‘Challenging Is Not Nearly a Strong Enough Word’ – Katie Okamoto

An illustration showing a chef surrounded by takeout bags, coronavirus spike proteins, and tv news alerts.

High-risk restaurant workers are struggling to navigate the pandemic

For nearly a year, restaurant workers everywhere have faced unprecedented challenges as they’ve sought to weather the coronavirus pandemic.

“The worst thing about it is the uncertainty,” says Michael Roper, who owns Hopleaf Bar in Chicago and is at high risk for severe COVID-19. “I have only one fully functioning lung. … I don’t want to be gasping for life and have a terrible end. I’m not going to let my guard down.”

While COVID-19 is a new disease, and it is impossible to predict which cases will require hospitalization, certain conditions may put individuals at a particularly high risk for developing a severe, life-threatening case. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, high-risk populations include older adults (especially those above the age of 65) and people with certain underlying medical conditions, including cancer, heart disease, pregnancy, moderate-to-severe asthma, and Type 1 diabetes. The CDC advises people who fall into this high-risk category to protect themselves from infection by “limit[ing] your interactions with other people as much as possible.”

For those who are at above-average risk for severe COVID-19, or who care for someone in this category, following this guidance can present a seemingly impossible choice. On the one hand, the safest course of action is to stay home; on the other hand, that’s not an option for many workers and owners who depend on restaurants for their livelihoods. Sandy Levine owns Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails in Detroit and is also high-risk. He says that keeping himself and his staff healthy has “consumed” his life. Workers and owners both have had to make tough decisions about whether to continue working in restaurants at all, weighing each risk-mitigation strategy against the very real possibility of contracting COVID. As Levine puts it, “Challenging is not nearly a strong enough word.”

High-Risk Workers Have Only So Many Options

“‘Work through the pain, work long hours.’ It’s the mentality of the industry, and one of the most difficult ingredients to the pandemic, especially if this is your sole income,” says Aaron Verzosa, a chef who co-owns Archipelago, a Filipino restaurant in Seattle, with his spouse Amber Manuguid. Before the pandemic, working while sick was routine in restaurants, an unfortunate byproduct of a nonstop work culture, job insecurity, and a lack of health care and paid sick leave. Most staff members have little, if any, control over operations at the restaurant where they happened to be employed in the spring of 2020. In the absence of clear federal and state government mandates, they have had hugely variable experiences from workplace to workplace as they weigh the pros and cons of returning to kitchens and dining rooms. For high-risk workers, these decisions are literally life and death.

Jessie McMillan, a cook at a small burger restaurant on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, says “the decision to return, initially, was stressful.” McMillan has asthma and a history of respiratory illness and was advised by his doctor to be extra cautious. He was only convinced to return after he visited the space, which the owners had retrofitted to allow for ample ventilation, upon reopening. “If there hadn’t been a financial incentive to go back to work, I would have waited longer,” he says. While he now feels relatively safe, McMillan says, “I have a hard time picturing a lot of [other] options for a safe restaurant [for me] to work in.”

Many would agree, and have left the jobs they had in search of something safer. Luis, who prefers not to use his last name, has asthma and was a server at Chartreuse in Detroit when the pandemic hit. While he was furloughed, a friend who works in catering contracted COVID-19, which quickly escalated into what Luis calls a “close-to-death encounter.” Seeing the effects of COVID informed his decision not to return to indoor restaurant work. Instead, Luis began working for the friend’s catering company, designing a contactless pickup system so that the business could safely work outdoor events. But this, too, came with stress and exposure risks, especially as people, hungry for a sense of normalcy, began gathering for 200-person weddings and other parties over the summer: “It was scary to watch.” After Chartreuse opened for takeout in November, Luis returned to work as a delivery driver, a job he feels is safe, and still supplements his income at the catering company.

Some workers, faced with the health risk, have decided their best bet is to leave the industry entirely. No Us Without You is a Los Angeles nonprofit that provides food security for some 1,500 families of undocumented back-of-house workers who have lost work due to the pandemic. Co-founder Damian Diaz estimates that most workers served by the organization have had to leave restaurant work for other industries like construction and landscaping, which have continued through the pandemic — and where most time is spent outdoors. “Very, very few people have stayed in hospitality, and most of them are dishwashers,” Diaz says, noting that even for those who have been able to stay at their jobs, their hours were cut significantly as LA shut down dining during the fall and winter surge. Meanwhile, the “dishwasher” job description has changed — typically with no hourly wage increase — to include sanitizing and cleaning.

For many restaurant industry workers, high-risk status comes from living in multigenerational homes or having high-risk close family members. Justice, who asked not to use his last name, a former bartender in the Detroit area, switched to real estate; he knows from personal experience that “the virus is deadly.” While he is not at high risk, his parents are; he doesn’t live with them, but it was fear for their health that inspired his career change. “As a bartender, you’re basically on the front lines,” he says.

“It’s been very difficult, especially for people of color who live in multigenerational homes,” says Manuguid, who co-owns Archipelago with Verzosa. In March, when Seattle was the epicenter of coronavirus cases in the United States, the family was living with Manuguid’s mother, sister, and sister’s children, one of whom is asthmatic. “I’d rather close the business than have Amber’s mom infected with COVID,” says Verzosa, who decided to stick with takeout and delivery rather than take on the risks that come with serving guests face to face.

Diaz says that among the people relying on No Us Without You, families are moving in together to lower their costs and share expenses. Estimating how many undocumented restaurant workers are high-risk or care for someone in that category is “kind of impossible” due to the prevalence of multigenerational living in undocumented immigrant communities, says Diaz; at a certain point, most households can be assumed to have elderly or otherwise high-risk individuals.

