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Fundraisers for Sick Restaurant Employees Represent the Failure of American Health Care

Raising money for sick workers isn’t making up for a flaw in the restaurant industry; it’s making up for the fact that there’s no safety net for anyone

When Jason Fisher, a then-29-year-old sous chef at Atlanta’s No. 246, found out his cancer had come back, it didn’t take long before the restaurant’s managers decided to try and raise some money. Within two days, general manager Bradley Wyatt was shocked to see their GoFundMe had already raised a few thousand dollars. “It just snowballed.”

Soon after, other people started finding out about the fundraiser, Wyatt says. The restaurant received free cases of alcohol, a few hundred dollars worth of shrimp, a 50-pound bag of flour. He recalls that before long it felt like they “were telling the story to every person who comes into the restaurant.” By the time they threw the actual fundraising event, they had over 500 people come through the door of a restaurant that usually seats less than half that.

Wyatt says that while he knew none of them could magically make Fisher better, they could at least take away the financial worry — pay his rent or provide the equivalent of a few years’ salary — and give him time to heal.

In San Francisco, the restaurant community came together to raise money for a sushi chef who needed multiple surgeries. A Texas restaurant donated a full day of sales to help an employee with cancer. When a Portland chef had a stroke, not only did local restaurants put together a fundraiser, they even sent over cooks to fill in during her recovery.

It’s become increasingly common to find people raising money for health care on crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe. Between 2011 and 2014, crowdfunding sites went from generating $873 million to $9.5 billion dollars, according to a Mother Jones article about crowdfunding health care. There aren’t statistics on how much of this revenue comes from health-related campaigns, but a brief search of the sites will show that even if many never get funded, there are a lot of sick people who need money to pay for medical costs, to take time off of work, and to cover other expenses. Restaurants in particular have figured out how to energize their communities around workers in need.

The question of health care in restaurants is “a complicated issue,” according to Bryan Schroeder, director of the Giving Kitchen, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that provides financial and other assistance to restaurant employees: “Anyone who tells you there’s an easy answer or easy reason is selling you something.” For the most part, he doesn’t think there’s a bad guy. “Even though there is a problem,” he says, “some of it is inherent to the system.”

Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, calls the trend of employers fundraising for their employees “absurd.” She continues, “They should just be paying their own people so they can afford to live rather than doing fundraisers for their staff.”

Restaurants are notorious for having poor benefits: Tipped employees make a small hourly wage, few places provide paid time off, and even when a business offers health insurance, employees might not be able to afford it. In 2015, the New York Times covered a 600-person restaurant group that started offering health insurance — nearly a full year later, only two people signed up.

Restaurants may not seem like a dangerous place to work compared to an oil rig or fishing boat, but restaurant employees consistently have some of the highest rates of workplace injuries. Jayaraman lists injuries ranging from falling to arm and shoulder issues to severe burns as common results of restaurant accidents. Unlike jobs that take place at a desk or have a low-impact version injured workers can do while recovering from an injury, restaurant jobs are frequently an all-or-nothing proposition. A broken ankle that might be a minor inconvenience at another job represents weeks or months without pay for a restaurant employee. “Thousands of workers we’ve surveyed tell us that because they don’t have the ability to take time off to deal with issues,” Jayaraman says, “[injuries] become chronic to the point of workers becoming completely disabled.”

Schroeder believes there are good and bad things about working in this industry. “It’s a job you can’t export or automate,” he says. “It’s a job that even with a criminal background, you can show up for work. If you work hard, you can usually rise up — there’s equal economic mobility.” It’s one of the things that makes the industry great, but also explains why so many might not have a safety net to fall back on. For many people, Schroeder says, “this is their first job or a second chance and the wages are low; they’re working, but they don’t have much saved.” Many people go back to work before they should, according to Schroeder: “There’s always this idea that they can show up and have a great shift and make a bunch of money to dig them out of this hole.”

Whether it’s wages, sexual harassment, or health care, Schroeder says, “All the problems we experience in the world get magnified — it’s a pressure cooker.”

When the Affordable Care Act passed, many chains spoke out against the perceived costs of insuring so many employees. An Applebee’s franchisee with 40 restaurants initially said he would stop hiring new workers to avoid paying to insure them. Anecdotally, other fast-food franchisees also cut workers to under 30 hours a week to avoid offering them insurance only to discover that managing a massive part-time staff was a logistical nightmare.

