I got my first waitressing job the day I turned 16 because I couldn’t wait to make my own money.
Since then, service has turned out to be the best way to make my money when I’m not doing theater. I literally wrote the server manual at my current job (a brewery-restaurant with a solid local and tourist clientele) and treat every shift like my section is my company, and I am the CEO. I have more regulars than most bartenders I know.
Every restaurant I’ve worked in, I have been able to pick and choose my shifts, my sections and even the clientele I prefer to wait on. When there’s a mistake from the kitchen, or we are out of something, I am sent to the table to do damage control, and I usually end up selling more by spinning it into a positive.
When we got word that we were closing indefinitely, I was naively hopeful. I had set aside enough money to get me through April and thought, “No big deal. I’ll lose maybe one week’s pay and hustle through the summer.”
*Cue laugh track.*
I was (and I cannot stress this enough) one of the very lucky ones who had no issue receiving unemployment. Even so, I felt pressure to go back to work. I was sure we would have conscientious patrons who wanted to eat, put their masks back on and leave.
Even with the current pandemic, exclusively outdoor seating and half a dozen new mandates regarding clean surfaces, when we reopened in late June, I assumed I’d go back to work and hit my stride in no time.
But COVID-19 customers have thrown me in a way that makes every shift feel like it’s my first day. I used to be able to take about 10 tables at a time. That’s 50 people. Now I get confused and forget things when I have half as many.
1. No one wants to wear a mask when they talk to me. So I already start the entire exchange knowing they have no regard for any of my patrons or me. Off to a bad start.
2. Nobody wants to tip a server on a patio. They’re mad they have to sit outside. They’re mad it costs so much (maybe everyone forgot New York City prices?). And they weren’t ready.
3. There is no time for me to bond with any table at all. In order for you to sit down at your table, it has to be sanitized twice and left to dry. The menus have to be sanitized and dry. I have to prep, clean and dry cups, water bottles, napkins, plates and cutlery for your table; wash my hands before and after that; sanitize my tablet after the previous customer used it; explain all of our new rules to you; and only then begin the dining experience. If my bussers are out on a delivery, I also do all cleanup. If I have no host, I also seat everyone and facilitate to-go orders.
4. People haven’t been out for months and just want a burger and a cocktail, a feeling with which I overwhelmingly sympathize. But many people forget to say “please” and “thank you.” I am not a total prude, but this throws me off my game hard. Imagine greeting six people in a row with a friendly “hello,” and they all bark back at you, “Cheeseburger, well done, no pickles.”
5. All these new practices, combined with the simple fact that I am in a mask, shouting in my friendliest Disney-princess voice all day, means that I have virtually no time for a break. We are cutting down on labor costs, and servers-for-hire are hard to come by right now, so I am nearly always fully in charge of the floor. If three tables seat themselves on the patio (rude), two of those tables will get slower service and take it personally, and there is nothing I can do about it. I have more than once felt dizzy in the heat but knew there was no time to sit down. With barely enough time for water or bathroom breaks, my shifts have gone from fun, flirty catering to actual dangerous outdoor cardio.
I’m a good waitress. I have sunblock and bug spray in my apron if a guest needs it. I’ve recommended modified dishes so many times, the modifier became a menu item. I’ve held peoples’ babies, taught key sign language words to other servers so we can wait on patrons who are deaf, helped brides do their makeup, and I’ve cleverly concealed mocktails for expectant mothers in their very secretive first trimester.
My tip average last week was 12%.
The disconnect is real. Every time I clock in, I struggle with the reality that people’s lives are at risk, and that risk goes up with every single dirty cup I lift from a table. The New York State Department of Labor stopped giving us the extra weekly $600 last week. Was it selfish to go back to work? Or are we noble for sticking together and fighting through it?
The reality is that all restaurant employees right now are playing the short game. We need money and shifts now. You, our customer, however, should be playing the long game. Wear a mask when we approach the table. Take it off to eat, put it back on to talk to us, no exceptions.
DO NOT DEMAND WE WAIT ON YOU WHEN IT IS RAINING OUTSIDE. I can’t believe I have to say that, but someone surprises me every day.
Go to an ATM and get enough cash to cover a 30% or higher tip. If you cannot follow these guidelines, do not go out. Your need for a steak is far inferior to my need to stay hydrated while literally jogging from table to table in 99-degree weather in the sun.
We can debate the morality of servers’ wages after this is all over. For now, know that we all want the same thing: for you to have a nice time while keeping those around you safe.
If returning to work has been this chaotic for me, please extend your empathy as to what it must be like for teachers who are walking on eggshells as they return to school. And grocery store employees who never stopped working. And sanitation workers. And, you know, nurses.
Despite the difficulties, I am reveling in the ingenuity and tenacity of our city’s restaurants. I live on a street with many restaurants and bars, and the entire street smelled of sawdust for a day as restaurant owners scrambled to literally build sidewalk and street seating. New Yorkers have always had the remarkable ability to make it work, no matter how much heavy lifting is required.
In this good, tenacious company, I hope we can move forward together.