But for many, like Kimberly Anderson, leaving restaurant work is not an option. Anderson, a server, beer buyer, and organizer with Service Industry Workers of the Ann Arbor Area (SIWA3), says she was “terrified” to return to the restaurant when it reopened for outdoor dining. (It has since also reopened for indoor dining.) Her husband breathes through a stoma and is at high risk for severe COVID-19. “The doctor at the VA told me, ‘Don’t go back.’ But I’m the sole income.”

Structuring Service to Keep High-Risk Workers and Owners Safe

Caught between a rock and a hard place, many restaurant owners and operators have weighed options — albeit limited ones — to reduce the inevitable chance of exposure to themselves, their families, and staff. Some have drawn the line at indoor dining, even when it’s permitted at reduced capacity. Others, like Archipelago, have also refused to offer table service to outdoor diners, sticking to takeout and delivery only.

“Indoor dining was a line I didn’t want to cross,” says Maine chef-restaurateur Cara Stadler. She set that boundary out of concern for her mother, with whom she co-owns Tao Yuan and Bao Bao Dumpling House, and her small staff, some of whom are high-risk. Since none of her front-of-house staff was at elevated risk for severe COVID, she was able to set up outdoor dining and takeout while ensuring that no high-risk employees ever had to directly interact with customers.

What seems comfortable in one workplace may seem risky in another. Ji Hye Kim, the owner of Miss Kim in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which employs more than one staff member with underlying conditions, did not want any possibility of front-of-house exposure from diners. Miss Kim has only offered contactless pickup and delivery throughout the pandemic, a choice Kim acknowledges “came at a cost.” She has refrained from marketing the restaurant’s no-service patio to takeout customers. “We didn’t want a huge crowd,” she says. “We wanted to protect our front-of-house staff.”

Of course, interacting with guests is just one possible source of exposure for workers. Since staff often share small spaces for hours at a time, enforcing mask-wearing, ventilation, and distancing between stations is critical to lowering the chance of transmission indoors. And some managers have gone further, shuffling schedules and in some cases retraining workers to do lower-risk jobs within the business. Kim believes that because her restaurant is a One Fair Wage business (which eliminates subminimum wage for tipped employees and disparity between back- and front-of-house wages), it was simpler for her to rearrange staff roles around relative COVID-19 risk — and retrain as needed. One high-risk dishwasher is now a prep cook, a role that allows them to minimize their time with other staff. Stadler, meanwhile, was able to adjust the schedule so that one high-risk cook can come in on days when no one else is working — fine-tuning that, she notes, may not be possible for businesses with larger staffs.

All of the restaurant owners with whom I spoke for this article expressed frustration that restaurants must bear the burden of figuring out how to safely operate; government policies around on-site dining are simply not designed to protect the most vulnerable, highest-risk workers. “Myself and my staff have been going above and beyond the minimum requirements,” says Roper of Hopleaf Bar, which has been closed since November, when a staff member tested positive. “If you do the minimum of what’s required, you slip into being more and more likely of getting an infection.”

Absent sufficient and consistent aid and rent relief for individuals and businesses, few, if any, high-risk restaurant workers and owners can afford to even entertain the safest options — among them, staying home. “I understand the need to help people [remain] employed at restaurants,” Manuguid says. “But instead of giving us access to health care and funding, it’s easier [for the government] to have restaurants reopen, even if it puts people at risk.”

The promising vaccines aren’t a viable solution yet. “Who gets a vaccine and when do they get it? That’s what people are asking me,” says Diaz. It’s a particularly pressing question for high-risk restaurant workers who do not have the option to stay home, as more contagious variants are emerging, and at a time when racial inequities in vaccine distribution are already a concern in many municipalities. But the rollout has varied hugely from state to state, and even city to city. Just as each state’s restrictions differ based on cases and politics, so does vaccine distribution by priority groups based around occupation, disability, and age. And these groups may change with little notice, as they did in California in January. Given the slow rollout, on top of nearly a year of reacting to rapidly changing restrictions and messaging from the government, perhaps it’s not surprising that everyone who spoke to me about vaccines for this article believed their doses were still too far off to start planning around.

Many high-risk workers have been through months of extreme uncertainty, adaptation, and loss. The mental health burden of high-risk people and those who care for them cannot be overstated. “I’ve had grown women and men cry to me and tell me they want to kill themselves because they don’t know what to do,” Diaz says.

Sarah Dvorak, the former owner of Mission Cheese in San Francisco, which closed its doors in January, whose son is high-risk, describes “the mental anguish of asking people to come to work” without knowing whether or not it is safe. She says mental health is of particular concern for workers who also have underlying anxiety and depression. “There’s a general buildup of worry,” she says. “You get in the red zone of it being hard to function.”

Regardless of when a vaccine will be available for high-risk restaurant workers, they are still putting their health on the line, right now. “The burden falls on workers to enforce mandates,” says Anderson. She says that people who are dining out are “basically the worst people.” “Being a tipped employee, you don’t want to argue with one of the four tables that you have that day,” Anderson says. “It’s a constant struggle.”

Until the pandemic is truly over, high-risk workers want to see diners and employers take their health seriously. “People are made to think [the restaurant industry is] not … serious enough to be worth giving us savings, retirement funds, or health care,” says Luis, the server turned delivery driver who has asthma.

In the meantime, “empathy is a value we need to rescue, hardcore,” he says. “If you go out to eat, be empathetic with the person handing you your bag of food, or the person in the kitchen who you may not see anymore, or the person who is taking your order. They are working because they have to feed their family and pay their bills just like you. Cover your faces and keep people safe.”

Katie Okamoto is a staff writer at Wirecutter and freelance food and culture writer based in Los Angeles. Find her work at katieokamoto.com and occasionally on Twitter and Instagram.
Carolyn Figel is an illustrator and animator based in Brooklyn, New York.

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