Servers, line cooks, bussers, hosts. Sous chefs, food runners, sommeliers, bartenders, and the almighty dishwasher. Anyone who’s ever worked in the service industry knows that these are the people who not only run your favorite restaurants, but ensure their success - not celebrity chefs or big name restaurateurs.
So when the only people who are given a platform to talk about the “state of the restaurant industry” aren’t on the floor or in the kitchen, a crucial part of the story is erased. And during a time when many are considering returning to restaurants, despite the fact that COVID cases continue to rise, that erasure isn’t just lazy, it’s dangerous.
We spoke with 14 restaurant workers in LA about what it’s like to be an “essential worker” during the pandemic. All interviews were kept anonymous, unless indicated otherwise. Photos do not reflect the people or restaurants mentioned.
Furloughed since March
“The restaurant I work at has not felt safe reopening. As soon as it was announced that we were allowed to reopen our dining room, they sent an email to the entire staff saying ‘This seems crazy to us, but at some point, we’re going to have to reopen. What’s everyone’s degree of comfort? What would that look like for you?’ I love the restaurant that I work for - I’m very fortunate that they care enough about us to do that.
“The biggest concern for me has always been about the patrons. Right before everything went into lockdown, my roommate, who also works in a restaurant, said that people were licking their plates before handing them back to her. And it’s just stuff like that. There’s no faith in the guests to fully understand the severity of our situation. We weren’t trained for this. We weren’t trained to be essential workers. A lot of the people I know are changing industries. They’re just like, ‘I don’t know when this will feel safe for me again.’”
Turned down his restaurant’s job offer
“I feel like there’s a silent fight going on in the hospitality industry right now, between employees and restaurant owners. And no one’s talking about it, even though I know a ton of people who are dealing with the exact same set of problems.
“When it was time for my restaurant to reopen, there was a lot of speculation. I saw a screenshot that said management wanted to do 350-400 covers a night (basically on par with what we were doing pre-COVID). Someone else said that if you turn down the job offer, they would report you to the Employment Development Department. But I think what made me the most concerned was the lack of support. Before they reopened, it was three months of them being absent. There were zero resources. Zero messages being like ‘Hey guys, I hope you’re all still alive.’ So we had to figure it out ourselves.
“Honestly, I don’t demonize restaurant owners for opening their dining rooms, and trying to make money. But if your priority is money over the health and safety of your staff, I can’t be a part of that.”
Restaurant reopened for dine-in
“I think we definitely opened too soon, considering the second wave of cases. And although I feel safe, since our restaurant enforces all of the CDC guidelines and we have face shields and masks to protect us, there’s always a risk. People don’t take our safety precautions seriously - and it’s scary. The best way to support us and our restaurant is to just be respectful, patient, and kind. We’re all working really hard, and we know it’s a sensitive time, but we just ask for our guests to be understanding. And please don’t come out if you’re not going to take the safety precautions seriously.”
Quit a full-time job to support the business
“My family owns the restaurant, so when the lockdown hit, it was a real call to action for my mom and I, who both don’t work in the restaurant industry.
“Over the last few months, it’s become more visible who supports us. There’s a lot of people volunteering, giving their time, and just really showing up. We’re extremely fortunate to have our community, from neighboring small businesses to non-profit organizations, to the greater community of LA. I believe that there’s a silver lining for everything - sometimes it’s just hard to find it. For me, one silver lining is how it’s brought my family together. My mom’s been sharing stories from when she was growing up, when her father used to work in the family store seven days a week. She tells us about how he spent so much time there. And now I’m doing the same thing, with my family, and in the same neighborhood, only blocks away.”
Temporarily closed her restaurant
“Pausing operations was a big decision. I’ve always stood the line that I don’t want to open the doors until we have a vaccine. If I had a few million dollars in the bank, and could make these awesome, circulating vacuums, with really cool walls with UV lights that could sterilize everything, I would do it. Because I want to feed people. My livelihood is feeding people in a dining room and giving them joy. I love doing that. So it hurts me to not be able to. But I will not do that at the risk of any human life. I’m going to stick with my gut - I’m not going to let people in until we’re ready. Period.”
