Throughout the pandemic, news outlets have covered the restaurant industry’s struggle with labor shortages and rising costs. But reports of restaurant workers quitting in droves, customer complaints about slow service and limited menus, and hand-wringing over “a lack of work ethic” consistently overlook a fundamental detail: Restaurant workers, especially back-of-house (BOH) workers, are dying in outrageous numbers from this pandemic. Laboring in jobs that pay less than a living wage, they’re forced to choose between taking their chances elsewhere or remaining in jobs where the risk to their lives can’t be understated.
Restaurant workers experience poverty at nearly three times the rate of workers in other industries, and workers of color experience poverty at nearly double the rate of their white peers. And now, in an industry notorious for its Jim Crow-legacy wages, BOH food preparation and kitchen staff, such as bussers, dishwashers, line cooks, and chefs, are being forced to accept considerable health risks to continue working. Restaurants remain one of the most dangerous environments in this pandemic, especially for those working BOH. A recent study by the University of California, San Francisco found that line cooks have had the highest risk of dying during the pandemic, surpassing even healthcare workers.
Using death records from the California Department of Public Health, researchers found that for Californians aged 18 to 65 who died between March and October 2020, mortality increased by 39% among food or agriculture workers during the pandemic, relative to pre-pandemic times—the highest increase of any occupational sector. Line cooks had a 60% increase in mortality during the pandemic, leading every other occupation in mortality risk. Chefs and head cooks, as well as bartenders, also made the list among the 25 occupations with the highest risk. It’s an inescapable fact that restaurant workers, especially those in BOH positions, are risking their lives to fulfill the demands of American restaurant goers.
‘If it’s too hot, get out of the kitchen’
More often than not, BOH positions are staffed by people of color and immigrants whose work behind the scenes fulfills the demands of the business. And the space in which they’re confined—just beyond the curated atmosphere of more spacious dining areas—hosts the perfect conditions for the coronavirus to ravage the workforce.
Kitchens were never designed to be particularly comfortable or sanitary, with “terrible” ventilation and few opportunities to socially distance, said Ben Reynolds, an organizer with Restaurant Workers United, a national, volunteer-run network of service workers and labor organizers that emerged from the pandemic to advocate for the security needs of those in the industry. It’s a physical reflection of how restaurants prioritize diners’ comfort and satisfaction, not the safety or well-being of kitchen staff.
“Kitchen space is going to be as small as possible to maximize seating in a restaurant,” Reynolds said.
What’s more, they’re unbearably hot—kitchens are regularly up to 110 degrees. BOH staff often work 14-hour shifts, six to seven days a week in that sweltering environment, performing grueling physical labor in a tight, enclosed space. Maggie Tenbroeck, a sous chef in Memphis who is currently unemployed, said that job interviews regularly included questions about physical labor:
“[I was asked] ‘Can you stand for at least eight hours straight? Can you lift 50 pounds? Can you do repetitive movements? Can you move 25 pounds out of a 400-degree oven and move it 300 feet to another position without spilling on yourself or someone else?’” Tenbroeck said. “You are just destroying your body.”
That kind of physical labor in close quarters can also take a toll on a person’s immune system, but working through sickness is a routine obligation in this industry, where health insurance and paid sick leave are considered luxuries. Emilio Enriquez, a line cook in Chicago who helped open the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialist Labor Commission’s Restaurant Organizing Project, stressed how low wages and lack of health care puts everyone at risk because workers can’t afford to take time off to get medical treatment.
“I’m willing to put money on that as a major factor to why the deaths in this industry have skyrocketed [during the pandemic],” he said.
Essential work without protection
While proper personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages early on in the pandemic may have facilitated the virus’ swift spread through restaurants, BOH workers are still given few accommodations for their protection. Mask wearing is rarely enforced by managers, so staff are often at the mercy of their colleagues’ preferences. Workers like Tenbroeck support mask-wearing but sympathize with how frustrating it can be wearing one for hours in close quarters with hot stoves and ovens running at 400 degrees.
In Oakland, California, a line cook and shift lead who asked to remain anonymous detailed how their management’s limited communication and lack of support—such as providing PPE to staff—left workers to figure out on their own how to mitigate infection in the workplace. In addition to working in an overcrowded and tightly confined space, staff were still being pressured to work even if they were sick. Eventually, there was a COVID-19 outbreak at the restaurant.
“Workers should not have to be forced into being essential workers during a pandemic,” the worker from Oakland said. “There should be a choice, but the choice shouldn’t be between risking your life or paying your bills.”
What’s more, protocols and policies around informing staff of potential COVID-19 related issues weren’t always clearly or consistently communicated. Porfirio Oden, a chef de partie at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, said he relied on his coworkers for information more than management.
“One guy was gone for a couple days and he came back with a mask on, and I heard from other employees that he had COVID,” Oden said. “[Management] didn’t tell me that.”
Fountainebleu didn’t respond to a request for comment.
With unforgiving working conditions before the pandemic and limited communication from management to keep them safe, it’s no wonder that workers have left the industry—many for good.
Slipping through the cracks in the system
For many, unemployment has been a preferable alternative to risking their health in jobs that rarely offer health insurance or paid sick leave, even to get vaccinated. For workers like Tenbroeck, it’s allowed them to take a desperately needed pause to reevaluate their options and desire to remain in the industry.
