I have been collecting unemployment since last March. The virus continues to spread. They ask me to come back to work. Those deemed most disposable, the least deserving of a living wage, are among the first called on to get the system back to functionality—one of the many brutal ironies of capitalism. Dining inside a restaurant, from a use-value perspective, should be among the last services to reopen, but rationality is not an applied concept.
Reopening schools and restaurants follows no safety logic. It does not flow from public opinion. COVID-19 rates are not dropping. It is the compulsion of the market, plain and simple. The powers that be, elected midwives of an uncertain economy, ushering profit back into the world. The stimulus checks that barely keep the poor afloat and make sure the system stays solvent can only do so much.
So that is the backdrop. They ask me to come back to work, not because my work is essential during a pandemic, but because my labor gives life to the economy.
It is not surprising that restaurants are up and running. What is surprising is how quickly this becomes normal. I risk my life to be here. Restaurants are, by definition, places to congregate unmasked. My job description involves being within inches of the unmasked during an airborne pandemic. I get angry thinking about the dystopian plot-line that is daily life under a profit driven regime.
I talk to lots of restaurant workers. Who started the myth that we are dying to get back to work (no pun intended)? Given the option, we would prefer to stay home. I know our side is not yet able to set the terms. Even in Chicago, where teachers were willing to strike, the premature reopening happens. And that is a hard fact. As much organizing as we have knit together through the chaos and grief of this year, seeing so many forced back to in-person jobs plants a seed of resignation in my outlook.
The risks are real. Back of house workers have been in kitchens this whole time, filling to-go orders while restaurants were closed for full service. Unsurprisingly, restaurant workers I have spoken to were forced to work even with symptoms. There is no one else to work for them. This helps explain the devastating human cost that has been paid. Is anyone counting how many people in our industry have contracted the virus, let alone died from it? We have heard and told the stories: Go Fund Me pages for immigrant restaurant workers. A California study finds that of all the jobs out there, line cooks are the most likely to die of COVID-19.
Despite all of that, when asked to come back I do not deliberate. I am torn up about reopening, but will not give up my job amid uncertainty and restaurant closures. My shifts used to be eight hours, now they are closer to 13. We have started to pool tips across the restaurant. Even though the kitchen makes more per hour than I do, I am happy to break down the previous method of operation. Besides, they help me out so much now that I am the only server, doing work alone that I used to do with three other front-of-house people. Shifts are so busy that there is no time for the kitchen to cook family meal, much less eat it. Long stretches of time where I cannot run downstairs to use the bathroom lest everything come apart at the fraying seams.
On top of all the regular work, we are now public safety agents. Some who come to eat are intransigent about not wearing masks, others get drunk and forget. We are doing extra work with fewer people while sanitizing everything at all times. So when customers are getting impatient—I need to refill table two’s water, table four needs ketchup, this guy with the hat is waiting for a to-go order, and the person on the phone needs me to answer detailed questions about food allergies while table one’s food is up on the pass and needs to be run before it gets cold—yeah, the first thing to fall down my list is going to be sanitizing a menu. That is just the reality of it.
I try my best. I rely on people understanding that we are not in normal times—most customers do, a few do not. I have not experienced culture shock in my own hometown since the development process of the late 1990s, but my first shift back is disorienting. I live in a neighborhood with high rates of COVID-19. At times during the pandemic it was completely shut down—the only thing open was the supermarket, with limited hours. My job is in a neighborhood that has seen some of the lowest COVID-19 rates in the entire city. On every block groups congregate in newly constructed outdoor restaurant spaces—no masks—having a nice time. I love seeing it, but the contrast is painful. If you can afford life in a neighborhood like this, very little in your day-to-day life may have changed for you. Meanwhile, all of us at my job (and probably every restaurant in Manhattan) commute on the subway from the boroughs where COVID-19 rates are higher.
I want everyone to go out and enjoy themselves. Especially after the year we have had, is there anything more life-affirming than getting to finally spend time with loved ones? It is the best thing there is. Here I will note again the brutal ironies of capitalism. We are social beings who need human interaction, yet we commodify the very things that make us human. You can pay cash for those moments to be perfect. Some go to the restaurant to buy the exact experience they are craving. Just one thing reliable and exactly as ordered in an unreliable world. I get it, I search for something reliable too, but this puts too much onto restaurant workers than is reasonable.
Believe me, I want things to work out. But I just explained how short staffed we are. You and I both just lived through this pandemic. Maybe you could be more patient when things do not go exactly according to plan? My boss agrees that we should not open for indoor dining until we are all fully vaccinated. Somehow some customers are upset about that—“why can’t I eat inside? You know it’s allowed.” Yes, I know it is allowed, but I also know that COVID-19 rates are up and because Governor Cuomo opened indoor dining before restaurant workers were even eligible for vaccination, we are still not vaccinated. Can you please exercise a touch of perspective? We are not just food making and serving robots, we also have families who want us alive.
I do not hate people. I do not hate customers. It is fine. It is going to happen. Restaurant workers have always navigated between what the boss wants us to do, what the customers demand of us, and the reality that we are flawed, human workers trying our very best under high stress. Our job requires us to do hard physical labor for long hours while maintaining a calm, unflinching exterior. We are asked to hide our fears and annoyances even when we find ourselves tasked with bringing a little normalcy to other people’s lives during a pandemic. This was also true before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has made it more visible.
They ask me to come back to work. Nothing about this situation makes rational sense. But the market compels it.
A version of this article first appeared in the Summer 2021 print issue of Democratic Left.
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Natalia Tylim is a New Yorker, an unemployed socialist, and a founding member of DSA's Restaurant Organizing Project. She is also a proud member of the "We Believe Tara" committee.