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Forget the wine list, ask about employee treatment

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In recent years, discerning diners have made a point of asking about the provenance of what they eat. Is the produce local? Are the eggs organic? Were the pigs read Baudelaire each night? These are important questions, of course, and ones brought on by a better understanding of our food system and a commitment to ethical consumption. But, despite this enlightenment, our conscientiousness too often stops at the plate. When it comes to restaurant workers' pay, benefits and safety, conversations remain limited — and not in a small-batch way.

Unfortunately, a global pandemic hasn't changed this dynamic much. Perhaps the most surreal image of wary state reopenings has been restaurant-goers dining al fresco with masks on. In more normal times, outdoor dining is emblematic of summer, with the sunny, chaotic confidence of cities on full display. But for the workers who prepare and serve the food, these restaurant reopenings mean a return to a dangerous system that didn't work even before the pandemic.

According to Department of Labor data, eight of the 10 lowest-paying jobs in the United States involve the food industry. By many accounts, this includes the full range of workers, from the sauté cook at a Michelin-starred restaurant to the barback at your local dive to a cashier at Burger King. The ranks aren't small, either — restaurant employees make up 10% of the American workforce.

Restaurant workers also take on long, grueling shifts with few benefits, which can occasionally mean the choice between working sick and making rent. They rarely receive health insurance and often labor for a tipped wage, which has long enabled built-in inequities like sexual and racial discrimination in the industry, while also sometimes encouraging workplace harassment. Overwhelmingly, restaurant workers are women and people of color; many live in poverty and rely on public assistance.

Now, these same workers are getting sick. Across the South, newly reopened establishments are closing again with workers testing positive for the coronavirus and cases on a tragic upswing. One major reason restaurant workers are exceptionally vulnerable now has to do with the industry's lack of worker protections. And efforts to bring widespread reform to the restaurant business have faltered in large part because diners have either failed to understand the consequences of the system or chosen not to care.

As restaurants reopen, diners should take the opportunity to ask new questions. What measures are being taken to keep the kitchen safe? Can the line cook take a shift off to look after a family member? How can servers get tested if they don't have health insurance?

While some savvier businesses have begun to address worker safety with comprehensive reopening plans, diners should do research before making a reservation or ask owners about enhanced policies before being seated. And, if the answers aren't good enough, support restaurants that have invested in their workers. If we can be fussy enough to send a medium burger back for not being rare, we can be discerning enough to ask managers questions about Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dining guidelines.

As a former service worker, I can tell you these questions have expensive answers. And the answers won't come from people like me or from the restaurateur crunching numbers to turn enough tables to make rent. The pandemic has bequeathed countless tragedies, but it's also given us the rare opportunity to change the calculus of the restaurant industry. It's always been difficult and even irresponsible for a business to propose that their patrons pay more. It's up to diners to ask.

Adam Chandler, author of “Drive-Thru Dreams,” a book about the fast-food industry, wrote this for The Washington Post.

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