Co-founder and Board President, Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation (RWCF)
For restaurant workers, the global pandemic was devastating, but it only exacerbated problems that have existed for decades.
Restaurant workers are experiencing a perfect storm of economic misery thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic that has shut down restaurants worldwide. But the pain began long before the disease. Prior to the pandemic, 16.7 percent of restaurant workers lived below the poverty line, and only 14 percent had health insurance through their employers.
“In the second week of March 2020, it became very, very apparent that there was going to be a huge apocalypse in the restaurant industry,” said John deBary, co-founder and board president of the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation (RWCF). “The crisis isn’t over. It’s actually probably getting worse.”
An award-winning professional bartender and former bar director for Momofuku, deBary was inspired to create the RWCF as he became aware of the inequities restaurant workers deal with.
“I started thinking about how to organize and aggregate the power of people in the restaurant industry,” he said.
One problem that restaurant workers face is that patrons don’t necessarily understand how hard the work is. “There’s so much in terms of the emotional labor and the kind of experience being provided — it’s really hard to do.”
Compounding that difficulty are the inequities baked into the way restaurants are traditionally run. Aside from the near-total lack of healthcare or other benefits, the $2.13 minimum wage for tipped workers results in rampant wage theft when restaurants fail to ensure workers reach the federal minimum wage of $7.25, as they are legally bound to do.
Restaurant work is already incredibly stressful, and the pandemic has added the strain of worrying about their health and safety, especially when employees are faced with patrons who refuse to wear masks, or work in an environment where pandemic guidelines are not followed.
For many restaurant workers, the lockdowns that have shuttered restaurants and bars around the world is an urgent crisis which has left many with greatly reduced or no income at all. The RWCF launched the Restaurant Workers COVID19 Crisis Relief Fund in March 2020 and has raised over $7 million to help those in the industry who are struggling. While that sounds impressive, deBary points out that with an estimated 16 million restaurant workers in the United States, that amounts to less than 50 cents per person.
And the gradual reopening of restaurants is unlikely to help. An estimated 16,000 restaurants have closed down permanently since March, and a recent report from the Independent Restaurant Coalition estimates that as many as 85 percent of independent restaurants will eventually follow suit.
While supporting your local restaurants can help, deBary warned that it’s going to take systemic changes to make a real difference.
“People can confuse consumerism with advocacy,” he said. “But there’s only so much the consumer can do to prop up restaurants. The government really does need to step in and issue some kind of bailout measure to shore up businesses. There needs to be a really deliberate and targeted relief effort made towards restaurants in terms of rents, negotiations with landlords, hazard pay, and personal protective equipment (PPE) for employees.”
DeBary stressed that the need for change in the industry is nothing new.
“Restaurant workers were in a crisis last year,” he pointed out. “We were in a crisis 10 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago. This is not a case of just put things back together. This is a case of well, now everything’s broken and falling apart — how do we reimagine this so you don’t go back to this point where people are really suffering?”