‘Pay me my worth’: restaurant workers demand livable wages as industry continues to falter | Food & drink industry

After the traumas of widespread economic shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic, America’s restaurant industry is largely open for business again as eateries ranging from high-end bistros to fast-food chains are serving hungry customers.

But behind the full tables and busy kitchens is a story of a sector still in trouble amid the impact of the pandemic, marked by staff shortages, low wages and fears that safety protocols are still not enough to cope with a virus that is still a threat as the more contagious Delta variant spreads across the US.

Restaurants across the country have continued reports of struggling to find enough workers to fill open positions, while operating with reduced staff. Workers have attributed these labor shortages to poor pay and working conditions, disrespect from customers, and ongoing Covid-19 safety concerns. Employers have often blamed unemployment benefits, but 26 states pre-emptively ended federal extended unemployment benefits over the summer with little to no impact on job recovery.

“We are still struggling and they are still not caring, and it’s their own fault these corporations are experiencing worker shortages,” said Iesha Franceis, who works at a Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers chain in Durham, North Carolina, where she makes $11.40 an hour. “We are all still not making livable wages and these companies are still trying to penny pinch any way that they can.”

Job growth in the leisure and hospitality sector of the US stagnated in the month of August, as coronavirus cases due to the Delta variant surged, prompting further shutdowns and the revival of mask mandates in many areas. Leisure and hospitality remains the sector hit hardest by Covid-19, and lags behind in recovery with nearly 1.7m fewer jobs than before the pandemic.

In the food service industry, jobs declined by 42,000 in the month of August and the industry has experienced record rates of workers quitting their jobs throughout 2021.

Franceis led walkouts at her restaurant over Covid-19 safety concerns and poor working conditions through the pandemic in 2020, and recently walked out with co-workers on 21 August, after her store location reneged on shutting down for professional cleaning after a worker tested positive for Covid-19, a corporate policy Franceis argued was made in response to their 2020 walkouts.

Franceis explained many employees left through the pandemic, while operating hours are still reduced, leaving her and her co-workers to deal with increased workloads and work extra hours to try to compensate for staffing shortages.

“Pay me what I’m worth. Because if I can sacrifice myself for your business to keep your wheels turning, then it’s time that you sacrifice yourself to keep my wheels turning,” added Franceis. “It’s off of our backs that their lives are so easy.”

A spokesperson for Freddy’s said in an email, “Freddy’s has an uncompromising commitment to safety and expects each of our franchisees to provide a safe working environment for their employees, including following proper cleaning and sanitation protocols. Additionally, as an independent franchisee, the local owner in Durham is solely responsible for setting their employees’ hourly pay and salaries.”

A help wanted sign is seen at the register of Burger Boy restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky.
A help wanted sign is seen at the register of Burger Boy restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky. Photograph: Amira Karaoud/Reuters

Similar issues have continued to plague workers at full-service restaurants around the US as well.

Many restaurants, including corporate chains that operate on franchise models, are still unclear whether the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate applies to them, while vaccine mandates for customers have only been implemented by a few corporations or municipalities, such as New York City, New Orleans, San Francisco, Honolulu, Philadelphia and the Seattle area.

Lily Nicholson, a server at a restaurant in Memphis, Tennessee who has worked through the pandemic, described the constant harassment and issues workers face from customers who refuse to follow mask mandates and Covid-19 protocols, with businesses varying widely on the extent to which they care to help with enforcement and protections.

“It’s such a precarious scenario. We’ve been the worker who has been deputized into enforcing this rule at the door that you’re supposed to have a mask on, so at the door you already have an altercation,” said Nicholson.

Jarmier Owens, an employee at a McDonald’s in Detroit, walked out with a few other co-workers in August after the restaurant’s air conditioner broke, but workers were expected to continue working without it being fixed.

“It’s just wrong how we as fast-food workers slave our behind every two weeks for a paycheck and they treat us so unfairly,” said Owens, who was paid $10.50 an hour.

Earlier this month, McDonald’s workers in Bradford, Pennsylvania, walked off the job over low pay and poor management. Throughout the summer, food service workers at other McDonald’s locations, Jack in the Box, Hooters and other restaurants walked off the job over issues with broken air conditioners.

Priscilla Alexander, a mother of two, has worked at a KFC restaurant in Detroit through the pandemic, making just $10.50 an hour. In March, she caught Covid-19 and was out for about one month due to complications, as she developed a blood clot in her lung that she is still taking blood thinners to treat.

Thousands of fast-food workers around the US have no paid sick leave and the franchise model of many fast-food corporate chains have exempted them from Covid-19 paid sick leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

She received no paid sick time while she was out of work, even as she notes her restaurant has struggled with staffing issues and has made false promises of wage raises and promotions to her and other workers.

“If you want people to work, you just pay workers what they want or at least meet their budget, because if you want us to come work through a pandemic, you should be able to show that you need and want us there,” said Alexander.

KFC did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Source: theguardian.com