Maine Voices: Restaurant series does not represent the perspective of Portland food workers

In the recent Portland restaurant series, the Press Herald cited 41 business owners and one unsupervised worker. As restaurateurs, we have seen this trend repeat itself throughout the pandemic: profiles of struggling business leaders, told with little attention paid to the experiences of their employees. Failure to represent workers’ views creates a one-sided story about so-called “labor shortages” which implies that workers are unwilling to work and instead depend on unemployment. This ignores the big picture: people are risking their lives in an area that does not provide health insurance during a pandemic; who often do not pay a living wage in a city where housing costs are skyrocketing, and where people have no legal recourse for unsafe conditions.

A recent study from the University of California, San Francisco shows that line cooks had the highest COVID-19 death rate of any industry: a 60% increase over what would have been expected in a normal, non-pandemic year. These are the same poorly paid positions that Portland restaurateurs struggle to fill. During the pandemic, working adults saw a 22% increase in what public health researchers are calling “excess mortalityWhile food workers saw a 39 percent increase. To stem this disparity, the study recommends “free personal protective equipment, clearly defined and strongly enforced safety protocols, easily accessible testing, generous illness policies and an appropriate response to workplace safety violations. “.

We have seen these policies as far from reality in most of the restaurants in our city. The vast majority do not provide workers with PPE, let alone paid sick leave or health insurance. In addition, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and Governor Mills issued health and safety “guidelines” that lacked any legal enforcement mechanism. This left workers with no recourse but to quit when faced with unsafe working conditions in order to protect themselves or vulnerable members of their families. This paradigm has led to a great divergence in pandemic safety protocols by restaurateurs. We know of some who have worked tirelessly to create a safe environment, and others who have intimidated or retaliated against staff for voicing concerns.

While security protocols vary, in most restaurants, bussers, bartenders, dishwashers, and waiters handle silverware and glasses that touch patrons’ mouths. Front desk staff enforce the mask mandate and screen customers for symptoms of COVID. Line cooks work in close proximity to co-workers in compact kitchens with limited airflow and high temperatures. Without deliberate changes, social distancing is impossible under these conditions. No wonder food workers are dying. Is it any surprise that people are leaving the industry in droves?

While these stories are not being told, restaurateurs are glorified who are now considering benefits for workers due to the “labor shortage”. However, several workers’ proposals in recent years could have valued restaurant workers before the pandemic hit: the increase in tip wages, the municipal ordinance for paid sick days, the recent referendum which included a risk premium, to name a few. A number of restaurateurs cited in this series have testified repeatedly in opposition to these proposals, which would have helped workers in the industry. The series ignores the responsibility of owners for the conditions workers find themselves in and, at worst, implies that workers who choose their health, safety and lives and those of their families are somehow responsible for the hardships. Portland restaurants.

The reality is that restaurateurs leave because they take stock of conditions that already existed (unpredictable hours, low or inconsistent wages, treatment by customers and owners, physical demand, lack of health insurance, etc.), and decide it is not. it is worth putting their life in danger for the industry. Regardless of the perceived benefits to owners, Portland’s restaurant industry should be a place where people can work with dignity, respect, and safety – and until then, we don’t blame workers for leaving. Maybe the tide is turning where the owners realize that the workers are in fact the ones who make them the money – and they should value the literal hand that feeds them.


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About Marion Alexander

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