This is Eater Voices, where chefs, restaurateurs, writers, and industry insiders share their perspectives about the food world, tackling a range of topics through the lens of personal experience.
It was a Friday in August, about 9 p.m., and I was working one of my regular shifts as a line cook at a bar in Seattle’s University District. The bar up the street had closed a half-hour before COVID-19 restrictions required it to, sending us a flood of customers. As they filed in, I felt completely overwhelmed. A couple of months earlier there had been a coronavirus outbreak in the nearby University of Washington’s Greek system. A lot of the customers coming into the bar now were wearing Greek-lettered shirts.
This wasn’t the first time this had happened, but the day before I’d run out of gloves, and when I’d told my boss he just said it was too bad and shrugged it off. So watching the bar fill up, I felt like I’d reached my breaking point. I knew I needed to do something, anything.
But I had no idea what; nobody offered information about what to do if you, as a worker, need to tell on your workplace. Not King County, not the city of Seattle, not the state of Washington. I needed to tell someone, but carefully.
I felt guilty, because I knew that my boss was hurting — he and his wife have three children they’re trying to send to college. Not having a reliable flow of customers had been really hard.
Still, I couldn’t reconcile my desire for him to do well with my concern for my own safety, and the safety of diners in the bar. Everyone can make their own decisions about whether or not they want to go out, but as an employee, I knew firsthand how poorly managed the bar’s sanitation was. When I’d run out of gloves the day before, it wasn’t the first time, and running out of soap and paper towels had also been a recurring issue. And in the dining area, night after night, groups were being seated one after the other without the table being wiped down.
Meanwhile, my boss seemed very unconcerned with whether or not he would become infected with COVID-19. His goal every night was to get as many people as possible in the door, and he often said that he’d stay open later if he could. He also said it wasn’t his business if people came in and wanted to have a good time. If all the tables were seated, he encouraged people at the door to wait for five or 10 more minutes. Our seating capacity was around 50 (and COVID restrictions halved that), but a lot of people would just crowd around, so often there would be 60 or more in the bar at a time, in very close proximity to each other. At the tables, which were limited to five seats, there were parties of six, seven, or eight. It was infuriating to see so many people drinking, yelling over the noise and loud music, eating and sharing finger foods, while I thought, “Oh my God, this is not okay.”
I had started working at the bar in June, three months after I’d lost my previous job as a host at another restaurant. I needed money, and so many people had told me what a mess it was to get unemployment; I had industry friends who waited three months to get paid. I only have a couple years of experience, so it was kind of a miracle when the bar’s owner wanted to hire me. I was surprised, but then I realized that he hired someone he could pay a low rate. He couldn’t afford to pay somebody with 10 or 20 years of experience what they deserve.
I felt very low in the bar’s hierarchy, and I believed that I should just shut up and be grateful to have a job in pandemic times. It seemed out of place to be stern about my needs. There is an order to the way that things are done: who can speak, who can make changes, who makes certain decisions. I put the hours in, but I still didn’t feel as though I had any right to speak up to the boss.
Still, I expressed my concern to him when I realized there were no gloves. He’d never provided them when he trained me, and I’d previously worked with chefs who didn’t wear them. I figured, surely, in light of the pandemic and safety and hygiene issues, that everybody would be wearing gloves and washing their hands a lot. But my boss didn’t wear gloves at all. And when I asked for them, I could tell it was a confusing request for him. “Why do you need so many gloves?” he asked. “Why are you going through them so quickly?”
He gave me a box that he had, but I went through them pretty fast. I had to be sparing with how I used them, and that didn’t make me feel particularly good. I was freaking out. I was very concerned for my health, but also about my job. I felt conflicted as an employee who was witnessing and working in unsafe conditions, but who also desperately needed to keep her job. I didn’t want to be responsible for shutting down my workplace altogether, because that’s a lot of pressure, and I felt horrible for snitching because that’s not a good look for anyone. And because I was the only employee, aside from the bar back who had been working for my boss for 30 years, I was really anxious about anonymity.
So I looked for some kind of anonymous complaint phone number, website, or email address to air my grievances with somebody who would then have the authority to come and do something. I went to the OSHA website, scrolled for a few minutes, and just panicked. I needed an actual human person to tell me what to do, to talk to someone whom I felt I could trust to not get me or my job in trouble.
If there were somebody else working there with me, maybe it would have been different. We would have had more power in that situation, and the ability to organize with coworkers. Being able to withhold our labor until we got what we needed, even if it was a freaking stupid box of gloves, would have been huge.
I ended up filing an anonymous complaint with the county health department’s online form. They asked for a name and contact information, but I didn’t fill them in. I wrote it as if I were a customer at the restaurant: “Today I came in and this and this happened, I observed this many people sitting and this kind of behavior.”
I’m not sure if anybody from the health department actually showed up. Normally, my boss would call each day I was scheduled to tell me when to come in, but the week after I filed the complaint, I mysteriously wasn’t called to come in at all.
Thankfully, a good friend who was opening a restaurant asked me the following week if I wanted to work for him. So I quit and took the job. His restaurant is doing takeout only, and I do mostly prep work. The kitchen is pristine. It’s been such a relief working there.
I drive by my old job often. Some evenings that I expect them to be open, they’re not. Other random times in the middle of the week, there are tons of people inside. I got lucky: Had it not been for my friend, I would still be working there. I’m independent; I need to pay my rent. I have nothing else.
To anyone in a similar situation, I would say to do research. Check your county, city, or state guidelines so that you can specifically point out which rules and regulations a business is violating. If you know somebody who you think can help, you need to reach out to them. Health department websites should be able to accommodate these kinds of issues.
Many of us in the industry were at some point taught to keep our heads down and defer to the authority of chefs, managers, and owners; there is a huge problem with workers not feeling like they have the authority to stand up to their bosses. In the time of COVID-19, however, there has to be a clear and efficient way for us to speak up and report problems when we see them happen. After all, if we’re responsible for serving the public, then whether we like it or not, we’re implicated in the protection of the public’s health and safety.
Miriam Wojtas is a cook and aspiring food writer based in Seattle.