In the midst of a widespread labor shortage, restaurant workers have an opportunity to advocate for themselves and learn more about where they want to work
After more than a year of widespread uncertainty for the restaurant industry, the arrival of multiple COVID-19 vaccines has prompted local and city governments to begin the reopening process for in-person businesses. NYC has allowed full-capacity dining since May 19, one of the earlier cities to do so, with places like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Austin following close behind.
While reopening is an exciting step towards post-COVID normalcy, it also runs the risk of becoming a retreat into the status quo of past times. But a widespread labor shortage within restaurants at large is prompting some necessary conversations about the nature of restaurant work — the hours, the stress, and corresponding pay are simply not equitable or sustainable. And right now, restaurant workers have a significant opportunity to advocate for themselves and be particularly intentional about their workplaces.
As food industry professionals collectively push for structural overhaul in the service industry at large — raising the minimum wage, for example, or experimenting with new ownership models like co-ops — we can also use this recovery period to renegotiate and reimagine the relationships between restaurant workers, owners, and consumers.
With the lens of someone who works at the intersection of food and social justice, I spoke with experts in the hospitality field to learn more about how workers can seize this opportunity to find the right restaurant job, gathering questions prospective applicants can ask to ensure they are making a good choice.
Ask about pay, time off, benefits, and management structure
The pandemic has reminded us just how critical it is to take care of ourselves — not just physically, but also emotionally and mentally. Knowing how a restaurant’s standard processes — like base pay, tipping, scheduling, benefits — are run helps lay a foundation of understanding and trust for a continuing relationship, not to mention will give you peace of mind. For example, ask:
- How is tipping handled at this restaurant? For front of house, what is the base pay before tips? Are tips pooled? For back of house, are tips shared?
- Who manages scheduling, and how are shifts decided? How does scheduling for paid time off (PTO) and unpaid leave work?
- What are the available healthcare benefits? Does that cover vision and dental?
Establishing a clear understanding of the power dynamics within an organization is also critical for a sustainable relationship. Since many restaurants have run on skeleton crews for the last year, the influx of new hires — and with that, more levels of middle managers — can complicate understanding of who really has decision-making authority at the organizational level. Ask:
- What is the ownership and organizational structure? Who is my direct supervisor, and who do they report into?
- What is the process for giving managers and management feedback? How have changes from that feedback been implemented in the past?
- Who is able to make major decisions for the restaurant? How are they made?
- Who is able to veto those decisions? When/how?
Ask how the restaurant plans on keeping workers safe
The previously accepted norm of restaurants abdicating responsibility for workers’ health and safety is one aspect of restaurant work that certainly needs to change. The high level of exposure that hospitality staff have to face every day, even if many folks are newly vaccinated, makes it more important than ever to formalize a plan for keeping restaurant workers (and by extension, customers) safe and healthy. Certain groups, like those with underlying conditions, are also exposed to more harm and should be centered in organizational protocol around safety.
Matt Espiritu, sous chef at Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica, California, suggests asking the following questions to gain a sense of the restaurant’s ongoing COVID preparedness:
- What is the restaurant doing their part to keep employees safe? Are they doing the same for the customers that are dining in?
- Are there safety protocols in place? How is the restaurant kept clean? Are staff still wearing masks, gloves, and social distancing?
- How are workers’ health and jobs protected if someone in the restaurant gets COVID-19?
Eric Rivera, chef-owner at Addo in Seattle, suggests the following questions to understand how restaurants are proactively thinking through safety scenarios for staff members:
- What renovations or improvements have been made in the restaurant to address ventilation and properly spaced working stations?
- Is hazard pay made available if guests and/or employees are not required to be vaccinated before entering the restaurant?
- If a guest is not following our safety protocols, will the restaurant take the side of the guest or the employee?
Kiki Louya, executive director of the advocacy group Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, also adds that restaurants should “have a list of resources in case something happens” to its staff, customers, or community members. This can include information about de-escalating conflict without relying on police presence, for example, or how to handle microaggressions from customers, or ways to support unhoused neighbors in the area.
Ask how the restaurant ensures employee well-being
Well-being is more than just physical health. The pandemic offered a rare time for workers to reevaluate their futures in the food and beverage industry, and it’s necessary for restaurants to demonstrate a tangible commitment to the careers of their employees. Devita Davison, executive director at FoodLab Detroit, says all organizations should discuss worker well-being — and from multiple perspectives, or even talking with folks who have left the restaurant. Some of her suggested prompts include:
- How does your restaurant demonstrate that it cares about the well-being of its staff?
- Can I speak with another team member to hear about their experience working here?
Ask about your potential career growth
Ensuring workers have a clear understanding of their trajectory at an organization is an important step in redistributing power from owners and executives. For too long, workers on the front lines have been given little agency over their schedules, work conditions, and career progression. Kapri Robinson, bartender and 2021 Eater New Guard member, says applicants should not feel intimidated asking for details on how a restaurant “understands self-care outside of work.” Applicants should also evaluate the organization’s investment in its staff by asking about educational and training initiatives. She suggests asking:
- What are the educational opportunities while working here? For wine and spirits professionals: Do you schedule tastings? Bring in ambassadors to teach spirits?
- How are the above trainings conducted? How am I meant to learn the menu?
- Is there room for upward mobility?
- What are ways in which the organization tries to alleviate the industry’s high turnover rate?
Ask how the restaurant engages and invests its community
In a time where government systems have repeatedly failed to provide social safety nets for working folks, restaurants have shown us that they are more than just places to eat; they’re also spaces to foster community support and growth. From operating as food pantries and offering free hot meals to providing a centralized location for relief from the police, restaurants can be active players in transforming our society. As such, workers should ask how their workplace is investing in its immediate community. Two questions Davison says potential employees should ask in this vein are:
- How are you leaning into being in community with the residents who live in the surrounding area?
- Are you in touch with other restaurants in the community? Do you look at them as competitors or colleagues?
Jenny Dorsey is a professional chef, author, and speaker specializing in interdisciplinary storytelling fusing food with social good. She leads a nonprofit community think tank called Studio ATAO and runs her own culinary consulting business.