For restaurant and food service workers, adapting to crisis is nothing new: We call it work, in a hot kitchen, during the dinner rush. The job has enough challenges and such an unforgiving industry is not for the faint of heart. Restaurant workers need to be loving and welcoming, gritty and tactful, all at the same time.

However, grit alone will not get us through this crisis. Like many facets of our society, the restaurant industry is now faltering under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic. Around 50,000 restaurant workers in Minnesota were laid off in the first week of Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order — the highest number from any industry.

For me, as for many others, unemployment insurance wouldn’t make ends meet. Enter Trump’s unemployment boost: $600 extra per week. A brutal contradiction is born: We, restaurant workers, now make twice as much money on unemployment as we did during 60-plus hour workweeks.

What’s more, with great numbers of restaurant workers returning to work in coming weeks, it means a substantial pay-cut.

So who bears the brunt of this crisis? You guessed it: low-wage “essential” workers like us — your cooks, dishwashers, servers, bartenders, hosts and bussers who make up the fastest-growing industry in the country. We have to go back to work, before the virus is set to peak. But anyone in the industry knows that we were vulnerable in the first place.

Our industry has notoriously few protections and little access to benefits. Close to 40% of us live in poverty. Undocumented folks are in especially dire straits, as are others who don’t qualify for governmental aid, like unemployment insurance or stimulus checks. It’s heinous and unfair. The poor, the undocumented and the vulnerable will be the first to staff food-service joints June 1 and beyond. Low-wage workers like us are forced to abandon disease-curbing protocols like stay-at-home to make rent and to keep our jobs.

Let’s say you, dear reader, are a restaurant worker who doesn’t qualify for unemployment insurance. It’s either go to work or miss paying rent. It’s either social distance or go without food. So you go to work.

What happens when you contract the virus at work? Your restaurant probably doesn’t provide health insurance (most restaurants don’t), and if they do you can’t afford the deductible on the reduced hours. Nor can you afford to miss work, for lack of paid leave. Your roommates — children, elders, immune-compromised or not — are all put at great risk because you were faced with an endless list of impossible choices. Not only is this a threat to your family, but it’s a threat to society, a public health nightmare.

What restaurant workers desperately need are real choices, and we need them now. We need a Restaurant Worker Bill of Rights.

It starts with things we need to curb COVID-19: free comprehensive health insurance, hazard pay, free child care, PPE and paid leave, regardless of legal status. It includes what we need to become less vulnerable: fair and consistent scheduling, fair wages and pay transparency, state-mandated sexual harassment training, rigorously enforced wage theft laws, increased protection for workplace organizing and a path to citizenship for the many who work without formal documentation.

It would include increased worker equity in restaurant stakes and the option to pursue employee-owned cooperative business models.

Our industry is going to look very different in the months ahead. Whether it is automated “ghost kitchens” or servers in masks, one thing is clear: We cannot go back to the “normal” that allowed restaurant workers to be so vulnerable to systemic shocks. We need to correct the imbalance of power in the restaurant industry that makes its workers functionally expendable labor.

Whether it’s the morning shift at McDonald’s, the overnight shift at Denny’s or the dinner shift at Kincaid’s, we need to make all restaurant jobs secure, dignified and professionally compensated.


Madalyn Nones, of Minneapolis, is a member of Restaurant Opportunities Center of Minnesota.