Abel Jaimes works at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Fredericksburg, Texas, a state that’s experiencing a plateau in vaccination rates and a dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases as the delta variant becomes prominent.
For most of the coronavirus pandemic, both he and the restaurant’s clientele were masked, per the restaurant’s policy.
Jaimes makes minimum wage ― which in Texas is $2.13 per hour for tipped employees ― plus tips. But lately, his job has required him to go beyond just serving queso and explaining how QR codes work; since March, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order lifting the state’s mask mandate and increasing capacity of all businesses in the state to 100%, he’s had to go head-to-maskless-head with some customers.
He’s not asking them to wear masks ― that’s no longer the restaurant’s policy. What’s bothersome to the clientele is that Jaimes himself wears a mask.
“We’re used to verbal taunting and having to smile through it all, but recently I had one customer who tried to take the mask off of my face because ― in her words, ′freedom,’” he said.
Over in Collin County, Texas, Beth, a server at a pizza place, has received a different kind of request to pull her mask down.
“One aspect of mask-wearing I was not expecting was the creepy old men asking us to take our masks down for a moment to ‘see your pretty face,’” said Beth, who like many others in this story asked to use her first name only to protect her job.
In response to the delta variant, some restaurants are toying with the idea of reinstating their mask policies.
Ian, a server who works at a farm-to-table restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee, is anxious to see how guests will respond to his restaurant’s renewed mask request. (In the first 15 days of August, there were 1,023 hospitalizations due to COVID-19 in Tennessee ― a number higher than in any other month of the pandemic.)
His anxiety is understandable, given the behavior he’s witnessed in his last 18 months of pandemic-era service.
“One time a man got upset when asked to wear a mask. His wife repeatedly told us via social media that we were lucky because he had his gun on him that day, seemingly threatening violence against us,” Ian said.
More recently, a table told Ian not to worry about wearing his mask at the table.
“When I told them I still prefer to still wear it, to protect my co-workers and other guests, one of the people at the table said, ‘Oh, he thinks he’s smarter than us,’” Ian recalled. “So in different instances I have been both demeaned and threatened with violence.”
Rudeness among restaurant patrons has been commonplace throughout the pandemic: In October, a server in Pennsylvania asked a customer to wear a mask while he was walking through the restaurant. In response, the customer wrote “MASK” in big, bold penmanship on the tip line of his receipt. In May, a woman spit at a worker after being asked to wear a mask at a hot dog joint in San Jose, California.
But it’s particularly galling to see it still occurring in places like Tennessee that are taking a beating from the delta variant, Ian said.
It’s been particularly tough for him because he chafes at the assumptions that are often made about servers ― that they’re only working at a restaurant until something “better” comes along. The reality is, in non-pandemic times, Ian genuinely loved his job.
“Over 10-plus years in the industry, I have met so many of the stereotypical bitter restaurant employees that hate their job, but that has never been me. I love it,” he said. “I love food. I love bringing people good food. I love the looks on people’s faces as they have a great meal.”
But this last year or so has really called Ian’s love for the job into question.
“It has been physically, emotionally and mentally very draining. Not to mention socially,” he continued. “You know that ‘What have you been up to?’ ‘Nothing, we’ve been stuck inside!’ conversation? I have to have that 10 times a night for my job.”
The malaise and mistreatment that workers like Ian have experienced are par for the course for servers lately. Restrictions may have eased ― the days of takeout-only are long gone and indoor dining is once again widespread across the country ― but in America’s restaurants, everything is not back to normal.
Staffing shortages are increasingly leading to longer wait times. Lack of product availability makes some menu staples harder to create. And many customers are acting out with behavior that might be best described as hangry meets “mask-hole.”
“We consistently have guests complaining about not getting their favorite food,” said Julie, a server in a busy Mexican restaurant in a college town in Texas.
“They’ll berate servers asking, ‘What’s so hard about making so-and-so? I don’t understand why you can do A and not B! If you don’t bring (insert food here) back on the menu we won’t be coming back!’” she told HuffPost.
“[Diners] might be going out to escape the stress of the pandemic, but we’re not serving you in some alternate reality where the pandemic doesn’t exist. We’re living through it, too, so it’s hard for us to be part of your escape.”
“Unfortunately, guests don’t seem to understand that servers have zero control over the menu and even our managers do not have a choice,” she said.
Courtney Buffet, a server in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is dealing with the same kind of disgruntled customer.
“We have run out of Bud Light and Miller Lite bottles and people really think we are lying about it,” Buffet told HuffPost. “We’ll run out of random things, like kids’ cup tops. People will say, ‘You can’t just go to Walmart or a big-box place and buy it?’”
Now that social-distancing has become more lax, there’s a sense that poorly behaved guests are extra-emboldened to complain, said Erin, a diner waitress in Atlanta.
“They complain about prices, they complain about wait times, complain about the food, they try and get a free meal, and generally seem to lack social awareness while having a Dunning-Kruger-style sense of entitlement,” the server told HuffPost. “It’s like they have forgotten how to be in public.”