“As someone with genetic disorders, I needed to be able to take time away to make sure that [going back as a sous chef] wasn’t going to kill me,” Tenbroeck said.
However, accessing unemployment was a struggle for many, especially during the early days of the pandemic. Contrary to inaccurate claims that restaurant workers were taking advantage of unemployment insurance instead of working, many were struggling with how the pandemic overloaded the unequal and racialized benefits system. Oden was among thousands of Floridians frustrated by site glitches, system crashes, inundated phone lines, and unanswered emails in the state’s historically flawed unemployment system. He spent three months waiting hours in line at food distribution centers to feed his family while listening to Gov. Ron DeSantis blame people like him for their own distress. Overall, according to a One Fair Wage survey, more than half of unemployed restaurant workers were denied unemployment insurance during the pandemic. For many, it was because they earned too little to qualify. Those who managed to receive benefits would immediately lose them if they turned down work.
A significant portion of BOH workers didn’t even have the option to use unemployment benefits. In 2014, 12% of food preparation workers were undocumented, as were 16% of cooks and 19% of dishwashers, according to data from the Pew Research Center. Undocumented workers may account for up to 40% of the restaurant industry in urban areas, according to One Fair Wage. Enriquez, who is a DACA recipient, said the added stress of having undocumented status forces workers to remain in situations where they’re exploited.
“Your livelihood is always at the hands of someone else,” he said. “It’s certainly kept me submissive to poor treatment in the past because of it.”
According to Catalina Xavlena, founder of the Oakland Workers Fund, which supports out-of-work food service workers—specifically those unable to receive government aid—many applicants have been stuck in a cycle of employment, downsizing, and layoffs. Some struggle with drastically reduced work hours that are a far cry from a livable income, especially for workers with dependents, but enough to disqualify them from unemployment benefits since they were technically employed.
“It’s been tragic and infuriating to often be the only source of income and support that so many of our applicants have had for the entirety of the pandemic,” Xavlena said.
Returning to work—just not at restaurants
Despite earlier hints at recovery, the Delta variant has already begun softening the industry’s growth, and more closures and reinstated restrictions loom for many restaurants across the country. McDonald’s and other fast-food chains are now closing their dining areas and limiting hours of operation. And the encroaching cold of fall and winter will remove outdoor dining options in many areas. Given the volatility of the industry, many workers simply funneled into other service jobs requiring less risk, less physical and mental strain, and greater or comparable—and more stable—pay.
“The pay isn’t going to be that great, but they’re probably not going to be risking their life in the same way just to make somebody’s burger,” Reynolds said.
Restaurants and casual dining chains are now offering hefty sign-on bonuses and boosted minimum hourly wages, hoping to convince its former workforce to return. Chipotle Mexican Grill even debuted a debt-free degree program in agriculture science, culinary arts, and hospitality to workers after 120 days of employment. However, advocates and workers find these efforts hollow and too little, too late.
“These incentives aren’t being provided for the right reasons because, as a whole, we don’t view people working in food service as people but as employees meant to rake in money for their bosses,” said Samantha Espinoza, a core organizer with the Oakland Workers Fund.
Some economists are hoping that the recent end of the federal pandemic unemployment benefits program will leave workers little choice but to return and alleviate labor shortages. But a July report from One Fair Wage and the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley, suggests that’s not the case. Twenty-five states had already ended participation in the federal program prematurely to force people back to work, but the report found that “cutting unemployment insurance has not changed workers’ desire to leave the industry unless wages go up.”
Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage and director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley, pointed out the hypocrisy of blaming restaurant workers for the industry’s current struggle while at the same time doing little to care for their health.
“It’s going to take some guarantee that things are actually going to change permanently and not temporarily,” Jayaraman said. “Nothing can give them that faith or trust, except policy change.”
Paying the cost to meet customer demands
While Americans are fatigued by the pandemic, their desire to be waited on at the expense of those serving them reflects how, in America’s dehumanizing and exploitative consumer culture, sacrificing workers’ lives at the altar of customers’ dining experience is merely business as usual. Impatient to “return to normal,” many Americans equate dining out with exercising their freedom from pandemic-related restrictions, while the cost in human lives is conveniently out of sight at the BOH, and many restaurants are only too happy to indulge in their fantasies.
“If we as a country are going to call these people ‘essential,’ then we have to treat them as essential—not disposable—which is how we’ve treated them over the last year,” Jayaraman said.
Policy changes to safeguard BOH restaurant workers’ wages and workplaces are critical, but even more so is for Americans to confront how their sense of entitlement shapes service culture and the toll their demands take on restaurant workers’ livelihoods, health, and safety. With restaurants determined to remain open even as the Delta variant rages across the country, people of color and immigrants, who are overrepresented in the service industry, continue to suffer disproportionately so that the more fortunate among us can indulge in dining out.
“Because our faces [aren’t seen], it’s hard for people to humanize [us] sometimes, but [BOH workers are] famously one of the most disenfranchised groups of people,” Enriquez said. “I would love for people to try to remove that veil. When that happens, it won’t just be organizers who are fighting for things to change; it will be everybody.”