I have been away from my waitressing job in my hometown for about a month since moving to the University of Connecticut at the beginning of the semester, which is an odd feeling. I’ve worked at this restaurant since I was 16 years old, and have thus become extremely close with my coworkers. In fact, spending all summer working overtime at said restaurant was only bearable because I was surrounded by my best friends. In my experience, the exhausting shifts created what felt like one of the longest summers ever; but they weren’t bad in the moment. However, looking back on the 12 to 13 hour long days I was working almost every day, I’m shocked at the state of the service industry and how poorly we treat our workers.
The pure insanity of everything I underwent at work over the summer wasn’t even apparent to me until I was telling a coworker about my new copy editing job at The Daily Campus, to which he responded, “Wow, imagine how nice that’s going to be.” I agreed, stating my excitement about finally working in a field that actually interested me, and he replied, “Well, that’s a good thing too. But I really just meant that it’s going to be nice to sit down at work.” And that was my wake up call, standing in the restaurant kitchen with my best friend. It was finally clear how truly exhausted we all were. Restaurant life in 2021 is draining to the point where you don’t realize you’re burnt out until you think sitting down at work is a privilege.
This anecdote is a little funny, but the state of the restaurant industry is not. The service industry in general needs massive reform. We need to protect workers instead of asking them to sell their souls for tips. It’s not new information that servers live a lifestyle full of odd scheduling, consistently stressful, physically exhausting shifts and irregular wages. Obviously, the fact that these aspects of the restaurant industry negatively impact restaurant workers physically, mentally, emotionally and socially is not enough for restaurant reform, as this has been the norm for a while. However, COVID-19 has only exacerbated these issues restaurant workers were already facing. Quality of life is worse than ever before in the restaurant industry and nobody cares.
We’ve talked about being thankful for our essential workers since March of 2020, but we have not shown it. Restaurants that managed to survive the pandemic are now understaffed, as the dangers and frustrations of working with the public during a pandemic led many individuals away from the industry altogether. This is not surprising, considering the lack of benefits, low-quality pay and disrespect restaurant workers deal with walking into every shift. I know personally that I met some of the rudest customers ever after reopening post-quarantine in the summer of 2020. Entitled guests treated my coworkers and I worse than ever before, using us as scapegoats for the general frustrations from living in unprecedented times. It’s no longer just a fear of being exposed to COVID-19 at work (which is enough of a concern in my book); the jobs are just not worth it anymore.
The restaurant industry isn’t going away anytime soon, but it also won’t be bearable without significant change. Thus, we should protect our restaurant workers by any means necessary. This means raising minimum wages, including tipped minimum wages. We need to give servers and bartenders consistent schedules that avoid the extremes of either working too many hours with barely enough time to sleep, or not getting scheduled to the point where they cannot pay their bills. Moreover, employers should give full-time employees benefits, pay sufficient overtime rates and make sure employees are getting breaks during their shifts.
I know I only made it through the summer because my coworkers and I prioritized looking out for each other, since no one else was going to. And I’m not saying we’re special for doing so; there are many other workers forced to do the same just to get through the day. But I don’t think I’m only speaking for myself when I say I’m not going to be able to do this much longer if things don’t change.