The pandemic brought a number of changes to many industries, but the service and hospitality space saw some of the most significant ones from the start- with shutdowns, turning to unusual operating conditions, and most-recently an attempted return to normal.
As restaurants closed during the world-wide lockdown, many workers found themselves out of work with no idea of what the future might look like. Fingerlakes1.com was able to speak with restaurant workers who found themselves in the thick of what the industry was dealing with amid the shutdown.
The days, weeks, and months after shutdown happened
“When Kindred Fare closed down it was heartbreaking,” Trisha White said. “We are a little family, most of us have worked together at other places and have been here since the very beginning.”
White is a server for Kindred Fare in Geneva, a high end restaurant that closed during the pandemic.
“The owner, Susie, gave us furlough paperwork and said they would be there if anyone needed anything. That first day she offered a meal once a day to every staff member that we could pick up to feed our families because everything was so unknown.”
White said the restaurant closed on March 15, 2020 until they could do take-out.
Constance Barker, a waitress at Jay’s Diner in Rochester, explained how it was when her place of employment closed.
“The restaurant closed for about three and a half months from mid-March until the end of June last year,” Barker said. “Thanks to social media, I was able to keep in touch with some of my coworkers. Not many of us had much in the way of savings, so we were all deeply anxious about making ends meet.”
Barker explained that she considered herself one of the lucky ones because she has no dependents and had worked seasonal jobs before, making her navigation of unemployment easier.
“Since I was already in the system, I didn’t need to wait more than a couple of weeks before I started receiving payments,” she said.
According to Barker, like many other Americans, some of her coworkers weren’t as lucky. Some had to wait months, calling the unemployment office numerous times a day before finally getting through to an agent. Many still have not received payments for unemployment.
Returning to work as the pandemic continued
According to White, the climate since restaurants have been able to reopen has been fluid, changing day to day.
“When opening up first happened, we were all still scared,” she said. “We get a lot of travelers from all over. We’re in front of two hotels and every local winery recommends us for a dining experience.”
White explained that there were a few customers that didn’t want to wear masks when it was required, but most of the patrons were great about wearing them and following Covid-19 safety protocols.
“Staffing has been an issue,” White said. “I myself have trained five new people in the last three months. Everywhere is short staffed, and we do 200 patrons a night. Our kitchen needs to hire more cooks in order to support the numbers we serve.”
Barker used one word to describe the restaurant industry right now: grueling.
“Serving has never been an easy job by any stretch of the imagination, but with the long hours caused by the national staffing shortage and added work of keeping customers safe by sanitizing tables, chairs, and every single thing surrounding them, as well as the increased volume of clientele, every shift has been a back-breaking test of patience and stamina,” Barker said.
Aside from the exhausting movement and work, Barker said she hasn’t seen much change in her clientele, aside from their excitement to finally be able to go out to eat.
“I’m told I’m good at my job,” Barker said. “I don’t often run into problems I can’t easily fix to my customer’s satisfaction. I haven’t seen some of my regulars since we closed down, so I’m worried for their health.”
Barker said there were two older customers who regularly frequented Jay’s Diner that passed away due to Covid-19, which she described as devastating for herself and her coworkers.
Will things ever feel normal again in the restaurant business?
White describes her return to work as “relatively normal.”
“Kindred Fare is lucky,” White said. “Most of our staff pre-pandemic are still there, both front of house and back. There are quite a few new faces though.”
White said that the Red Dove Tavern had to close due to the pandemic, and some people from there came to work at Kindred Fare.
“We’re busier than we’ve ever been,” she said. “I know some of our supplies are short, so we run out of some stuff sometimes. We try to be as local as possible and our kitchen puts a lot of effort into making amazing dishes.”
White mentioned that as a mother, she was also aware of how hard childcare is right now for everyone, and that many people lost their lives who cannot be replaced at their jobs.
“I’m not sure what exactly needs to be changed to get back to pre-pandemic, but I’m glad to be finally getting through it,” she said.
Barker explained that she believes in order for people to want to come back to work and for things to normalize, minimum wage needs to be raised.
“There is something profoundly wrong with our country when people need to choose between eating or being taken advantage of and harassed by abusive coworkers, customers, and bosses,” she said. “It comes as no surprise to me that so many have chosen to utilize their unemployment and benefits- especially when it seems that the vast majority are actually making more from those benefits then when they were juggling two or three jobs.”
Barker thinks that the smarter choice would be to make more money while indulging in self-care at a time like this.
“The bottom line is, if employers have any hope of staffing their restaurants or retail establishments, they are going to need to be more proactive when it comes to improving the quality of the jobs they’re offering,” she said.
Barker said she has personally experienced how incentivizing can go a long way, and hopes the way things are can spark dialogue between employees and employers in order to take the first steps toward a compromise that works for everyone.
While these are just two servers from the local and Rochester area, the consequences of the industry closing down are being felt on a national level.
In an article written for News Channel 4 in Jacksonville, Florida, the question of why servers have decided to leave the industry and have no intention of returning is explored. While many employers blamed the excess unemployment for why they were unable to adequately staff establishments, servers came forward and told News Channel 4 they really weren’t returning because of three things: pay and lack of benefits, customers, and simply finding a better job after leaving the industry during the shutdown.
Oregon Public Broadcasting covered how servers are quitting at record rates since the pandemic began. Workers stated that the low wages simply weren’t enough for the harassment and attacks they were receiving for enforcing the mask mandates required by the state at the time.
A survey published by Bloomberg discovered that half of the restaurant workers in the country have no intention of returning to work, even if they were offered higher pay.
The unknown currently flooding the hospitality industry seems to be stemming from various factors, ranging from the employer and work environment, to low wages and simply dealing with customers who have been stuck inside for over a year.
Right now, many restaurant owners are grappling with the mixed messages they’ve received from the state and CDC surrounding mask use and vaccination requirements, unsure of what to do or how to go about it.
As for White and Barker, their loyalty to their regular customers and the fact that they feel treated fairly by their employers helps solidify their decisions to return to the industry after the lockdown.