LIVES ON THE LINE | A Restaurant Worker’s Story

Illustration by Stephanie Monohan

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I’ve been collecting unemployment since March 2020. The virus continues to spread. 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.

The risks are real. We’ve heard and told the stories. GoFundMe 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.

Still, when asked to come back, I don’t deliberate. Besides Unemployment Insurance, this job—at a cramped, casual neighborhood seafood restaurant supported by 20 years of loyal regulars—has been my only source of income for a decade. My shifts used to be 8 hours; now they are closer to 13.

Even before the pandemic, the work was fast paced, with high table turnover. While managing a million tasks, we periodically run downstairs for ice, to clean the bathrooms, to refill condiments, and restock wine. At the end of the day, when our bodies have had enough and we are sweaty from the hustle and bustle, we stack  all the tables and chairs, sweep and mop, clean the bathrooms, and put everything away—just in time to bring it out again tomorrow.

On top of all the regular work, we are now public safety agents as well. Some who come to eat are intransigent about wearing masks; others get drunk and forget. We are doing extra work with fewer workers, all while sanitizing everything at all times. So when customers are getting impatient—I need to refill table 2’s water, table 4 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 1’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’s just the reality of it.

I want everyone to go out and enjoy themselves. After the year we’ve had, is there anything more life-affirming than spending time with loved ones and friends over a good meal? This is another of capitalism’s brutal ironies: We are social beings who need human interaction, yet we commodify the very things that make us human. 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 yearn for something reliable, too. But this puts more onto restaurant workers than is reasonable to expect.

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 who are 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 no matter what is happening in our own. This was 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.