As WA restaurants struggle, workers weigh physical and economic survival

Beyond coronavirus exposure and making rent, service workers are likely coping with long-lasting mental health effects.

Ulises Mariscal, an employee at Hi Spot Cafe and member of the Seattle band Tres Leches, at the end of his shift in Seattle's Madrona neighborhood. Like many servers, he has had to navigate a different environment. “The customer is always right, but now we have to be more direct and be like: ‘No, I cannot do this for you because the pandemic,’ or, ‘I cannot seat you here because you are too close to this person,’ ” Mariscal said. “I'm happy that I get to be working right now, ’cause without that job, I would be screwed,” Mariscal added later. “At the same time I feel sad we have to be working in a pandemic.” (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

On a good day, Kelly Shea likes to joke that losing four jobs in the span of a few hours is her “personal best.” In truth, the morning hours of March 13 were among the worst of her 12-year career as a server and bartender. One after the other, the calls rolled in: First, the Seattle comedy bar where she picked up weekend shifts. Then, the farm-to-table restaurant on Vashon Island, her regular gig, followed by the Burien bar where she covered for other bartenders a few times a month. There was no call from the T-Mobile Park wine bar, but from news articles, Shea quickly pieced together she wouldn’t be pouring chardonnay there any time soon. 

“By 1 p.m., I was looking at my friend and I was like: ‘Well, I don’t think I have any jobs anymore,’ ” Shea said.  

She’s not alone: By the end of April, nearly 200,000 leisure and hospitality workers across the state (more than half of the sector’s workforce, which is disproportionately made up of women and people of color) had lost their jobs, and employment levels in the sector are still down 32%, compared with 25.6% nationwide

Those working in the food preparation and serving industry are particularly hard hit. For the majority of the pandemic, dishwashers, cooks, bartenders, cafeteria workers and others in the industry have made up the largest percentage of Washington’s unemployed — even as Gov. Jay Inslee relaxed restrictions this summer, allowing dining rooms to reopen at reduced capacity. 

Like Shea, many have relied on Washington’s expanded unemployment benefits, as well as the $600-a-week federal supplement. But that extra lifeline dried up at the end of July, as did the last dollars in Shea’s savings account. 

For now, the 33-year-old relies on unemployment in the weeks she can’t pick up some scarce shifts here and there. Volunteering at a Vashon farm in exchange for boxes of produce helps, but things are tight. The hours aren’t there; neither are the tips. 

Shea is terrified. Of getting a job offer she can’t refuse and still not make enough to pay rent. Of losing her state health care once she picks up more hours in the midst of a pandemic. Of catching the virus while at work, even though being a server is her “heart and soul.”

“It seems really unfair that I live in a country that's as well off as it is, and those are my options: Expose yourself to something that's literally killing people or don't pay your rent,” Shea said. 

Owner Pamela Jacob of Pam's Kitchen stands behind the bar of her empty restaurant in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood, Aug. 30, 2020. While the restaurant is still serving takeout orders, it has opted not to bring people back inside yet. “It's difficult not having people here," says Jacob, who has been in business for 14 years. "A lot of the experience for my customers comes from sitting and chatting with me and others, or hearing live music on some nights.” (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

It’s a Catch-22 many service workers feel forced into. Those who remain employed have no choice but to potentially expose themselves and their families to a life-threatening virus. Some feel lucky to at least have a job. Others don’t have a choice about going back to work because if they refuse a job offer, they could lose their unemployment benefits. If they wait it out, can they return to their old one when the restaurant world feels safer? If they say no to a shift when feeling sniffly, will they get another shift later on? 

And what if they’ve exhausted their sick leave early on in the pandemic?, wonders Jennifer delos Santos, who returned to her job as a breakfast server at a large SeaTac-area hotel in June. “That's probably something going on industrywide, that people are going to have to make the choice ‘Do I come to work sick and take the chance that it's not COVID?’ ” she said. 

That’s just one new stress of the job, delos Santos said. Returning to work in COVID times, servers say, also means taking up new job duties, such as cleaning surfaces again and again with harsh chemicals, or running back and forth with pepper and salt shakers on request because those can’t stay on the tables anymore. Bartenders and servers also now have to operate as referees, policing customers who lean over counters or don’t put their masks back on while being waited on. 

“It puts you in this awkward situation,” delos Santos said. “You live off don’t want to piss people off.” 

These days, Pamela Jacob of Trinidadian-Caribbean restaurant Pam’s Kitchen in Wallingford finds herself constantly reminding customers to put their masks on, or asking clients and delivery people to please step outside while she rings up another customer. 

Because of her asthma, Jacob is particularly at risk. She often has to walk to the back of the restaurant to take a big sip of air without her mask on — not being able to breathe through it properly makes her dizzy. And the throbbing pain in her neck, she suspects, is stress-related. 

“It’s scary. It’s confusing,” she said. “Not knowing how your workers are going to make it out, how you are going to pay the bills when this is all you depend on.” 

There are many things in the balance for Jacob. She feels a great responsibility to keep her staff and the public safe. Opening up the restaurant for takeout-only makes sense from that perspective, and from a financial one, too. But it means she can’t hire back two front-of-house staffers yet. “I think unemployment has to go on. People need to still be able to take care of their family and of themselves,” she said. 

