With indoor dining closed again, I feel the need to speak up again. I’ve been no stranger to speaking about my time in the service industry. National chains to local dives, I’ve worked front and back of the house multiple times, with varying degrees of uniforms, including a stint in full kilt, much to the chagrin of my fellow employees. (Call me Mama cow, cause I got a couple of beautiful calves I wanna show off.) There are so many positives and negatives to the industry, ones that basically feel like a constant gamble. Is it going to be busy tonight? Awesome, I made money. Oops, got scheduled Monday through Thursday midday shifts this week, time to buy ramen so I can hopefully make rent.
It took the mass closure of many restaurants for America to see exactly what essential role they play in our lives and our economy. Turns out closing most of them isn’t a good thing, financially speaking. Servers had one benefit with the closure over other businesses closing. While many Americans lost health insurance along with their jobs, service industry folks mostly didn’t. Now, to be fair, it’s because most never had access to it through work, where they were paid on average $5.50 an hour, plus tips. When you had a good day, it wasn’t a problem. But when you had a slow day? Well, the idea of paying for insurance on the hope it would always be busy became a pipe dream for many.
I keep talking about gambling for a reason. All service industry folks, minus managerial staff, typically are not offered health insurance. Through strategic scheduling, most are kept under the legally mandated 30 hours per week to keep them considered part-time. As part-time employees, they are no longer required to be offered health insurance as part of their benefits package while working in the restaurant industry. This isn’t all restaurants, but it certainly comprises a vast majority of them. All of this is to point out that the current #LetUsServe campaign on Facebook seems to be missing some important facts from the employee side. What are those facts? So glad you asked!
The #LetUsServe campaign, being hosted by the New Mexican Restaurant Association, is a digital peaceful protest (though how it could be non-peaceful online besides rude comments is beyond me) wherein restaurant employees within the state hold up signs, asking Governor Lujan Grisham to pretty please reopen indoor dining for restaurants. I will be the first to admit they have a point, to a point. Many of the restaurants I have picked up food from since the restrictions lifted have been doing a good job of spreading out tables, offering better outdoor options and following better safety guidelines to help prevent the spread. That being said, as we continue to learn about coronavirus and how it spreads, while facing a new rise in cases nationally, indoor dining is unfortunately a high-risk factor for spread.
I get that this isn’t fair. I get that this hurts, especially after the time and energy that went into preparing to reopen for public dining. We went in-depth about it two weeks ago in my column, “Service Industry Faces More Challenges During the Pandemic.” You might even be one of those poor, unfortunate souls who believes that even if you catch it, it’s not a big deal. (Hint: The long term side-effects are still being studied and don’t look great right now.) Unfortunately, that doesn’t count for much. The issue at hand is, while you are perfectly capable of making choices for yourself, you don’t have the agency to make them for others. By going to dine inside, your servers are the ones at risk. I ask you kindly, would you willingly want to put yourself at risk for a highly infectious disease for $5.50 an hour with no health insurance, having to wear a mask for upwards of 8 hours a day on your feet, so that someone can eat frozen fish and chips? No sane human being would say “yes” to that, yet many of the folks within the service industry aren’t given the choice. It’s either lose your unemployment benefits (where they are making dramatically more money) or suck it up.
An informal survey I conducted among different restaurant workers from all levels of fancy-ness, from coffee shops to high-end dining, came up unanimous: We don’t feel safe. I don’t blame them. The prospect of being intubated because Wing Wednesday got too wild feels, honestly, so exhausting. Every guest who sits down indoors puts patrons and staff at risk. This is a nearly invisible disease, taking weeks to show symptoms. Carriers can be out there, blissfully unaware as they clutch their craft beers, gently helping spread.
We owe servers. For every time we asked for ranch in the middle of a rush, for every time we spilled a drink that they had to hastily handle, for every time we left a pile of aggressively smashed potato product from a child all over the floor, they stood and beared it with a smile. They brushed it off, in hopes that you would help them make a living wage when the meal was done. Regardless of how busy they were, your meal was perfect from start to finish within as much control as they could exert on the situation. The service industry has withstood so much, is it fair to pile on risk of infection to COVID-19 on top of that?
I could sit here and give you a list of restaurants who are calling for a reopening (and a few even pledging to defy the governor’s orders), but that doesn’t solve the problem. Plus, you can very easily find them under the hashtag or on the NMRA Facebook page. I get it. This is a scary time, and many people’s livelihoods are at risk. For restaurant owners, a restaurant is their heart and soul and sweat and tears, and they want it to survive this. It’s not fair they have to close, and it’s not fair that some restaurants with extensive patios have an edge on the market. Unfortunately, coronavirus doesn't give a flip. There are so many suffering from this, and if we could, we would solve it in a week and get back on with life. There are currently so many sacrifices we have to make to get through this, but human lives shouldn’t be one of them. Our cases here in New Mexico are low, some of the lowest in the country. We need to keep them that way. Our Governor is doing what she believes best for the safety of New Mexico, and we must comply.
I know I sound like a broken record, but if you have the means to, please keep ordering take-out. I love the restaurant community of this city, and I want them all to survive, even the places I think suck. We can do this. We have been doing this. Unfortunately, we still need to keep doing this. Things are going to be hard, but I cannot genuinely say I would feel happy with a reopening if I knew, as a server told me, “I did not feel safe at work, whether in the more diligent setting or not.”
One closing thought: On June 29 the city voted against requiring businesses to provide mandatory sick leave and hazard pay for anyone deemed an essential employee. This includes restaurant workers, who would then be able to stay home if they tested positive for COVID-19 without worrying about losing their job. The New Mexico Restaurant Association aggressively pushed a campaign to stop both of these measures from being enacted. Makes you wonder what the organization is actually worried about—people or profits.