Rihanna Walton had worked in the service industry since they were 16 years old. When the pandemic struck, they were working as the bar manager for cocktail bar Tough Luck, mixing mezcal and whiskey drinks and developing the wine list for the mostly neighborhood crowd. In March 2020 they lost their job, like hundreds of thousands of other restaurant workers, but by June, when bars began reopening for outdoor dining, they returned to Tough Luck. They left around two weeks later. “I felt like we put in all the systems to make a safe experience and did everything in my power to execute it, but people weren’t ready to be back out in the world,” they say. “People touched me, people came up to me in the bar and talked to me with no mask. I found out that [my partner] was immunocompromised, and at that point it wasn’t worth contracting COVID and killing them to give some bro a beer.”
Today Walton works in the cannabis industry, and has little interest in returning to the service world, despite a recent attractive offer to run a bar program. “I’m taking a big pay cut, but my mental health has improved so much, my physical health has improved so much,” they say. “If I hadn’t had the break of the pandemic to step away and not work 60, 80 hours a week at multiple jobs… I didn’t have time to think about the ethics of it, or how it was affecting my body and mental health.”
Walton is one of many restaurant workers nationwide rethinking their positions within the food industry. As vaccination numbers rise, restaurants have been welcoming diners back to patios and dining rooms. However, after more than a year of pivots, closures, and stories of inequity and abuse, restaurant owners are struggling to staff up to accommodate the new surge in business — a second-quarter survey by Joblist, which polled 13,000 workers, found that over a third of U.S. hospitality workers would not be returning to the industry. Much of the narrative has been led by restaurant owners and celebrity chefs decrying a lack of available workers, especially back-of-house employees like line cooks. In some cases, they blame the allure of unemployment benefits and stimulus payments, which can clock in above a restaurant’s hourly wage. In April 2020, Kurt Huffman — the CEO of Portland-based restaurant group Chefstable — wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal attributing his difficulty rehiring staff to the bolstered unemployment checks for laid-off workers. “We started making the calls last week, just as our furloughed employees began receiving weekly Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation checks of $600 under the CARES Act,” he wrote. “When we asked our employees to come back, almost all said, ‘No thanks.’ If they return to work, they’ll have to take a pay cut.”
But according to many of Portland’s restaurant workers, the choice to ignore those restaurant job listings is much more nuanced. Some workers moved on to other industries, or are too immunocompromised to return to dining rooms and kitchens just yet. But for many, COVID simply highlighted the plethora of issues in the service industry. For workers like Walton, the pandemic offered something that they had not experienced in years: a moment to examine the industry, their role within it, and its effects on their lives.
In 2019, Nicholas Van Eck opened Erizo with owner (and Eater Young Gun) Jacob Harth. The restaurant — one of Eater’s Best New Restaurants 2019 — specialized in hyper-sustainable, local seafood, often hand-foraged and caught in Oregon waters. Van Eck served as the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, working side-by-side with Harth to source local seafood and prepare and serve it to the small groups gathered around the chef’s counter. Though the restaurant quickly racked up accolades both locally and nationally, it was uniquely unfit for the COVID landscape with a tiny, intimate dining room and prix fixe menu.
Erizo was one of the earliest restaurants to temporarily close in the spring of 2020, and although Van Eck and Harth managed to host some dinners on the coast, it didn’t take long for Van Eck to move on. With a family history in construction, he turned to crafting custom furniture, and soon had a long line of commissions. “It’s really tough for anyone to make a viable life for themselves in the industry,” he says. “I think that a ton of people had a similar experience to me at the beginning of COVID… to have time to reflect and take care of themselves.” He describes the attempt to create a healthy, sustainable life for oneself in the service industry as “swimming upstream,” and that many people he has encountered from his former restaurant life also came to that conclusion during the pandemic.
For many, that meant exploring what a career in food could look like outside of the traditional restaurant industry. Some chefs started pop-ups from their homes, cooking delivery-only meals using Instagram as a platform for ordering. Others focused on cooking as a form of mutual aid, as food insecurity skyrocketed during the pandemic and other crises of 2020. “One of the biggest blessings in disguise was giving all of us workers time away from the industry to look at it from a different perspective,” says U’ilaniku’ulei Vele. Vele had worked in the service industry as a cook and chef since she was 18, with time spent at establishments like Departure, Chapel Hill, and Yonder. However, she spent early 2020 calling unemployment offices hundreds of times a week. Today, she’s still cooking, but for the mutual aid kitchen Feed the Mass. “Aside from the cooking, it’s completely different from anything I’ve done,” she says. “It’s not a restaurant… I can use my skills to actually help the community.”
Vele was working for Maya Lovelace’s fried chicken restaurant Yonder before the pandemic, and briefly considered returning last summer when she was offered her job back. But before she did, the police murder of George Floyd incited protests across the country. “Everything that had given me purpose and pride went away after all the protests happened across the country,” she says. “It was a huge awakening, people reevaluating their situation and where their lives were going to go.”