Cristina Tappan, a server at a Capitol Hill coffee shop and restaurant in Seattle, sits inside her van with Appa, her kitten. When the pandemic hit, she purchased a van and converted it into her new home. She loves her job, but feels conflicted about working during a pandemic. “My wish is definitely that we could all stay at home until we can all come back,” Tappan said. “But at this point, we can't do that. The restaurant needs to stay open and the [owners] need to pay their rent and the world has to keep moving.” With fewer tips, Tappan estimates she's currently making a third of her hourly wage prepandemic. “I wouldn't be able to survive on what I'm making. Not in Seattle. My friends can't. Thank goodness, there's an eviction moratorium. Or they would be on the streets.” (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

For now, many formerly sit-down restaurants in the Seattle area, like Pam’s Kitchen, are opting for takeout only. But for restaurant owners and managers, it’s a tricky balance. Will they make enough to make it through? How many people can and should they hire? Compared with the same time last year, daily Seattle restaurant revenue across the city is down 50% to 60% since mid-June, according to a Downtown Seattle Association report, although that’s an improvement from the 80% slide of mid-March. 

Some of those restaurants, Anthony Anton of the Washington Hospitality Association predicts, will never reopen. “I'm budgeting for a permanent loss of 35% of all full-service restaurants,” in Washington, Anton said. “And I so want to be wrong.” 

Restaurants in Seattle’s downtown core, many of which rely on tourism and the office worker lunch rush, will have a particularly hard time rebounding, Anton said.

While foot traffic is still down, neighborhood eateries have bounced back a little more, Anton said. That’s where people spend most of their time these days. Plus, there are more opportunities to expand into the streets for outdoor dining. 

That doesn’t mean they’re out of the woods. “They’re down double digits, but not what they were down in March,” Anton said. But, he added, “It's odd when you say: ‘I'm down 20%’ and that's good. Any other year, that would be horrible — specifically in an industry that averages 4% margins.” 

Things are not much better for the hotel sector. Between 85% and 90% of Unite Here! Local 8 members, which represents more than 1,500 hotel workers in Washington state, have lost their jobs, a representative said, and staffing levels have not yet bounced back. From April through July, monthly hotel revenue for downtown hotels was down 95% each month compared with the same month in 2019, according to data from the Downtown Seattle Association. And though things are getting better, according to Visit Seattle data, downtown hotel occupancy still hovered near  19% downtown and 35% in King County overall.  

In total, 43 citywide conventions slated to open at the Washington State Convention Center in 2020 and 2021 have been canceled, a loss of $318.3 million in economic impact, according to Visit Seattle.

For an industry built on face-to-face interaction, the coronavirus has been devastating. Reopening is a delicate push and pull: relax the restrictions too much and cases go up. That doesn’t just mean a harsh human toll. It also means that operating at a higher than 50% capacity is likely deferred, along with the revenue a higher maximum capacity could bring in.

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That’s why it’s paramount to wear masks, Anton said, and get our state’s caseloads under control. “We’re doing this for each other. We’re doing this for small business,” he said. “We’re doing this so we can go out again.” 

Anton hopes the state will relax the rules soon, particularly as fall approaches and outdoor tables go back into storage. “[Seattle] is not L.A. or Hawaii in November,” he said.

The issue with indoor dining is it’s riskier. Think about what you’re usually doing when going out for that ramen bowl or Caesar salad: talking, laughing, removing your mask — all things that increase the risk of virus transmission, particularly indoors. 

Sometimes, says Cristina Tappan, a server at a Capitol Hill restaurant and coffee shop, it feels like customers are forgetting that that affects her, too. She has asked customers to please put on their masks, only to hear in response: “Why? No one’s here.”

“There’s just a complete disregard for the work and the presence of the employees that are literally out there exposing themselves to everyone who says they're being careful, but we know how that really works,” Tappan said. 

Front-of-house workers aren’t the only ones at risk. Cooks and dishwashers often have to cram into a small kitchen where maintaining social distancing is not possible. 

And that’s not just a physical health issue, said Marissa Baker, assistant professor of occupational health at the University of Washington. “I'm actually more worried about the long-term mental health effects that are going to persist,” she said. 

The constant stress of having to work in public-facing jobs during a pandemic while fearing you could lose your job (again), wondering if you should change fields, potentially incurring debt, having to choose between your safety and a paycheck; it’s all going to have long-lasting effects, Baker said. “It’s related to depression, it can be related to substance abuse, and it can even be related to suicide,” she said. 

Lower-income workers, immigrant and refugee workers — those with less workplace power and access to government and other safety nets — will bear the brunt of those longer-term mental health effects, Baker says. 

Particularly now that federal and state level support for these workers might begin to dry up, it’s paramount to look out for them, said Crystal Hall, associate professor at the UW Evans School of Public Policy & Governance.

“When we say essential worker, we are often thinking about folks that are working in hospitals,” Hall said. Not necessarily those working in restaurants, kitchens and grocery stores. But what is essential? 

“It probably isn't essential that somebody is able to go out to brunch, but we do know that people need food. Where do you draw that line is really tricky,” Hall said. “As Washington is attempting to open back up, I think there's a lot of hard decisions needing to be made about what is essential and who is essential.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

Matt M. McKnight

Matt M. McKnight

Matt McKnight is formerly a visual journalist at Crosscut, where he covered a variety of political, social and environmental issues around the Pacific Northwest.