It wasn’t perfect for employees, either. While insurance coverage is considered “affordable” if it is less than 9.56 percent of an employee’s household income, that description is laughable for many people, especially when they still have to pay for deductibles and co-pays on top of that. Only 20 percent of employees participate in employer-sponsored group health insurance if they make less than $45,000 a year. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average wage for a server is only $25,280 a year — full time. Thanks to the ACA, which gives subsidies to assist with insurance for people who make less than 400 percent of the federal poverty limit (roughly $45,000), many restaurant employees find it more cost effective not to participate in their group plan.

Some restaurateurs have gone above and beyond the ACA to offer health plans with good coverage at a price that is actually reasonable for their employees. But that still doesn’t mean that workers can afford to get sick. Employees might run out of sick days when seriously ill.

And a health crisis can cause hardship for people in any industry: Medical bills are the most common reason that people file for bankruptcy. According to the Federal Reserve’s 2017 Survey of Household Economics and Decision-making, four in 10 adults couldn’t cover a $400 emergency expense, much less hospital bills that (even after insurance) might run into the tens or hundreds of thousands. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that medical bills are one of the most common reasons consumers are contacted by debt collection agencies and that, unlike student loan or credit card debt, the percentage is the same regardless of the consumer’s age, credit score, or income level. One survey from Duke University Medical Center looking at cancer cost found that, best-case scenario, people might spend as much as 10 percent of household income on out-of-pocket expenses, while for others (primarily those with private insurance), costs could go as high as 30 percent. People just generally don’t budget around the possibility of getting a serious illness, and since the 1990s, health care costs have risen faster than the country’s GDP. That’s not a restaurant problem; it’s a national crisis.

Better insurance in the restaurant industry wouldn’t make these fundraisers obsolete. “Maybe this is an example of why we should have socialized medicine or government-provided health insurance so everyone is equally covered,” says Caroline Styne, the James Beard Award-winning co-owner of LA’s Lucques restaurant group. Ideally, “everyone has that safety net so they’re not in fear of breaking their ankle by accident then unable to support themselves and out of work and on the street... That’s why [the industry ends] up crowdfunding for people — they’re injured and can’t work, and it’s an instant avenue to doom.”

In 2014, Lucques was one of the first restaurants in Los Angeles to institute a 3 percent surcharge to pay for employee health insurance (the figure has since risen to 3.5 percent). Styne says that they did it that way rather than making menu prices higher not because they were being cheap but because rent, insurance, and other major expenses are based on gross revenue. If they raised the menu prices, “our rent would go up and our insurance would go up and we would have had to raise our prices significantly to net that 3.5 percent for health care,” she explains. The group currently uses that surcharge to pay for 100 percent of employee insurance, which is offered to every full-time employee — “a bulk of the staff,” Styne says. It doesn’t mean fundraisers don’t happen: In 2015, Lucques set up a fundraiser for an employee who was “critically injured in a car accident.”

Restaurants should take care of their employees — but so should every business. When chef Jason Vincent was opening Chicago’s Giant, he thought hard about all the “garbage” things that he’d encountered in restaurants over the years. One of the top things on his list was finding a way to offer insurance to every employee — full or part time. “The government says you don’t have to offer it to people who work less than 30 hours a week,” Vincent says. “We wanted to offer it to everybody. It’s like Oprah: you get health insurance! And you get health insurance!”

He also went out of his way to get a group plan his employees would be able to afford. Vincent has a medical condition that requires him to purchase expensive medicine, and when he would look for jobs, he got excited whenever an employer told him they offered health insurance. “That doesn’t mean they pay for it,” Vincent says dryly.

Schroeder notes that while there are a lot of factors that lead restaurant employees to fundraise for health care, “it’s only in a restaurant do you see people coming together for each other.” The fact that restaurants are public places of hospitality might also make them ideal sites for fundraising. “People know the chefs and servers,” Schroeder says. “Doing a fundraiser makes sense because there’s an easy way to connect to the public.”

These fundraisers aren’t making up for a flaw in the restaurant industry; they’re making up for the fact that there’s no safety net available to people in these situations, short of the kindness of friends, family, and strangers. “We are people who are very generous and work in service of others,” Styne says of restaurant employees. “Restaurants create very familial environments; you work long, hard hours alongside people in stressful situations. When something happens to one of our own, we step up to help in any way we can.”

Tove Danovich is a freelance journalist and former New Yorker who now lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @TKDano. Glenn Harvey is an illustrator working and living in Toronto.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan