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The Un-Heroic Reality of Being an ‘Essential’ Restaurant Worker

As a restaurant employee, I’ve been deemed an essential worker. But you’d never know that from the way I’m treated.

Illustration of mask-wearing worker as seen from driver’s perspective inside a car. Worker is standing in the rain and handing driver a bag of food.

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We started to grasp the severity of the COVID-19 situation about halfway through a Thursday night shift. It was March 12, and I was on the takeout register at the Los Angeles Vietnamese restaurant where I’ve worked for the past two years. Our busser had been coughing heavily for about a month, and now he was visibly sweating. “I think I have to go home,” he said. At the time, he worked two full-time jobs; diligent and meticulous, he never called out. “Maybe you should go to the hospital,” I told him. At that point, I was naive enough to think he could get tested and treated. He nodded and left.

News came to us in fragments. One table mentioned the NBA had just ended its season; another was frantic about the European travel ban. I began making a list of food and nonperishables to get from the grocery store. “You should go tonight,” my coworker told me. I jotted down phrases like “alkaline water” and “bags of pasta.” We laughed at my scattered list and our utter confusion, still unsure where this all was going.

Two months later, we are certain of a few things: The restaurant industry is in trouble, and government relief programs have been woefully insufficient. Mom-and-pop establishments, the likes of which Jonathan Gold championed across our city, will most likely be hit the hardest as their owners struggle to stay afloat.

And in the midst of this national conversation, restaurant employees have been deemed “essential workers,” a heroic title that feels to me, as one such restaurant worker, wildly generous. The reality of work under quarantine has been both more stressful and more farcical than I anticipated, and has made me question what it actually means to be essential.

Since Los Angeles’s Safer-at-Home initiative was instated, the nightly staff at our restaurant has shrunk by more than half, with only one front-of-house person and two cooks per shift. My hours have been reduced from five to two nights a week. We all wear masks: The owners provided each of us with a disposable one when the pandemic started, but by now most everyone has switched to their own reusable ones.

The atmosphere vacillates between tense, normal, and bizarre. For the most part, anxiety over the risk of infection slips to the back of my mind as I deal with the annoyance of needy customers and the stresses of the tasks at hand. But I also try to stay diligent. I spray down the counters incessantly, and “sanitize” the pens (dunk them in bleach) after each use. I rush around matching boxes of food to their tickets while delivery drivers fill the restaurant. I shuffle between the three separate iPads we are now using for online delivery orders. Perspiration pools on my lip beneath my mask as I sweat through slammed shifts.

Some customers tip generously. But the longer quarantine goes on, the more customers seem to be reverting to their old habits. One night, a woman questioned the 10 percent service fee on her $180 order.

“What’s this?” she asked.

I explained that we put a fee on orders over $100 in lieu of a tip.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because it’s a lot of work…” I offered.

She left unconvinced.

Regulars who never tipped before the crisis have continued their practice of not tipping. “Thanks for staying open!” one of them chirped as he pocketed his change. Another customer put a $5 bill in the tip jar, then took two $1 bills for change. “I’m leaving you $3,” he told me curtly. During a rainstorm, a customer called and asked that we bring her order out to the car. When I handed her the receipt, she wrote “0.00” and signed her name with a flourish. She was wearing a T-shirt that said “Wild Feminist.”

The unacknowledged absurdity of the situation is almost comical. I am handing you noodles wearing gloves and a mask because we are in the midst of a global pandemic! I want to yell. I am risking my health for your greasy meal!

In the midst of a busy Sunday night, a woman called to complain about her order.

“I’m really disappointed,” she said. “I expected the food to be here in time for my virtual happy hour.”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” I responded. “I’m doing my best.”

In moments like these, it’s a relief to let my customer service facade slip away and speak bluntly. I try to keep it moving and turn such encounters into funny anecdotes, but still they stew in my stomach in a simmering rage. When will the efforts and labor of other people be recognized? If not now, when?

Before COVID, about half the restaurant’s takeout business typically came from the third-party delivery apps Caviar and Postmates. During quarantine, it’s grown to 80 percent. Since the customer tips the driver, not the restaurant, cashiers don’t make any money on those orders. As such, they are my lowest priority, and drivers end up with long wait times. They crowd the space around the counter, limiting the possibility of social distancing and creating additional stress. They hover and pester, and I snap back at them. Two newly deemed essential workers face off over whose time is more valuable.

Right after the pandemic began, my workplace became a Postmates Partner. Beforehand, we charged a 10 percent service fee on Postmates orders that went directly into our tips. But since becoming a partner, we’re no longer allowed to do so. The Postmates Partnership FAQ page boasts “increased visibility” for Partners on their app and website, as well as an average 300 percent increase in orders — meaning I am now handling significantly more orders on which I make significantly less money.

Whenever my coworkers and I have complained about the lack of tipping available on apps, the restaurant’s owners argue that we make $14.25 an hour (aka Los Angeles County’s minimum wage). Online orders, they say, help them recoup money they need to pay us. But in truth, these third-party platforms are just as exploitative to restaurant owners, with the standard commission fee hovering around 30 percent — and their shady practices have continued under the guise of COVID-19 relief. A recent GrubHub promotion offering a $10 discount for customers who ordered $30 of food noted in fine print that the $10 was actually comped by the restaurant, not GrubHub.

Against my better judgment, I get into a Facebook argument with a former high school classmate who now works for Uber Eats. Before the mayor of San Francisco instructed delivery apps to cap their restaurant fees at 15 percent, Uber Eats had implemented a button on its app allowing the customer to donate to the restaurant, rather than lowering its own fees. My former classmate argues that restaurants would get used to reduced fees and have trouble restructuring once the crisis ends and that relief disappears. I point out that this logic assumes that restaurants can’t balance their own budgets. This same argument is currently being touted by the U.S. government to minimize emergency aid: They don’t want people to get used to it.

What I am getting used to instead is the arrival of a future that tech companies have been priming us for: public spaces populated mostly by delivery drivers purchasing doomsday groceries and meals for those wealthy enough to stay home.

The reality ignored by every #StayAtHome PSA is that people’s ability to social distance relies on the labor of others. It’s not so much that the work we’re doing is itself essential. It’s our working, rather, that is essential to maintaining the status quo.

When my mom asks if I’m getting hazard pay, I can’t help but laugh.

The owners of my workplace withheld our paychecks from the March 1 to March 15 pay period until April 10, almost three weeks past payday. They issued our checks only after my coworkers and I launched a collective campaign of prodding and griping.

“I won’t be able to work going forward if we can’t be paid on time,” I texted one of the owners.

His only response: “We’re doing our best.”

During this time, the restaurant participated in a program to send 100 lunches to health care workers. They announced this act of benevolence in an Instagram post. Several commenters lauded them as “local heroes.” I considered posting a comment asking when these local heroes intended to pay their own employees, but decided against it.

One of my coworkers thinks we should try to be understanding, that the enemy is capitalism, and the owner is a victim for being dumb enough to buy into it. Another heard that the owners might lose their house. But it’s difficult for me to feel sorry for the people who control my income and whose interest in the plight of their employees depends on the day of the week. Though they offered groceries from the kitchen to all of us employees when the pandemic first hit, my bosses also neglected to disclose when I was hired that I am, in fact, eligible for sick time. I only learned about my accrual after the start of the pandemic, in passing, from a coworker.

But the truth is, I do feel a tug of sympathy. It’s harder to say “fuck the boss” when he’s a stressed-out guy I see every day, not a faceless corporation or billionaire villain.

Before COVID, my coworkers and I had begun to document our grievances, hoping to advocate for necessary changes. Some of the issues — not being allowed to order food on our breaks, micromanaging by the owners — are mostly irrelevant now that daily operations have shifted so drastically. Other issues, like passive-aggressive communication and the battle over service fees, have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Either way, we are now forced to be “in this together,” a phrase insisted upon in every glib managerial email. I want to keep my job, and I want the restaurant to stay open. As angry as I am, I remain bound to it.

A recent NPR story reported that many workers stand to make more money collecting unemployment than they would continuing to work. Many of my coworkers have decided to stay home, a choice that the owners have, to their credit, been amenable to.

My choice to keep coming in is mostly out of concern for my manager, a woman in her 50s with greater health risks than me, who I care for deeply and who would otherwise end up working nearly every shift herself. I also want to show solidarity with the kitchen staff and allow for them to maintain an income.

None of us know how long shelter-in-place orders will last and how far government resources will extend; a (mostly) steady paycheck feels more secure than limited unemployment benefits. The fact that assistance is tied to our employment status rather than our needs leads to tricky decisions, betting on which option will position us best long term.

C., one of the cooks I work with, was planning to move to Detroit with his family in May. He lost his other job at a restaurant in downtown LA when that restaurant closed. He’s paying rent in Los Angeles and making mortgage payments in Detroit. As an undocumented worker, he’s not eligible for federal stimulus money, even though he pays taxes. He tells me his savings account is dwindling.

“I’m trying not to think about it,” he says. “What can I do?”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a plan last month to distribute $500 cash payments to undocumented Californians, but the one-time payment doesn’t alleviate long-term worries. Before COVID, C. and I chatted often about the future, our respective plans. He wanted to learn to be a mechanic. Above all, he wanted to be his own boss.

The last time I went grocery shopping, I asked the cashier if he felt customers have been kinder or more conscientious since the pandemic began.

He laughed. “All I can say is that people are still people.”

People in the service industry tip each other well because we understand what this work requires, on normal days and even more so during the pandemic. My hope is for this understanding to extend and grow between workers across industries, as we follow each other’s leads, listen to each other’s demands, and take action where we can.

But the pandemic has not served as an empathy switch. Though outpourings of support for frontline workers across social media and various news outlets might indicate a cultural rethinking of the value of labor in the U.S., my experiences with both customers and management suggest otherwise. The imperative to thank frontline workers has not extended into material protection and solidarity, from either the government or the general public.

Customers want their shelves stocked and their takeout delivered. The labor that makes their leisure possible remains, essentially, an afterthought.

Sara Selevitch is a writer and a waitress living in Los Angeles. Nhung Lê is a Vietnamese freelance illustrator based in Sydney.