By Lissa Brennan
Special to the Pittsburgh Current
On April 4th, restaurant restrictions in Pennsylvania will lessen. Self-qualifying establishments can operate at 75% capacity, rather than the current 50%; alcohol will be able to be consumed without a chaser of food; and bar seating, off limits for months, will again be an option.
You can sit at your favorite bar and visit with your favorite bartender, see how the last year’s been treating them with whatever tales they spin (they’re not going to tell you the truth, because they’re relying on you to pay them and no one wants to hear a sob story when they’re trying to have a good time.)
But as you belly up, settle in, and relax, please be aware that the person serving you does not yet qualify for a COVID-19 vaccination while they tend to your unmasked self from just a couple of feet away.
When restaurants reopened, workers were required to return to their jobs. For a lot of us, it was terrifying. We’d spent the first months of the pandemic sequestered at home, Netflix binging, experiencing for the first time the joys of ordering groceries online, catching up on our reading or even just our sleep, and painstakingly, meticulously budgeting our money while applying for every scrap of assistance imaginable. We’d barely been out of our homes, and were suddenly thrust into public spaces.
When we got there, we learned that not only did we have to return to our normal level of responsibility in meeting all the needs of every guest, but additionally we were tasked with making sure everyone was safe. Part of this was through expanded, thorough cleaning and sterilization; a lot of extra work, sure, but a vital trait of any seasoned restaurant worker is adaptability, and we’re used to change. What we weren’t used to was having to police people, themselves unused to being policed, so that they followed guidelines. And I guarantee you there’s no one who is a good, solid, career level server or bartender who pursued this line of work because they wanted to be a cop.
We also found that not every boss had the same respect for protocols. We frequently felt trapped between remaining in situations that imperiled our health, or walking away and risking financial devastation. (this writer herself left a fine dining job in Allentown due to the owner’s belief that Covid was a hoax and refusal to take precautions, among other problematic behaviors. I don’t know if I’ll ever pay the credit card balance that resulted.)
Some whose professional lives were primarily transformed by no longer having to commute and only observing dress codes from the waist up have been under the misconception that we could opt out of working for a living, sitting on our spreading asses and collecting unemployment.
That’s not how it works. If you turn down available shifts, you’re no longer eligible. If you choose to leave a job because you don’t feel safe, you’re on your own. Unemployment was a life saver for many who were working but making 20% or less of our typical income. It has never been a life preserver for those who don’t want to work.
The designation of “essential worker”, and the protections and benefits offered to those who make the grade, has been somewhat mystifying to service industry employees since last summer. We’ve seen periods where the hourly wages of grocery store workers increased by several dollars an hour, and we’ve applauded that with joy for our comrades manning the registers and stocking the shelves.
But we’ve felt, to be blunt, pretty fucking abandoned. We’ve not seen mandatory raises; our hourly has continued at 2.83 with dependency on tips while half full. We’ve seen restrictions enacted for the well-being of our clientele, who often resent our enforcement of such, that don’t even begin to consider our safety.
And now we’re about to enter a new phase that will put us in closer, steadier contact with guests, which theoretically is great. But we still are unable to access that which will make this a reasonable proposition for us.
We want to go back to work. Holy shit, believe me, we surely, surely do. We just want to be safe while we’re there. And we’re confused as fuck how we keep on being the red-headed stepchildren.
There’s a lot of recommendations made in response to our expressions of frustration with a system that has consistently undervalued and jeopardized us; suggestions on how to circumvent it, go around it, sneak in side doors, jump the line. But figuring out how to tiptoe behind this system’s back without alerting it to our machinations isn’t what we need to do.
What we need to do is dismantle it.
Lissa Brennan is a writer, actor and restaurant worker for more than two decades.