When it comes to keeping restaurant employees safe and paid over the long term, Texas may have answers
The pandemic has brought to light countless fissures that highlight inequity in labor systems. One of the starkest realizations is that for hourly—particularly tipped hourly—workers, calling out sick is often not an option. Also, committing to quarantine for two weeks, as is required if you’ve come into contact with coronavirus, is cause for hysterical laughter.
You simply can’t afford it.
When work-from-home orders came in March, I thought, That must be nice, as I scrolled through breaking news and speculations about the severity of COVID-19 en route to a job where, as a bartender, I’d not only interact with way more strangers than an average office worker, but would also be handling glasses and plates used by strangers.
By mid-March, service industry workers were being told that if a staff member called out sick, they could not return without a doctor’s note. And if you felt unsafe surrounded by potential carriers of a deadly virus we knew little about, tough tits, sister—you show up, or you lose your job.
And now, as restaurants across the state reopen, many of us are in the exact same position again, with the exact same question: How am I going to survive, financially, if I get sick?
I am shocked to report that Texas might have the answer.
The Lone Star State was one of the last to shut down amid the initial coronavirus outbreak. It was also one of the first to reopen, blowing through the process by moving through three phases in less than six weeks. Officials there are now backpedaling amid record-breaking numbers, and in municipalities as big as Houston, only recently began proposing public mask requirements.
Disturbed by the lax regulations and frustrated by a lack of support and guidance from the state, Good Work Austin, an Austin-based small business advocacy group made up largely of bars and restaurants, issued its own set of actionable guidelines for safely reopening. While a hefty portion of Good Work Austin’s action items focus on public health and sanitation requirements, most of which are already mandated in Mass, the group also specifically addresses paid sick leave in a way that ensures a staff member potentially infected with COVID-19 can afford to quarantine for 14 days, an issue that has yet to be addressed in Mass.
“This is a conversation we, as an organization, have been having about running restaurants successfully, financially, and making staff earnings more equitable and more predictable,” said Adam Orman, GWA member and owner and general manager of L’Oca d’Oro in Austin.
“This is when you need that, when low wage workers are actually, literally, afraid for their lives. They need to know they’re not dependent on tips,” Orman said.
As stated in the GWA agreement, the Employee Wellness Charge is an additional percentage at the discretion of participating establishments (3% is recommended), with the itemized charge applied to every check processed. These funds can then be used to provide access to healthcare and to help ensure that if someone is required to quarantine, they won’t have to forfeit groceries or a rent payment to do so.
“We want to make a way for paid sick leave to work for business,” Orman said. Adding a small charge to guest transactions was a realistic way to get funding in place immediately. “This can’t be a zero sum game,” he noted. “We’ve gotta figure out a way to have the government subsidize it, get tax breaks for it, whatever it is. Employees need sick leave.”
Massachusetts differs from Texas when it comes to state-mandated paid sick leave: While Texas currently does not require any form of paid sick leave for restaurant workers, in 2015, Mass enacted a law that requires all employers with 11 employees or more to make paid sick leave available. Per the 2015 measure, every employee earns one hour of paid sick time at their normal wage for every 30 hours worked. If you do the math, that means someone would have to work somewhere full-time for almost two-and-a-half years to be able to have enough paid sick leave accumulated to cover a two-week quarantine.
For tipped employees, that can amount to minimum wage.
“We’re really looking at moving away from having staff be dependent on tips,” Orman said. “We’ll likely land somewhere in the world where we’re paying between 15 and $30 an hour, depending on the position, will have paid sick leave, and will pay for their primary care access.”
Whether or not Commonwealth bars and restaurants start to consider non-tipped pay scales is another, much longer, story, but right now most servers and bartenders in the state are at risk of losing hundreds of dollars in tips that are unaccounted for in the state’s paid sick leave laws if they are required to quarantine.
In some cases, the financial hardships of a two-week quarantine for hourly employees are considered in the Federal CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion stimulus package providing financial assistance to individuals and businesses (and parent of the continually problematic Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)) that was enacted on March 27.
Under CARES, all employees are eligible for the Emergency Family Leave Act, which compensates people caring for an ill family member with $200 a day for up to $10,000, and for Emergency Paid Sick Leave, which allows for:
$511 per day and $5,110 total for an employee under a government or physician directed quarantine or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis, or $200 per day and $2,000 total for an employee caring for another individual under quarantine or a child under the age of 18 whose school or child care provider is closed or unavailable because of COVID-19, or if the employee is experiencing a substantially similar condition, through December 2020.
Which screams the question: What the hell are we supposed to do come January?
Because we’re going to have to do something.
“This problem isn’t going away,” Josh Lewin, co-owner of Juliet in Somerville and Peregrine on Beacon Hill said in an interview. “It’s not going to go away as early as three weeks … it’s not going away by the end of the year.”
Lewin and his business partner, Katrina Jazayeri, are at the forefront of the quest for equitable pay for restaurant workers in Greater Boston; both Juliet and Peregrine operate without tips in an effort to pay reliable, consistent, living wages to their teams in both the front and the back of the house. He’s always at the top of my list of people to contact about the financial intricacies faced by service industry employees in the region.
“Right now [because of CARES] our staff [has] all the resources they need to stay safe throughout this global crisis, but when we lose access to the funds that allow us to protect them … I’m worried about what happens next,” Lewin said.
January might feel like a long way off (April, after all, lasted approximately two years), but in reality we’re roughly six months away from tens of thousands of workers whose job it is to interact in close proximity to hundreds of strangers not wearing masks being not only at risk of contracting a deadly virus but of going bankrupt if they get sick.
“I’m not sure what we’re accomplishing by going back to work and not feeling like people are protected and not having a plan to protect these people, physically or financially, going forward,” Lewin said. “Whether it’s in government relief or in cash or abatement or something else, if we don’t have access to funds, all we have is the pressure for businesses to go further into deficit [by paying a financially-viable sum in sick leave out of pocket] or forcing people to make bad choices that could cost lives.”
On June 20, Michael Neff, co-founder and lead bartender at the Cottonmouth Club in Houston, released a video in response to Texas’s new surge in COVID cases. Neff aimed his message specifically at the governor of Texas, but also called out to the service industry at large as well as people going out—or considering going out—to bars and restaurants. It’s a plea for logic, sanity, and compassion, and can be summed up in a few short, chilling words:
“There are a lot of ways to die,” Neff says in the clip. “One of them is economically, and one of them is through sickness, and right now there isn’t a lot of difference between those two things. You’re leading us to die.”
And while Massachusetts has been relatively cautious in its reopening, without longlasting and comprehensive funds made available to bars and restaurants to supplement or outlast the CARES Act, Bay State hospitality workers and restaurant owners are facing similar pressures.
“We’ve always printed menu prices that allowed us to pay what we believe to be truly fair wages and begin to introduce benefits above what is required,” Lewin said. “We’ve always had more paid sick leave available to our staff than the state requires. But all of that costs money. You can’t just gloss over the realities of how people live and work and make their money and pretend that people are going to be okay.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Pandemic Democracy Project. The Silver Dining Playbook series has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
Haley is an AAN Award-winning columnist for DigBoston and Mel magazine and has contributed to publications including the Boston Globe and helped found Homicide Watch Boston. She has spearheaded and led several Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism investigations including a landmark multipart series about the racialized history of liquor licensing in Massachusetts, and for three years wrote the column Terms of Service about restaurant industry issues from the perspective of workers.