Restaurant Work Is Always Brutal. Under the Pandemic, It’s Hell.

Working in a restaurant has always been tough. But servers say that the pandemic has created new problems and intensified old ones. Unsafe health conditions, meager tips from vindictive customers, and sexual harassment are now the norm under coronavirus.

A bartender mixes drinks at Lucky Day bar on September 21, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

A report on food-service workers’ experiences during the pandemic, released today, reveals how coronavirus has multiplied the problems servers face on the job. The report, conducted by One Fair Wage, a nonprofit that advocates for the end of the subminimum wage for tipped workers, is titled “Take off your mask so I know how much to tip you.”

It’s a line spoken by a customer to one of the 1,675 food-service workers surveyed in the study, and it’s typical of the hundreds of accounts of harassment offered by the study’s respondents, who were gathered from the pool of 61,392 applicants to the One Fair Wage Emergency Fund, with responses collected from late October through early November. When servers are tasked with enforcing social-distancing and mask mandates, the results are more harassment and smaller tips.

A CDC report published in September shows that restaurants are a key site of coronavirus transmission, with adults twice as likely to contract the virus after dining in a restaurant. Today’s report confirms the implication of that finding: restaurant workers are particularly at risk of getting the disease. In fact, 44 percent of workers who responded to the survey say that one or more of their coworkers has contracted COVID-19.

The reason for this added risk is no mystery: servers are working in venues that are not designed for social distancing, serving customer after customer, some of whom simply ignore the health protocols.

More than a third of the workers surveyed say their employer did not conduct mandatory training on COVID safety protocols, and 69 percent say their employer does not consistently follow all COVID safety protocols. One Fair Wage finds that 84 percent of servers report being within six feet of at least one person who is not wearing a mask in every shift, and one-third report being within six feet of thirty or more maskless individuals on every shift.

Servers are risking their health to make a living. One Fair Wage previously found that 60 percent of tipped workers are unable to access unemployment benefits because their wage — which can legally be as low as $2.13 — does not meet state thresholds to qualify for benefits. For hundreds of thousands of the people who work as servers in the United States, it’s serve or starve, which has led them to return to restaurants even as the pandemic rages on. Today’s findings suggest there is no way for a server to abide by the guidelines for minimizing the risk to their health.

But when servers do return to work, they’re earning less in tips than ever: 83 percent say their tips have declined during the pandemic, with 66 percent reporting that their tips have declined by at least 50 percent. While one cause of this decline is fewer customers as people stay home instead of eating out, another is the paradoxical situation servers find themselves in: they’ve become de facto public-health czars, tasked with policing the compliance of the very customers they rely on for tips.

It’s no secret that a significant portion of the US population has elevated mask wearing to an issue of political principle, refusing to follow health protocols on the grounds that they infringe on their personal freedom. The result for servers is an impossible predicament: enforce the mandates, and get stiffed; or let it go, and risk their health and that of others in the restaurant. More than half of the workers surveyed say they are reluctant to enforce COVID protocols out of concern that customers will tip them less, and “67 percent received a lesser than usual tip after enforcing those protocols on customers, usually on a frequent basis.”

Getting sick, or stiffed, aren’t the only possibilities servers face, either: there’s also sexual harassment. Such harassment has long been a constant for many servers. Restaurant workers account for more harassment claims filed in the United States than workers in any other industry, and a 2016 report by Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United) found that 90 percent of women and 70 percent of men in the industry experience harassment from customers on the job. The fact that servers working in states that have abolished the subminimum wage for tipped workers report half the rate of sexual harassment has long been central to the argument for phasing out such a wage, an argument made by organizations like One Fair Wage.

The pandemic hasn’t reduced workplace sexual harassment. Unbelievably, for many of the report’s respondents, it intensified it. As today’s reports states, “More than 40% of workers (41%) reported that there has been a noticeable change in the frequency of unwanted sexualized comments from customers, and just over one quarter (25%) report that they have experienced or witnessed a significant change in the frequency of such sexual harassment.” It goes on to list comments customers made to workers received, many of which, like the report’s title, turn upon a fixation with servers’ masks. A sampling: “Asks to see ‘pretty’ face. If i say no he doesn’t tip”; “The patrons make comment about using the mask in a bedroom”; “I’ll take your mask off and stick my tongue down your throat”; “A man cut a hole in the mouth (of the mask) and asked a coworker if she sat on his face would he get covid.”

Servers are working in crowded restaurants during a deadly pandemic. They’re reliant on customers for tips, and that leads them to face risks to their health as well as harassment. With very few exceptions, they do not have a collective body, such as a union, to force the changes needed to improve their working conditions. Cities continue to keep restaurants and bars open even as the latest wave of the pandemic fills hospital beds across the country. It’s a tough situation, but providing unemployment relief for tipped workers and phasing out the tipped minimum wage would help restaurant workers get through the next few months. It’s that, or condemn them to working conditions that no elected officials would accept for themselves. No one can plead ignorance as to what servers are facing: they’re in hell.