Restaurant reopened for dine-in
“I personally don’t feel unsafe at work, but I can totally relate to other people who might feel uncomfortable. Like if someone told me they were uncomfortable, I would completely understand.
“So far, my guests have been pretty polite. Actually, they’ve been more polite than they were before the pandemic. With all of the new guidelines they have to follow, they understand that it’s not personal, I’m not trying to single them out if I ask them to do something. And naturally, with the way our company is run, if I did have someone being unruly, I could just defer to a manager. Which might not be a particularly cute moment, but since the restaurant I work for does care about following the rules, pretty tooth and nail, if something did get to that point, I’m sure a manager would be able to handle it.”
Closed her restaurant due to COVID
“I literally had a tickle in my throat. And then one night, I just felt super-exhausted. So I started getting paranoid. And it’s like, ‘I know I’m working every single day and I’m working so much, so it’s normal for me to feel exhausted, but I can’t take that risk.’ So I went in and I took the COVID test on a Saturday. Two weeks go by. Nothing. The whole time I’m at home, I haven’t returned to the restaurant. So I called them back and was like, ‘Hey, I’m desperately waiting on my test results, it’s literally been two weeks.’ And then they’re like ‘Oh, you’re positive.’
“I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. We called the Health Department and immediately reported it, which I think other restaurants, who are scared of closing down and having their businesses dissolved, won’t do. But we were like, ‘No, we’re not going to be sh*tty humans, we’re going to immediately take action.’ So we call them, and they were like ‘Oh, just get the place cleaned, and you don’t have to announce it to the public.’ So we called in a professional cleaner, and they disinfected the whole restaurant. Then everyone went to go get tested, and we’ve been closed ever since then. To be perfectly honest, it’s just been kind of nightmare.”
Left the restaurant industry because of COVID
“Back in March, when everything was starting to get shut down, I told my boss that I wasn’t comfortable working. I have asthma, I don’t want to risk myself just to go to work, and she said, ‘Yeah, that’s totally fine.’ I’ve been pretty fortunate to have a boss who understands the severity of this virus. She hasn’t forced anyone to come in, she just asks if anyone wants to. My friend, however, who tried to voice his own concerns about working in a packed restaurant back in March, was told by his manager that if he mentioned it again, he would get written up.
“I just don’t agree with anything that’s happening right now. I definitely feel like capitalism is the root of this problem. Not many restaurant owners really care about their staff, even though they love to claim that we’re ‘all a family.’ They’d rather make money than have their servers and staff be safe. It’s just kind of sh*tty that servers have to decide between paying rent and risking their lives. It’s a non-essential job, you don’t need to be at a restaurant right now. We’ve been quarantining for like four months now, you should have learned how to cook by this point.”
Restaurant reopened for dine-in
“The separation of classes has become so apparent in this pandemic - it’s all very elitist. Black and Latinx people are the highest demographics in the workforce getting COVID, and why is that? Because we don’t have a choice but to work for money. We can’t make the choice to protect our lives. And as a Latinx woman, it’s just been aggravating seeing that the majority of the people being impacted by this, and that don’t even have a choice, are from my background.
“When we reopened as a restaurant, it was alarming. We felt like we didn’t have any say or control over our own lives. We were all wearing face masks, face shields, and were constantly changing our gloves, but a huge percentage of the people coming in at night wouldn’t even wear a mask. People feel very inconvenienced by having to wear this mask. And a lot of them have reacted by saying things like ‘Well, how do you expect me to eat?’ But it’s not about you anymore. It’s about us, and our safety. My little sister works with me. And she lives with my parents, and I don’t want her to infect my dad, who’s above 65. I don’t know. It just makes us feel very small. It makes me feel like a valueless servant.”
Opened her restaurant for takeout and pick-up
“We never opened for dine-in, even when we were allowed to. We just didn’t feel like it was time for us, our staff wasn’t feeling the safest. But it was super overwhelming. Because at the same time, I was worried, like, ‘Oh, people want to come eat.’ And I do feel like because we never opened our dining area, we lost a lot of business. Because once things started opening up, we were getting phone calls daily - ‘Are you guys open for dine-in?’ I actually had a person ask me, in a not-so-nice way, ‘Well, why aren’t you open? That’s probably why you’re slow.’
