Employment and Jobs

Giving Restaurant Workers a Seat at the Table

May 7, 2021  • David K. Gibson

Restaurant workers have been hit hard by COVID-19 and the associated upheaval. According to a National Restaurant Association survey, two-thirds of workers had lost their jobs by April 2020, just two months into the pandemic. As the advocacy organization One Fair Wage notes, the industry includes seven of the 10 lowest-paying jobs in the country, and its workers are three times likelier to live in poverty than the rest of the US workforce. Restaurant workers are among those with the least access to health care, or even the ability to take time off for vaccinations or post-jab side effects. And for the lucky workers who kept their jobs during the pandemic, the customers sometimes were rude.

“We’ve seen how essential restaurant workers are to our society, and how heroically they’ve performed,” says Corby Kummer, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Food and Society Program. “But we soon realized there was no consistent guidance about safety, and the confusion was killing the industry, and quite probably some workers.”

With this in mind, a group of restaurant industry organizations released Safety First: Protecting Workers and Diners as Restaurants Reopen, a pandemic-era best practices guide for owners, employees, and diners. The guide begins with a collection of one-page summaries and infographics that distills the most essential information about safety procedures and ventilation. It also contains the Diner Code of Conduct, a list of actions expected of customers that centers respect. In addition to clarifications of proper distancing and mask-wearing, the Code of Conduct includes a reminder to “Be Kind,” with something that resembles a much-needed oath: “I understand that mutual kindness is paramount to good hospitality. I will show respect and appreciation for all those working to serve me and for fellow diners.”

Restaurants have some of the lowest-paid jobs in the country despite the high skill required to succeed in them.


On the website of Reverence, a much-lauded restaurant in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, the Diner Code of Conduct is front-and-center, and patrons must agree to its terms twice if they want to make a reservation. Chef Russel Jackson, whose pre-fixe, pre-pay, no-wait-staff operation represents a very different approach to dining, sees the code as a natural extension of the restaurant experience. He helped draft the language of the code but confesses that his suggestions were even stronger than the language that was agreed upon.

“We are in a moment when it’s important to speak out,” Jackson says. “This is about pushing my peers to be better, giving them the tools to be safe and take care of their customers—and to make sure their people are rested, getting a living wage, and that they aren’t risking their lives to come to work.”

“Restaurants have always been among the most dangerous environments to work in, with some of the lowest-paid jobs in the country despite the high skill required to succeed in them,” says Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage and Director of Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley. “COVID-19 both revealed these challenges and exacerbated them; workers report that tips are down 50-75% while UCSF has named restaurants the most dangerous place to work in during the pandemic. It’s long past overdue to make sure these workers get the protections and full, livable wages that they desperately need and deserve.”

The guidelines were developed by the Food and Society Program, working in collaboration with José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen, the James Beard Foundation, the National Restaurant Association, the Independent Restaurant Coalition, and One Fair Wage.

Safety First represents the first time that some of these organizations have signed onto the same document,” says Kummer. “With this effort, we were able to bring together people who didn’t understand just how much common ground they had. We hope that’s going to lead to big changes in the protections and paychecks that restaurant workers receive.”

Food and Society is now building out two sets of training. One is for public health officials looking to provide sector-specific guidance for restaurants in their local jurisdictions. The second is for restaurant managers to put in place protections for workers in every part of restaurants. The leading health organizations in the country have all committed to promoting these to their members, as has the cornucopia of restaurant organizations who have supported these guidelines from conception to launch.

“We all want to think it’s over, and we finally see the end in sight—but not yet,” Kummer says. “Now is the time to go back to the restaurants and communities we’ve so missed and do our part to show we’re there for them just as they’ve been there for us.”

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