86 The Service Industry As We Knew It
In early March, before restaurant shut-downs rippled through New York City, my friend Brooke and I met in South Williamsburg for dinner. The two of us had been curating a list of restaurants, cocktail bars and speakeasies for months and Misi, which sits on the edge of Domino Park, was at the top of that list. We had been lucky enough to secure a 10 p.m. reservation, but a few hours before our time slot, Resy notified Brooke that a spot for two had opened up. After a frenzied text message conversation, we leapt at the opportunity and into Ubers and headed for the host stand.
The two of us sat at the counter overlooking the open kitchen and watched the team of chefs execute a near-perfect choreography of cuisine. Dishes of stewed butter beans with parmesan, mascarpone-filled tortellini in brown butter and ricotta stuffed occhi passed between the two of us as we sipped our whipped egg-white topped negroni sours. The meal ended, but our night had just begun. Dinner at Misi turned into after-dinner drinks at The Westlight atop the William Vale Hotel, which turned into mezcal and gin at Hotel Delmano. The whole tour ended at Maison Premiere with craft cocktails, warm bread with seaweed butter and an expansive selection of East Coast oysters.
Maison Premiere was particularly packed for a Sunday night, but as the night wore on, the “nine-to-fivers” made their way to bed while we contemplated our next cocktail. It was the beginning, not the end, of the weekend for us—two long-time Manhattan bartenders who would take any opportunity to celebrate the service industry. We couldn’t have anticipated that a week later we would both be cut from our shifts, the restaurant we had worked at for seven years at that point would temporarily close and this would be our last nightcap at Maison Premiere before COVID-19 would cause them to close their doors for the remainder of 2020.
The temporary halt of the service industry slammed into the city like a tidal wave, pulling both service industry workers and entire restaurants into its current with equal force. Restaurants that were able to survive picked up the pieces and fashioned a new version of hospitality that was nearly unrecognizable. Nearly a thousand restaurants in New York City didn’t make it. With limited service and demand relegated to delivery for months, few employees were presented with an opportunity to return to work.
Employees who were able to return to work in March and April faced an inhospitable landscape where shifts were longer, money was tighter, tips were lower, resources throughout the city were depleted and hazard pay in the midst of a voracious ever-present virus was nonexistent. Furloughed former staffers didn’t fare much better—newly unemployed restaurant workers were without an income, healthcare, or the ability to secure their unemployment benefits because of an antiquated, wholly unprepared telephone hotline system. That same unemployment program couldn’t provide any protection at all for the tens of thousands of undocumented restaurant workers in New York City who were ineligible for the financial safety net. Undocumented workers are essential to the fabric of the service industry, and undocumented people collectively contribute roughly $12 billion in state and local taxes in the United States each year.
In April, New York City announced that it would be suspending overnight subway service from 1-5 a.m. for the first time since the MTA began service in 1904. The closures were designed to effectively clean the subways during off-peak hours. The MTA beefed up overnight bus service for essential workers who lived near bus routes and implemented an essential connector service. This program covered the expenses of for-hire taxis and cars for those workers who didn’t have access to an overnight bus. People safely working from home in their city-central apartments were unaffected by the unprecedented subway closures, but service industry employees who primarily live on the outskirts of the city and deep in the outer boroughs were disproportionately affected by the loss of a reliable, safe and efficient form of public transportation. In August, the essential connector service was disbanded due to lack of funds.
In June, when New York City was pulsing with protests ignited by the murders of unarmed Black people at the hands of police officers and armed white vigilantes, Mayor Bill de Blasio instituted a curfew. While de Blasio claimed that the curfew was put in place to prevent the National Guard from deploying to the city, the action also immediately criminalized service industry workers who work unconventionally late hours and rely on public transportation to commute home. The city issued the curfew without a mandate to require restaurants or delivery services to close early, placing the burden on restaurants, employees and delivery drivers to decide whether or not they could sacrifice a paycheck to stay home and avoid a potential encounter with the NYPD.
While there was only one major story about a delivery driver being arrested, the collateral damage of this decision was widespread for service industry employees. Responsible restaurants closed early to maintain the safety of their employees (my coworkers and I are lucky to work at a restaurant that made this decision). However, the choice to close early resulted in lost wages that will likely never be accounted for. Other restaurants remained open out of negligence or financial desperation—a choice that put their employees, particularly employees of color and undocumented workers, at risk of being stopped or potentially arrested.
Once the curfew was lifted in mid-June, restaurant workers faced other harsh realities of working in the service industry during a pandemic. Delivery drivers, who were now responsible for unprecedented take-out demand, had an opportunity to make more money than they had made pre-coronavirus. However, many restaurants pivoted and started relying on third-party delivery apps to streamline service and account for the high delivery demand.
Between April and September, the four major delivery apps—DoorDash, UberEats, GrubHub and Postmates—brought in more than twice the revenue during the same period of time the previous year.5 Third-party delivery apps take a substantial cut of restaurant profits, and guests often tip only the app-based delivery drivers as opposed to the in-house delivery team. The in-house team is still responsible for fielding phone calls and digital orders, inputting orders and packing food correctly and efficiently. As third-party app use soared over the summer, in-house delivery team members’ paychecks plummeted.
