Restaurant Workers Worry The ‘Bottom Line’ Is More Important Than Their Health

As Chicago reinstates some restrictions on dining in, workers still face an impossible choice: health or income.

Restaurant workers COVID-19
star5112 / Flickr
Restaurant workers COVID-19
star5112 / Flickr

Restaurant Workers Worry The ‘Bottom Line’ Is More Important Than Their Health

As Chicago reinstates some restrictions on dining in, workers still face an impossible choice: health or income.

Every time a customer walks through the door, one Chicago restaurant worker feels a flash of anger.

“No matter who they are or what they’re ordering, every person who comes into the restaurant, I see them as a potential threat,” she said.

She used to love the job, she said, but now she’s sick with anxiety — will the customer she’s serving today infect her with COVID-19?

The worker, who asked that her name not be used because she fears retribution in the restaurant industry, said that every shift she works, she takes orders a foot away from people who aren’t wearing masks. After they leave, she collects dirty plates and the silverware they’d put in their mouths.

Once, she had to physically block the door to prevent a man who refused to wear a mask from entering the restaurant. When she ran to the back to grab him one, he still came in without wearing it, she recalled.

“I really think the people who go out to the restaurants now are the people who don’t care about everyone’s safety,” she said.

As Chicago tightens some restrictions on the service industry this week because of a rise in COVID-19 cases — bars that don’t serve outdoors or food will be shuttered, and restaurants cannot serve parties of more than six people — some food service workers say they still worry the efforts won’t be enough to protect them.

Some service workers said they’re facing an impossible choice — they’re being ordered to work inside, where they fear for their health. But they could get fired if they say no.

Because their bosses have asked them to come back, they can’t get unemployment either.

On the other side, some restaurant owners said without indoor dining, they couldn’t survive.

While other states have attributed some COVID-19 surges to bars, doctors like Benjamin Singer at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine said it’s unclear how safe restaurants are.

“There’s so many different layers to this down to the individual people who would be in the restaurant, what’s the setup of the restaurant, what’s the airflow situation like,” he said. “And so all these things create a very muddy picture as to the actual risk.”

A recent Japanese study found you’re 20 times more likely to catch the virus indoors than outdoors. A Chinese case study showed how the virus spread on the air currents created by the air conditioning in one restaurant. Singer said while those studies are small, they do give valuable insight.

Still, data isn’t great for tracking whether restaurant workers are getting COVID-19 more than anyone else. In most cases, a COVID-19 patient’s job isn’t known — which is vital to understanding pandemic spread.

But Gov. JB Pritzker said last week that if cases go up much more, indoor dining and bars could be first to go. And Chicago already tightened bar service.

‘The bottom line’

One chef doesn’t think what Chicago has restricted so far is enough.

“I’m not a business owner, I’m not gonna pretend to know, ya know, what that feels like, but I am a human, and I do know from being on the employee side of it, it felt as though the business, the money, the bottom line was far more of the priority,” said the chef, who also asked that he not be identified for fear of retribution.

He said he was forced out of his job at a high-class restaurant over discomfort working in a packed space. The chef thinks it’s wrong for the financial burdens of restaurateurs to fall on the backs of workers, who often make minimum wage.

“I think even a slight uptick in a risk of getting someone sick or potentially even killing them because of them being there is not worth any amount of money in the world,” he said.

Many service workers who spoke to WBEZ said they think owners aren’t worried enough about workers’ health.

A survey from Chicago Restaurant Workers found nine out of 10 workers do not feel safe under the current rules and regulations. And about 70% of them said they feel unsafe around customers.

Between the Department of Business Affairs and Protection and the Chicago Department of Public Health, the city only has about 54 dedicated inspectors to check for compliance with COVID-19 rules.

‘Dread of November’

Glenn Fahlstrom agrees with workers — so much so that he let his restaurant close. He ran Fahlstrom’s Fresh Fish Market in Lake View for nearly seven years, but said he refuses to put employees at risk in staying open, and said so on social media when he closed.

“You know, I’m not that kind of person, where my business is paramount over everybody else’s concern,” he said. “I’m not gonna go home at night and put my head on the pillow and ‘Hey … I made $250 profit today, but Susie went down sick.’”

Fahlstrom said under current conditions, sit-down restaurants can’t survive much longer anyway, and things won’t return to normal for at least the next two or three years. Limited indoor dining is delaying the inevitable wave of closures, he said.

Michael Roper at Hopleaf Tavern in Andersonville said he can make it through summer, but worries about fall.

“I usually look forward to fall. I like fall color, I like the coming holiday season. But this year I am in dread of November,” Roper said.

That’s when he has to start paying back his government Paycheck Protection Program loan. And, it’ll be too cold to seat people outdoors.

Hopleaf is making about 20% of pre-pandemic sales with indoor dining. If the state shuts down indoor dining, he said, it would be stripping some businesses of their most lucrative source of income.

Roper said if he didn’t have thousands in bills each month, he’d mothball Hopleaf until the pandemic was over. He predicts businesses like his will die unless the federal government stops loan and mortgage payments.

“In some other nations this has worked,” he said. “But we don’t have an FDR in Washington right now. We have Donald Trump. Our country is not going to be the same if we let all these places go.”

Vivian McCall is a news intern at WBEZ. Follow her @MVivianMcCall.