. I don’t feel bad at all for the owners of my restaurant, who are now having to use federal aid money that they would have otherwise pocketed to pay workers enough that they’ll stay, if only for a year. We’re at a point where restaurants need to encourage people to come back and work for them. They need to make it worth it. The shutdown broke a cycle of exploitation that kept people overworked and underpaid. Now they need to figure out new business models that accommodate workers and treat them decently. I’m happy for all my people out there on the line, in prep kitchens, in dish pits and dealing with awful customers that the table has finally flipped in their favor.
If ever there was a time to unionize, now’s it. Sooooo if you’re a union organizer and you just happen to be looking for some kitchen work, the Worcester Restaurant Group is offering a pretty sweet bonus program right now!
Alex Press has a really good recent story on the issue of unionizing food service workers in Jacobin so I’ll leave you with a few words from that.
Chipotle, like any other corporation, only agrees to changes that affect its bottom line when it is forced to, either by the state, as with a federal minimum wage, or by workers themselves, as was the case when workers walked off the job in the Bronx and won two weeks of paid quarantine. Unions can force those changes, and for that reason, are certainly in the interest of the workforce itself. But self-interested customers have a reason to back unions too.
The pattern that emerges from the testimony of Chipotle workers across the country is that the company’s understaffing and overwork leads to pervasive violations of not only workers’ rights, but food safety standards. Workers allege that cross-contamination is frequent. Meat is not always checked for temperature, and several employees spoke of temperature logs filled with numbers invented whole cloth. One worker tells Jacobin that the only time their location observed handwashing requirements was during health inspections. (Chipotle did not respond to a request for comment on any of these allegations.)
In other restaurant business news this whole thing about Wormtown is pretty damning isn’t it? In case you missed it, the majority of the leadership team is stepping back while an internal group investigates accounts of sexual harassment posted to Instagram. A brewer at Notch Brewing who goes by @ratmagnet has been posting anonymous accounts of sexual harassment at breweries around the country, and Wormtown sure made the list. The instagram page Worcester Hates You has been compiling the Wormtown stuff in their story archive. This is probably the most jarring one.
Jesus. I hope this internal investigation comes up with something. Sexual harassment is a problem across the entire food service industry and, like, the world. It’s good these women are taking a stand.
In lighter news this event at Ralph’s this coming Saturday is not to be missed. It’s called Heavy Metal Parking Lot and it’s going to be an afternoon flea market thingy with a bunch of super talented crafty people slinging wares and merch and stuff. There’s going to be a dunk tank as well and guess who’s going in the dunk tank? I’m going in that god damn dunk tank. Come down and make sure I spend the afternoon soaked.
Summer 2021 more like Summer 202FUN amirite?
Ok that’s all for now, sleep well my sweet babies. And as always, consider subscribing or sharing my work, it’s how we make the magic happen.