If food delivery workers were granted a livable minimum wage, it’s possible that paychecks being cut by nearly 50% (as the result of tips being lost to third-party apps) wouldn’t have had as profound an impact. However, as it stands, delivery workers in New York City make $15 an hour with the hope of additional tips to pad their paychecks. After delivery was outsourced to third-party apps in the early summer, in-house delivery drivers, packers and order takers made less than the rate of unemployment before taxes. New York State unemployment tops out at $504 per week. In order to bolster their paychecks, many in-house delivery workers chose to pick up extra shifts, work longer hours and work additional jobs to pay their rent and bills, and provide for themselves and their families.
At the end of June, the city suddenly permitted restaurants to reopen for outdoor dining only. A limited number of previously furloughed front-of-house workers—servers, bartenders, runners, bussers and hosts—were reinstated. For a second time that summer, the industry was forced to pivot and reimagine what hospitality could look like in the middle of a pandemic. Guest-facing employees were now responsible for fielding menu-related questions, taking orders, relaying orders, allergies and preferences, monitoring COVID-19 protocols and navigating working in New York City-summer humidity for 6-10 hours at a time. Fewer employees meant larger sections, more responsibilities and an increase in manual labor. The subminimum wage stayed the same.
While the New York City minimum wage for tipped workers—nail technicians, hairdressers, restaurant workers, etc.—is $15 an hour, New York State Law allows restaurants to pay their conventionally highly-tipped employees a subminimum wage if those workers earn enough in tips to account for the difference. That means that restaurant workers make $10 an hour with the hope that tips will bring their pay-rate up to $15 an hour. In early 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo began phasing out the subminimum wage for many tipped New York City workers, including nail technicians, hairdressers, car wash attendants and other miscellaneous tipped workers.
The rollout of the new system finished on December 31, 2020, allowing many tipped employees in New York City to earn the full $15 an hour minimum wage—with one exception. Restaurant employees are excluded from the list.
As of January 1, 2021, all tipped workers in New York City make $15 an hour except restaurant workers who continue to make $10 an hour. According to One Fair Wage, the restaurant industry accounts for 7 of the 10 lowest paying jobs in the country7 and according to a 2018 report by the Department of Labor on the New York State subminimum wage, the three groups of people impacted most by New York’s two-tiered tipping system are women, minorities and immigrants.
"The lack of consideration for service industry employees fuels an even deeper and equally prominent systemic problem"
Before the coronavirus caused restaurants to shutter their doors and rely on delivery, front-of-house employees at restaurants made a reasonable income off tips and the subminimum wage, but fewer tables and fewer guests during the pandemic resulted in lower tip averages without an increase in hourly pay to offset the lost wages. Low-income service industry workers were expected to continue going to work, risking their health and well-being, and that of everyone in their households, to make a paycheck that was only slightly more substantial than unemployment. Undocumented workers were bearing the same burdens for paychecks that were lower than unemployment checks.
Lost and subminimum wages, lack of healthcare, nonexistent hazard pay and depletion of city services are at the core of a rotten system that doesn’t value the financial or physical well-being of service industry workers. Additionally, as front-of-house workers returned to work during the summer, new issues related to mental health started cropping up throughout the city. When the city extended the Open Restaurants outdoor dining program into the winter months, they failed to issue mandates requiring restaurants to close outdoor dining for inclement weather. Employees were being asked, and continue to be asked, to brave the elements to make a living wage. Hot, humid summer days turned into bitterly cold, snowy days, and front-of-house employees have worked outside tending to guests through it all.
The lack of consideration for service industry employees fuels an even deeper and equally prominent systemic problem—the guest-employee power complex. You’re familiar with the idea. “The guest is always right.” This complex took on a monstrous new manifestation throughout the pandemic in the form of guests who were unwilling to wear masks to protect employees, a disregard for menu limitations and decreased staffing due to financial limitations and a distinct increase in the presence of patrons displacing their anxiety onto service industry staffers.
While major media outlets spent the summer running stories about the string of restaurant closures, I was sitting on the sidelines waiting for some perspective from the inside. Grub Street came close with a piece focused on the mental health implications for service industry workers,9 but the city-wide narrative was still largely focused on the restaurant industry dying a slow and painful death while onlookers rubbernecked from the outside.
For those of us on the inside, the pandemic provided an opportunity to acknowledge what has been broken in this industry for a long time. Service industry workers deserve to work with dignity; they deserve living wages, healthcare, hazard pay during dangerous times and city-wide resources to support this industry that serves so many. While I am looking forward to celebrating the service industry again like Brooke and I did back in March, I hope things don’t return to normal. We have an opportunity to restructure this industry to support workers, and returning to the way things were would forsake what we have learned during this time. I am hopeful that the next time I’m sitting at a bar watching from the outside, rooting for the workers in the weeds, in awe of this industry—things will be different.
Meghan Offtermatt has worked in the service industry for 15 years, 12 of those years in New York City. Although she has worked as a manager, host, delivery worker, server and bartender, Meghan has spent the pandemic working as a manager and bartender at her long-time service industry job. She has worked at the same restaurant for 8 years because of their ethical treatment of employees before and during the pandemic. She is currently studying at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she is pursuing audio journalism with a focus on climate, energy and the environment. She is also the host of How to Save the World Podcast. She loves the service industry and wants to help it evolve to make it equitable for service industry workers.