Nebraska joined the list of states whose Republican governors have yanked $300 a week in federal unemployment aid from people still struggling in the COVID-19 economy, with Gov. Pete Ricketts announcing that move as part of a broader “return to normalcy.” But it’s a mistake to pretend that anything as simple and easy as a “return to normalcy” is possible without reckoning with the traumas and losses of the past 15 months, and the existing fractures the coronavirus revealed in our society and economy.
We see that increasingly clearly in the restaurant industry, where some employers are wailing about how it would be easier to hire new workers if only the government would do what Ricketts and other Republican governors are doing and just try to starve them out—but restaurant industry workers are saying something very different.
“The staffing issue has actually a lot more to do with the conditions that the industry was in before covid and people not wanting to go back to that, knowing what they would be facing with a pandemic on top of it,” Austin restaurant worker Crystal Maher told The Washington Post. “People are forgetting that restaurant workers have actually experienced decades of abuse and trauma. The pandemic is just the final straw.”
Yes, restaurant workers would very much like a living wage, but it’s not just that.
”I’ve seen the number of people who are passionate about the restaurant industry slowly ebb away over the last 20 years,” Allan Creasy, voted Memphis’ best bartender three times, said. “In my opinion, it’s because the server’s minimum wage hasn’t changed. There is this belief that servers and bartenders are interchangeable.”
Restaurant workers were already underpaid and undervalued, lacking benefits and stability, working hours that make it difficult to have a family or social life—and then a pandemic in which they suffered disproportionately was piled onto that, with long layoffs during shutdowns and customers and employers willing to endanger their health when restaurants reopened. One study found that line cooks had the highest risk of dying of COVID-19 of any profession, and a recent One Fair Wage survey of 2,800 restaurant industry workers showed the degree to which these workers lived with the specter of the virus: 21% said they had personally contracted COVID-19, 74% said one or more employees at their restaurant had been infected with the coronavirus, and 95% said they knew someone who had. Of that 95%, 50% knew someone who had died.
A restaurant staffing firm told The Washington Post that it had surveyed 2,000 restaurant workers and found that 26% had left the industry. It’s kind of a wonder the number isn’t higher, under the circumstances.
The workers who are looking to go back are entering a job market in which lots of restaurants are reopening or scaling up operations at the same time, creating a lot of job openings all at once. They can pick and choose at least to some extent—and the restaurant owners who are whining to reporters about how unemployment benefits are too high are pretty much advertising themselves as bad bosses. Restaurant workers are telling us that their work environments were just barely sustainable before the pandemic piled on its traumas. That should trigger a reckoning, not an orgy of blaming workers. But that’s not how Republicans—or too many restaurant owners and managers—operate.