Jennifer Ilse started speaking out this summer about the hazards of doing catering work during COVID-19 after facing the prospect of serving large groups of unmasked people.
Now Ilse has lost her job after nearly 20 years. D’Amico Catering in Minneapolis, her former employer, says it’s had to lay off workers because the business has been devastated by the pandemic.
Ilse said she thinks she was terminated for organizing her co-workers, telling managers she wouldn’t serve unmasked customers and filing a complaint with the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
“It seemed very clear that I was being laid off in retaliation,” said Ilse, who has since filed additional complaints with OSHA and the National Labor Relations Board.
In an interview, D’Amico Catering director of operations Cathy Bovard declined to discuss open investigations and attributed layoffs to a 75% drop in business compared with last year. She acknowledged that guests at some events have not complied with mask and social distancing requirements, and that the company has had to change its business practices to improve compliance.
About four weeks ago, Bovard said, D’Amico began requiring clients to sign a safety agreement in advance of their event. If guests don’t comply — if they refuse to wear masks, for example — staff will issue multiple warnings before shutting down the event.
“None of us has been through this before,” Bovard said. “It’s unfortunate — we trusted that the community would follow the rules that were laid out, but as we executed a couple of events, we found that was not the case.”
Eli Edleson-Stein, lead organizer with the Restaurant Opportunities Center, said the organization has been working since September with D’Amico employees who have reported coming into close contact with unmasked guests during their shifts. Across the industry, he said, the precarity of employment has heightened the risk of speaking out.
“This isn’t just about Jennifer. It’s about workers across the industry who are going back to work not by choice,” Edleson-Stein said. “They’re not heroes — they’re going because it’s a false choice between paying their bills, feeding their families and risking their lives.”
The state’s COVID-19 guidance for caterers is less clear than for restaurants and bars, with different rules depending on venue size and event type. How catering companies have responded also varies.
In Minneapolis, Chowgirls Catering stopped doing in-person events at the start of the pandemic and isn’t planning to start again anytime soon, said President Maari Cedar James. When the business reopened after the lockdown, there were clients who said they didn’t want to wear masks at their event, or for their guests to have to do so — “and that puts those staff in incredible peril,” she said.
“At this point, the state is so bogged down by the reality of the cases that we do have, there is not a lot that they can do in terms of policy or regulation,” Cedar James said. “And so unfortunately, it puts a lot of pressure and the liability on the vendors.”
St. Paul-based Morrissey Hospitality has limited catering to venues the company manages itself, including the St. Paul Hotel, Bunker Hills Golf Course and the St. Paul RiverCentre, said President Richard Dobransky.
“It’s just better not to take that risk,” he said. “We just can’t control somebody else’s facility.”
Morrissey manages three facilities that, under state guidelines, could host 250-person events, Dobransky said; the largest so far was a 183-person wedding. High-risk employees who aren’t comfortable working an event may choose not to, he said.
The biggest event D’Amico has catered during the pandemic was a 194-person wedding with “a significant outdoor element,” Bovard said. The company has continued to cater “off-premise” events, she said, but will not do so if capacity guidelines aren’t followed.
In late July, Ilse got an e-mail saying D’Amico would begin catering events again at the University of Minnesota’s McNamara Alumni Center, where she typically worked. She expressed at the time that she didn’t feel safe serving customers unless they were wearing masks, and she complained to OSHA when she didn’t get a satisfying response from D’Amico.
Minnesota OSHA Compliance has been inundated since the pandemic began. The agency has gotten more than 12,000 phone and e-mail inquiries since March 1 — more than three times last year’s total, according to James Honerman, communications director at the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. Complaints, now numbering about 1,400, are up more than 60%.
OSHA sent Bovard the safety complaint on July 31, state records show, and she responded Aug. 5 with a letter outlining a wide range of safety precautions the company was taking, from eliminating bread service and changing wine pouring procedures to placing signs on tables reminding guests to wear masks. In an interview, Bovard said D’Amico also purchased face shields for employees at that time.
Ilse continued raising safety concerns in August, e-mails provided to the Star Tribune show. In an Aug. 7 e-mail to Bovard, Ilse wrote that she expected not to be required to serve guests who weren’t wearing masks; Bovard responded that that wouldn’t be possible.
Bovard told the Star Tribune that while D’Amico strongly encourages guests to wear face coverings and has changed its service model to limit staff interaction with guests, there are times when staff may have to approach a table where people are eating or drinking, and so are not wearing masks.
Ilse, a 52-year-old Minneapolis resident, started organizing with her co-workers in August, and in September spoke at a virtual event alongside Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, state legislators and other front-line workers. Ilse said she worked two events in late August and September: a birthday party where guests didn’t wear masks, and a memorial service where they wore them occasionally.
After that, Ilse said, she wasn’t scheduled for a shift again, and she was laid off in mid-October.
These days, she’s collecting unemployment benefits and focusing on artistic projects. Investigations prompted by her recent complaints to OSHA and the NLRB remain open.
Ilse’s goal, she said, is to make a safer workplace for her former colleagues.
“I want to make it better at D’Amico, whether I work there again ever or not,” she said. “I know so many people that work there, and I would like them to be safe, and I would like their workplace to be better.”