“I really appreciate people just coming by and picking up food. I’m just thankful for anyone who comes through our doors, even if they just came in for a drink. Or customers who come in and say ‘Hey, how are you guys doing? I’m glad you guys are here.’ Those words always remind me that it’s OK. That we just gotta keep going, we’re going to get through this. We all just have to keep positive. Which is easier said than done, but I mean, how else are we going to get through it?”
Currently open for outdoor dine-in
“Right in the beginning, I was calling the governor’s office and the mayor’s office every day. Of course it was just a machine, but I didn’t care. I would just vent to the machine and say ‘You gotta help us with rent.’ It was like, ’You said we had to close, and you were right. We should close, but we need help. And not this - excuse my language - bullsh*t about we’ll defer payment until all of this over.’ Because then what? I owe three months full rent? Where am I supposed to get that from? We’re at half capacity! So you think I can pay three full months of rent? And all of a sudden it’s a lump sum? They could have and should have helped small businesses. Not just the restaurant business, but all small businesses.
“All of this could have all been handled so much better. Then people wouldn’t be so focused on ‘Well, I got to go back to work, and jeopardize my health and the health of others.’ Because at the end of the day, it’s human life. Let’s say that my business thrives - what good is that to me if I’m sick? What good is that to me if I make my mother sick? It makes no sense. I lost my father on March 9th. My mother is now 94. And now I’m working with the public. So I can’t really go see her, can I? What if I give it to her? It’s just a sick situation, and I think about it every day when I have to go to work. I’m like, ‘This is all just for money.’”
Laid-off in March
“It was a borderline panic. Back when the lockdown started in March, it almost felt insurmountable because so many people lost their jobs in one day. I got laid off back in the Great Recession - I was working as a bartender at the time, and everything got shut down. But even then, it wasn’t this bad! It was a slower progression - the economy slowed to a halt, rather than something breaking the wheel.
“I’ve been looking for jobs, but with very little hope. There’s not many restaurant jobs available, and even for the ones that are accepting applications - I talked to a restaurant manager, and for every job that they list, they receive thousands upon thousands of applications. Which is crazy. It’s already hard enough to get a job as a food server in Los Angeles without knowing someone, but now it’s impossible, with over 50% of the hospitality industry out of work right now.”
Restaurant currently open for patio dining
“Much like being a teacher, or a nurse, you go into a workfield because you have a desire and passion for it. You shouldn’t get a job begrudgingly. And I enjoy hospitality. So working at the place that I work at, and getting to be outside with the patrons, it’s awesome. The owner supplies us with unlimited gloves, face masks, and any other high-quality sanitation supplies that are needed to keep the restaurant clean. So to be honest with you, it’s been great. I have nothing negative to say.”
Left the service industry
“My restaurant furloughed all of its employees back in March, and until two weeks ago, it was radio silence. Apart from a few letters regarding my health insurance and confirming my termination, I hadn’t received a single email from my manager. No texts, or check-ins to see if I was doing OK. Then, in late June, I got a call from my manager’s private cell phone. Which can only mean one thing - they’re reopening the restaurant.
“Apparently, management hadn’t contacted the entire staff, but rather cherry-picked a few of their employees. And sure, in one world, you might feel honored by that. But in another, you realize that they’re leaving behind staff members. They’re leaving behind the discussion, or even a choice. They’re skipping all of these steps to just be like, ‘Here’s your helmet. Here’s your rifle. We’re going into battle.’
“And in the meantime, no one’s calling me, or asking me if I’d feel safe. No one even asked if I’d even be interested in coming back. Returning servers were expected to work five days a week, open to close, with limited breaks. And since they’d be running on such a thin staff, they weren’t going to honor any requests for time-off. They couldn’t tell us if they had a plan if one of their workers got sick, or what the new sections were going to look like. They couldn’t even give us a flowchart of the restaurant.
“We signed up to work in restaurants because we understood that job. Now you’re asking restaurant workers to become frontline health care workers. None of us are trained in that. And no amount of PDF files given out by the CDC is going to actually ensure that we’re working in a safe environment. And the proof’s in the pudding - over half of the restaurants in LA were found as non-compliant with the CDC’s guidelines.”