Restaurant and retail owners have 2 options nowadays: stop treating their workers like garbage or stop having workers at all

·8 min read
Business owner with a sad emoji face for a head holding bags of money with a protesting supporting higher wages with an annoyed face emoji as a head on a green background.
"I made more money on unemployment than I did working at the bar because they only gave me lunch shifts and I was part time," said Mark, a former bartender in New York. iStock; Joe Raedle/Getty; Skye Gould/Insider
  • Restaurant and retail staff have been underpaid and overworked for decades.

  • Government aid during the economic crisis has allowed workers in the industry to reassess going back to work.

  • Employer claims that people won't come back out of laziness are increasingly laughable.

  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

  • Eoin Higgins is a journalist based in New England and Contributing Opinion Writer.

  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Sean Earl is a 10-year veteran of the restaurant business who was out of a job when the coronavirus pandemic hit. He still doesn't know if he'll return to the industry - especially without the promise of worker protections and better conditions on the job.

"If I returned it would have to be somewhere with union representation or at least a co-op situation," Earl said. "Some way of having better control over what happens in the workplace."

I talked to Earl this week for a story highlighting the voices of service industry workers at my newsletter The Flashpoint. The piece pushed back against a number of recent articles featuring business owners blaming unemployment insurance and government aid for contributing to laziness on the part of staff to not return to their jobs.

Over and over again, the people I talked to told me that while the aid provided security and support at a crucial time, they weren't passing up work just to sit around. Rather, they were looking at other options because of the service industry's terrible working conditions and low pay.

"The pandemic kind of stripped away the illusion of fairness and equity in the industry," said Sarah, a restaurant professional who is on her way out of the business and off to grad school.

Reassessing things

One of the first casualties of the pandemic last year was the service industry. With businesses forced to shut down due to health restrictions and few people willing to risk going out anyway, restaurants shuttered around the country and prepared to wait out the disease.

Stimulus and aid packages passed by the federal government under both former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden delivered relief. In addition to aid for businesses, programs like the $600 weekly bonus COVID unemployment payments that came with the first stimulus were a huge help to workers forced out of their jobs by the shutdown.

It is true that for some service industry workers, what they made staying home was more than what they made at work. Indeed, that was part of the point of the pandemic aid; to keep people whole after losing their jobs to public health orders that were no fault of their own.

And now, as things begin to open back up, people are pushing for these benefits to be cut off - despite lingering health concerns and ongoing aid.

"There's no reason for workers to come back to their old jobs earning the same poverty wages, especially since more than 100 million Americans remain unvaccinated, and there's still a stable safety net in place until autumn," writer and former restaurant worker Carl Gibson wrote for Insider on May 2. "It's not that unemployed restaurant workers don't want jobs - we just have more options now."

The time off prompted a reevaluation of not only their role in the business but industry practices in general. The service industry is a notoriously harsh and unforgiving business that makes intense demands on staff for low pay and anarchic schedules.

"I made more money on unemployment than I did working at the bar because they only gave me lunch shifts and I was part time," said Mark, a former bartender in New York. "They also over-staffed so there were fewer tips per person, I went from making $250-ish a week to a solid $600 a week from unemployment."

But now that many of these workers have been able to step back from an industry where low pay and abusive practices were the norm these businesses face a challenge: improve working conditions or shut down.

Tall Tales

As the country has begun to reopen, some politicians and pundits are claiming that staff are uninterested in returning to work because they're lazy. Signs on windows of shuttered businesses or temporarily closed outlets claim that people aren't willing to come back because they'd rather sit back and do nothing.

The media has helped spread this narrative, too. Articles from NPR, Fox News, and others have portrayed business owners as hard on their luck victims of circumstance who just can't catch a break. Workers - if they're included in the stories at all - are presented as shiftless, careless louts who aren't thinking of what's best for the company's bottom line.

The reality is different, Lucas, a former Uber Eats driver, told me.

"We're sick of being called lazy bums because we're sick of thankless, s----paying jobs," Lucas said.

Rather, Lucas and other workers I spoke to said they are finally asserting themselves after years of mistreatment and becoming more selective and holding out for incentives-or even considering leaving altogether if things don't change. That's what happened two weeks ago at a Dollar General store in Eliot, Maine. Three out of four of the store's employees walked off the job and quit over the weekend due to their pay and the company's disrespectful mistreatment. Two of them, Brendt Erikson and Hannah Barr, put signs up on the store's door explaining why they quit, putting the blame squarely on Dollar General for the company's disrespectful treatment of employees and low wages.

Erikson told me he wanted people to know that he and his comrades didn't leave their jobs because they were lazy.

"You've probably seen on Twitter those signs on businesses that are closing due to understaffing because people don't want to work," Erikson said. "I have been thinking about those signs a lot lately. And I wanted to make a retort to those signs that actually told the truth of why people weren't going to work there anymore."

Best practices?

Despite claims that businesses are scrambling to attract workers, in many cases owners simply aren't offering incentives for employees to return to customer-facing positions - as Ary Reich, a floor member at the National Museum of Mathematica in New York, told me.

"Less than a month after lockdown, after keeping us on to help them fix their broken website, they laid all eight of us off," Reich said. "Since then we've received emails letting us know we all can have our jobs back if we want them, but they are not interested in raising our pay."

That shows a misunderstanding of the power dynamic at play now - workers are able to decline offers to come back to their jobs without losing income for the first time in decades. Bosses who expected new workers to crawl back begging for jobs no longer indisputably have the upper hand in negotiations. So their attempts to strong arm staff back into the poor conditions and insufficient pay are falling flat.

Given this dynamic some restaurant owners are deciding to try and bring in newer, less experienced staff rather than rehire seasoned professionals - leading to more instability.

"A lot of folks I know in the fine dining world are struggling because many places closed during the pandemic and some are re-opening but instead of hiring back their old staff they are trying to hire new staff for less money or less front-of-house staff," said Earl. "Which means more front-of-house will do more work for the same or less money."

How well that's working for the owners varies, but it seems clear from their complaints that staffing remains a concern.

Lessons learned…. maybe

But not everyone in the industry is willfully ignoring the new reality. Joseph Tiedmann, who works as an executive chef in New Orleans, told Eater's Gaby del Valle this month that restaurants need to figure out how to change the business to pay people better and make the business a more desirable destination for workers.

"We need to make this an attractive business to work in," said Tiedmann. "At the end of the day, it's all about being able to do more for your employees."

It still remains to be seen whether or not the owners of restaurants and other service industry businesses will end what's effectively a capital strike and invest in their workforce.

But there is one simple trick to getting people to want to come and work for you, as Pittsburgh's Klavon's Ice Cream Parlor discovered: offer people more money. The outlet more than doubled its starting pay from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour and saw immediate results.

"It was instant, overnight," the parlor's general manager Maya Johnson told the Pittsburgh Business Times. "We got thousands of applications that poured in."

Restaurant owners have a choice to make. They can provide incentives for people to return to work in what's still a dangerous, fraught time for staff to be in forward facing roles - or they can continue to try to shame workers into returning to their jobs. The former works, the latter doesn't. Owners should take heed of that lesson and pay their staff more, not only because it's the right thing to do but because it's the path forward for the industry's survival.

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