In the midst of that reckoning, Portland chefs began grappling with the cultural crises within their kitchens, including Lovelace. The Yonder owner began posting screenshots of anonymous texts and messages sent by restaurant workers, alleging abuse, sexual harassment, and rape at the hands of Portland restaurant owners, chefs, and upper managers. “(Lovelace) was one of the Portland chefs I knew I wanted to work for at some point when I moved here,” Vele says, adding that Lovelace reposting workers’ stories on Instagram last year “inspired the entire industry to speak up and share.” However, after Lovelace’s former employees and coworkers began to publicly disclose their experiences working with her, especially when it came to racism, Vele’s feelings became more complicated. “Once my coworkers and some former employees started coming out with their own shit about (Lovelace), I had to reassess,” she says.
The problems at Yonder — and at many restaurants in the Portland area — weren’t the only thing holding Vele back from returning to the restaurant world. Even though Yonder’s payment system was more equitable than many, with split tips reducing workplace competition and stress, the problems there were universal within the restaurant industry. “None of these jobs offer us a living wage, or health care, or a 401k,” Vele says. “Health care is a necessity… and none of us can afford it. The industry is not sustainable, even for restaurant owners.”
A lack of health insurance and paid sick days, especially during a pandemic, was a major reason for many to look for other career paths. With fewer workers reentering the industry, restaurant owners have attempted to improve benefits and wages to attract potential employees. Health insurance — along with higher wages and even hiring bonuses — has become one of the incentives some restaurants adopted to lure workers back. But it’s unclear if those policies will be viable long-term. Allison Sadin, who worked in restaurants for 13 years before leaving this last year, believes that it’s not sustainable for restaurants to figure out how to finance health insurance, especially as people move about. “This is a huge, difficult thing to achieve, but health insurance and health care should be separated from restaurant work,” she says. “It’s on our lazy, inactive government to figure out.”
Sadin is not alone in her sentiments. In September 2020, food scholar Krishnendu Ray spoke with Eater about the dire need for some form of socialized health care if the industry wants to survive. Putting the burden of health care on individual restaurants often leaves it out of reach for workers, as Chris Churilla, a former bar manager at places like Fireside and Renata, realized. Even restaurants that were able to offer him health insurance did so by paying for half, he says, and he couldn’t afford to cover the rest.
But the issues within the restaurant industry extend beyond benefits and wages; kitchen culture, with its long hours and pressure-cooker stress, have simply caused a widespread case of burnout that has kept restaurant workers from returning to the industry. Churilla didn’t just leave restaurants because of his paltry health insurance options; he was frustrated with the general instability of the industry and issues of workplace toxicity. It motivated him to plan his exit before the pandemic even hit. For Churilla, upward mobility in the industry often looked like sacrificing income and family time for stability. “As we gracefully age, there’s a point where most bartenders eye the management positions,” he says. “I will be very blunt: Those positions are overworked and underpaid.” Today, he works in cybersecurity.
The expectations placed on restaurant workers were only exacerbated by the pandemic, as the state of Oregon placed the burden of mask enforcement on food service workers. As a result, industry workers, including grocery employees, have spent the last year-plus dealing with customers who are confrontational, uncooperative, and even violent or threatening. Earlier this year, workers at the vegan Detroit-style Boxcar Pizza posted on social media about a couple in the shop that refused to wear masks, accused employees of being “Nazis,” and even spat in a worker’s drink while attempting to steal food.
David Sigal tended bar at places like Jackknife and pop-ups Mian and Sunshine Noodles, which he co-founded. He stepped away partially because of customers’ unwillingness to follow safety protocols. “Over and over again it was put on industry workers to be regulators of health and safety while making minimum wage, which is insane,” he says. He left the industry “struggling” and feeling “burnt out,” in his words.
However, being laid off from Jackknife provided the distance Sigal needed to reevaluate the industry and his relationship to it. He returned to bartending when offered an attractive position at Mediterranean Exploration Company, which provides him health insurance and competitive wages in addition to tips. He says he hopes that more restaurants will be able to follow that model. “My hope is that as we rebuild, we don’t rebuild on these super-shaky foundations, but that the businesses moving forward can sustain their workers, and provide them a living wage,” he says.
There is some optimism that the shortage will give workers more leverage to demand structural changes, and that customers eager to return to dining can support that. Van Eck suggests that restaurants raise prices on dishes now, while people are, potentially, more forgiving. “I think that if owners want to show solidarity, the best thing that they can do is raise their prices and raise their pay,” he says. “Not that owners don’t take risks or haven’t had a horrible year, but that’s a risk that they should take that’s commensurate with the risk that workers are taking. This is the time, because the public is desperate.”
Today, places like McMenamins are offering $1,000 hiring bonuses to new employees. Restaurants are posting on Instagram advertising open positions, noting the restaurants’ benefits and $20-plus hourly wages. Still, Oregon’s unemployment numbers in the hospitality sector are only gradually falling. And with vaccination rates slowing throughout the state and the rapidly spreading delta variant challenging the fragile semblance of normalcy Oregon has just recently acquired, it’s unclear how effective these changes will be to attract workers. But for those who are choosing to return to the industry, it’s a moment of potential transition, a long-overdue opportunity to improve the lives of restaurant workers and shape the industry into a more equitable one. “Everything is up for grabs right now, so many people are changing their lives,” Vele says. “It’s an opportunity for workers who are going back to negotiate their wages. This is the first time in a very long time, if ever, that workers have the power to say ‘No, I want $17 an hour, instead of $15. I want to eventually have health insurance.’ It’s a rare time for workers to step up and value themselves.”