All of this is reflected in the tip ― if they leave one, Erin said.
Luckily, the better behaved clients have stepped it up, too; sympathy tippers have done their part to try to balance out the patrons who should probably stick to takeout.
“There are guests who I can tell are thankful and socially aware of the issues we are facing in the restaurant business,” said Erin, who lost one of her managers to COVID-19 in January. “These guests go above and beyond to be understanding, kind and tip well. I’d tell people reading this to tip a minimum of 18% and never less than $5.”
Customers are partly to blame for the exodus of restaurant workers in the American labor force
Given the outsized number of entitled patrons, the low wages, the physically exhausting nature of the work, the lack of health care and sick days, and now the inherent safety risks, Erin understands why so many restaurant sector employees are leaving their jobs.
Earlier this year, a National Restaurant Association report found that 62% of fine dining operators and 54% of family dining and casual dining operators were working with staffing levels that were more than 20% below normal. As more places have reopened, restaurant employment is rising, but in June, the industry was only able to fill a fraction of the available job listings.
Mike Nguyen, owner of the San Antonio, Texas, restaurant Noodle Tree, has struggled to find new employees.
“I’ll spend hours setting up hiring ads and paying for them, just to have people set up an interview and not show up. It’s about 90% of the time it happens,” he said.
Nguyen said he’s fortunate that none of his employees have walked out yet, but he admits that doesn’t mean they aren’t put in unfair situations.
“We’re so short-staffed,” he said. “My servers have to cover and do the job that usually requires two people to do.”
Terri, a server in a higher-end restaurant in central Kentucky, said almost all of her co-workers from before the restaurant’s temporary closure no longer work there. Some got laid off. Most of the staff that came back have since left.
For the most part, they didn’t just move to a different restaurant. They left the industry altogether.
“When people read that there’s a labor shortage in the restaurant or hospitality industry, they don’t seem to be making the connection that the people who are still in the industry are overworked because there’s just not enough staff,” Terri told HuffPost.
“We’re not lazy; we’re tired,” she said.
Those that are left behind are utterly burnt out.
“Many people you see when you go out to eat haven’t had a vacation since before the pandemic, both because there’s nowhere to go and because there isn’t the manpower to cover their absence,” Terri said.
“We’re going to work, dealing with all the changes the pandemic has brought, we’re short-staffed, and we’re living through a pandemic just like everyone else,” she explained.
That angle seems most lost on the general public, Terri said.
“They might be going out to escape the stress of the pandemic, but we’re not serving you in some alternate reality where the pandemic doesn’t exist,” she said. “We’re living through it, too, so it’s hard for us to be part of your escape.”
For some restaurant workers, pandemic unemployment benefit programs, which are set to end in September, have kept them afloat or bought them some time to figure out another career plan.
But many restaurant workers we spoke to disagree that food service employees would rather take unemployment than work. Freddie, a general manager at a Little Caesars franchise in central Florida, is among them.
“From what I’ve seen, these employees are simply taking a better job that, quite frankly, treats them better,” he said. “Anyone who says that people quit because of unemployment are lying. I honestly would have quit already but I do have three kids to take care of.”
As it is, Freddie said, he’s “tired of upper management pushing lower labor costs even while pushing us to hire more people.”
“I hired eight people two months ago only to be told ‘cut labor’ by giving the new employees eight hours a week,” he explained. “Naturally these employees are going to have no qualms about leaving for a job that pays more.”
“They’re not all ‘staying home to collect unemployment.’ Some of them are no longer around to work.”
Cambryn Hunter, a server in Louisiana, thinks that, all too often, restaurant workers’ humanity is lost when people talk about the service labor shortage.
“Most people kind of forget that the people taking care of them are actual people who are being exposed all day long,” she said.
Hunter knows chefs who have lost their jobs in high-end restaurants because they can no longer taste or smell correctly, even months after having COVID-19.
“And there are servers I work with who literally have to sit down and catch their breath every 20 minutes due to extensive lung damage,” she told HuffPost. “I personally know of three line cooks that have passed away from COVID between the restaurants I have previously worked at and the ones I currently am employed in.”
Research also shows the coronavirus has had a large effect on employees in the industry. A study from the University of California–San Francisco published in January looked at increased morbidity rates due to COVID-19 at the height of the pandemic, listed by profession.
Food and agricultural workers’ morbidity rates increased by the widest margins, even more than those in medical professions on the front lines of the pandemic. Within the food industry, the death rates of line cooks increased by 60%, making it the deadliest profession in America during the coronavirus pandemic.
So while Hunter is sympathetic to management’s low-staffing plight, she gets frustrated when she hears complaints about being short-staffed.
“The reality here is that the service industry is dying because our workers are dying,” she said. “They’re not all ‘staying home to collect unemployment.’ Some of them are no longer around to work.”
“Who would want to start working in the service industry in the midst of all this?” she asked.