Restaurant employees are essential workers yet often denied basic needs

Illustration of people walking out of a restaurant
Aasha Turner /Staff

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Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurant workers have faced unemployment, low wages and abuse from customers and employers. However, these issues affected workers before the pandemic and continue to affect restaurant workers, who disproportionately suffer from poverty, abuse and harassment.

The restaurant industry is currently experiencing a large labor shortage. According to the National Restaurant Association, the restaurant industry lost 2.5 million workers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Staffing levels at a majority of restaurants were also 20% below normal levels during the pandemic.

This trend has continued in 2021. Specifically, during each month from January to July 2021, about 5% of the restaurant workforce left their jobs. In May 2021, this translated to 706,000 workers quitting, compared to about 362,000 workers in retail trade.

Why are so many workers in the restaurant industry leaving their jobs at such alarming rates, in comparison to other industries during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?

Some reasons that workers have reported choosing to leave their food service jobs during the pandemic include struggles with confrontational customers and safety concerns. These tensions were exacerbated during the pandemic, as restaurant workers faced physical attacks and harassment from customers who refused to wear face masks.

Other former restaurant workers have reported that sexual harassment and worker exploitation are common issues within their industry and noted that these cases often get swept under the rug. 70% of men and 90% of women in the restaurant industry reported that they have experienced sexual harassment at work, according to Harvard Business Review, which is more than any other industry.

The most commonly reported reason workers have given for leaving the restaurant industry is low wagesa problem that became even more pronounced during the pandemic, as workers could only work a few hours per day when restaurants did not open at full capacity. Low wages are especially challenging in the East Bay and Bay Area, where rent is high, and restaurant working wages are often too low to cover the cost of living.

In May 2014, the average wage for U.S. restaurant workers reached $11 per hour for the very first time. In February 2020, the average wage for U.S. restaurant workers was $14.07 per hour, but this number soon dropped due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This number is even lower for frontline workers in the U.S. fast food industry. According to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, median pay for these workers is only $8.69 per hour, and many of these jobs pay employees at or near minimum wage.

Even when offered higher wages, some restaurant workers said they would prefer to enter a different industry that may allow them to focus more on their mental health.

If minimum wage workers report a lack of incentive to return to the restaurant industry, it becomes increasingly clear that the environment within the restaurant industry — one so exhausting that workers must completely detach themselves in order to recover — is unsustainable. 

In an effort to reduce worker turnover in the restaurant industry, some companies are increasing incentives and benefit programs for their employees.

The New York Times reported that Applebee’s handed out vouchers for free appetizers to anyone who scheduled an interview with the company. The restaurant’s goal was to hire 10,000 workers in the summer. It received 40,000 applications.

Similarly, Omni Hotels and Resorts offered incentives to their employees. In addition to a temporary bonus for culinary team members hired in the summer, the company gave their culinary team a number of enticing opportunities specific to the culinary world, the Times reported.

Despite these and similar incentive programs popping up across the restaurant industry, many food workers still do not receive adequate assistance from their employers. An estimated 87% of frontline fast-food workers reported not receiving health benefits from their employer, according to the UC Berkeley Labor Center.

This means many food service workers are more reliant on government assistance, supported by the fact that 52% of frontline workers in the fast food industry receive aid from one or more public programs, compared to 25% of the U.S. workforce.

Fast-food workers are also more likely to be living in or near poverty. One in five families with a member working in the fast food industry has an income level below the poverty line. Additionally, 43% of these families have an income that is two times the poverty level or less.

What emerges is the reality that even in a service so essential and prevalent, the basic needs of restaurant workers are often not met by their employers or the state.

Groups such as NC Raise Up, the North Carolina chapter of the Fight for $15, are advocating for unions and for workers to be paid at least $15 an hour. They have protested at food service companies such as McDonald’s, so employees can be paid a livable wage. Fight for $15 is also advocating for a $15 an hour wage across the nation, bringing workers together as a union. 

“And we will keep on fighting, no matter the challenge,” The Fight website reads. “We won’t back down.”

Contact Rina Rossi at [email protected].