As lobby groups for restaurant owners push to loosen health restrictions and secure financial aid for themselves, restaurant workers from across the state have issued an open letter that details their experience with COVID safety in the restaurant industry.
Workers are calling on state leaders to put workers’ safety first, fix unemployment, provide direct relief and ask customers to take steps to protect workers, too, according to a Dec. 17 news release from Working Washington, a nonprofit that aims to improve wages and working conditions.
“Restaurant dining is not an essential service,” according to the letter. “When we go to work, we risk our health and the health of our loved ones. More often than not, our employers do not provide us health care; and if one of us does get COVID, as many of us have, we find ourselves without any income or insurance while struggling for our health. We’ve seen COVID spread to sometimes ten or more coworkers at a single establishment. Management gets to decide how to handle these situations, and when they choose to ignore safety measures or reopen too soon after a COVID outbreak, we are the ones put at risk again. With so much of their focus on making sure their businesses stay open, they are more likely to put us in these risky situations. Our health and safety should not be left to their discretion, especially not during such financially trying times. We do not feel safe at work.”
This open letter comes at a time of growing public debate over state restrictions on indoor dining, according to Working Washington. Some individual restaurant owners are actively defying public health rules, and restaurant industry lobby groups are also pushing hard to rollback safety guidelines and reopen indoor dining. Meanwhile, more than $100 million in state relief has been targeted to restaurant owners, with $0 specifically set aside for restaurant workers.
Now restaurant workers themselves are speaking out and having their say from the front lines of both the health and economic impacts of this pandemic. Numerous restaurant workers signed the letter.
Full text of open letter:
—An open letter to Washington state political leaders from service industry workers—
“We need you to do what it takes to protect our lives, and provide funds to workers so that we can actually stay home safe.”
Dear Governor Inslee & state representatives:
The service industry has been completely upended in 2020. As workers in this industry, we are faced with either increased health risks from interaction with the public if we still have our job, or we experience total loss of income in the face of an unreliable unemployment system. We are living on the front lines of both the health and economic impacts of this pandemic.
While we share concerns with restaurant owners for their businesses and the industry, we know they often have different interests than ours. The WA Hospitality Association has said that indoor dining is safe for the public, but we have seen otherwise firsthand. We have seen coworker after coworker test positive for COVID. For every management team that acts responsibly, there are more who fail to take even basic measures like notifying us if a coworker had a positive COVID test.
Many of our customers are concerned for our health and show support with takeout orders, but those who dine indoors too often demonstrate a lack of care for safety regulations and our health. Customers complain daily about wearing masks; they show up with larger parties than are allowed; they try to push tables together to sit with people outside of their household. We are the ones being asked to enforce these measures in the real world at the risk of our tips.
As those most immediately impacted by the consequences of your decisions to close or open businesses, to prioritize public aid or not, we are calling on you, our public representatives, to do your jobs and consider our health and safety when making these important decisions. We need you to do what it takes to protect our lives, and provide funds to workers so that we can actually stay home safe.
Put our safety first:
Restaurant dining is not an essential service. When we go to work, we risk our health and the health of our loved ones. More often than not, our employers do not provide us healthcare; and if one of us does get COVID, as many of us have, we find ourselves without any income or insurance while struggling for our health. We’ve seen COVID spread to sometimes ten or more coworkers at a single establishment. Management gets to decide how to handle these situations, and when they choose to ignore safety measures or reopen too soon after a COVID outbreak, we are the ones put at risk again. With so much of their focus on making sure their businesses stay open, they are more likely to put us in these risky situations.
Our health and safety should not be left to their discretion, especially not during such financially trying times. We do not feel safe at work.
Almost all of us have filed for unemployment at some point this year, so we all know how broken the system is. Many of us are still owed payments. Many of us have given up claiming and have gone back to work, even those of us at high risk – increasing risk to ourselves, our families, and the public. Many of us no longer expect ESD (state Employment Security Department) to pay us what we know we are entitled to, because they have proven they will keep finding more hoops for us to jump through. For those of us who have been paid, it has taken weeks or months of waiting with no income. It takes days of attempted phone calls. This is a system we cannot rely on. Additionally, many of us in the industry are excluded from these benefits entirely due to immigration status.
In order to make good decisions for ourselves, our families, and the public health, we need to be able to trust our unemployment system. We need our benefits to be available to us in a timely manner. There are immediate fixes to be made to the system to get people paid now. We cannot wait any longer to see these benefits.
Provide direct relief to workers:
Closing our unsafe work environments does not really protect our health if we don’t have an alternative way of buying food and paying our bills. So many of us have permanently lost jobs we relied on. We will be suffering the financial impacts of 2020 for years to come. We applaud your call to Congress to release more federal funds, but that is not enough. If the state can find $100 million of previously acquired money to provide to businesses with no strings attached, they should find even more to provide to workers. Pass rent and mortgage relief, provide a state-wide stimulus, increase unemployment benefits – do something directly for workers.
We live paycheck to paycheck – in fact, we are often living a couple days at a time when we make most of our money from tips. We cannot have our income taken away without another viable option for feeding our families. We need relief.
Lastly, we want to call on the public – protect your local restaurant workers:
We need our customers’ help to stay safe. You may think you are helping give us a paycheck when you dine in your local bar or restaurant, but you are also risking our health to do so. And your own. We have seen too many customers taken by this virus already. Consider ordering take-out instead. Consider writing to your Governor to ask him to increase unemployment benefits and fix ESD. Consider signing on to this letter in support of our health and safety! Consider keeping your mask on when you can even if you don’t legally have to.
Our health is linked, and we all benefit from staying home and minimizing our risk of exposure.
We are service industry workers signing in support:
Cole Abernathy, Olympia
Brent Baker, Seattle
Grace Bartlett, Tacoma
Dylan Cole, Seattle
Nicholas DeArcangelis, Seattle
Bryan Chau, Woodland
April Frazier, Mt Vernon
Michael Gest-Shirley, Seattle
Maria Herrera, Seattle
Marcel Hoberg, Bainbridge Island
Toni Howard, Burlington
Heather Hyde, Richland
Sarah Johnsen, Vancouver
Haili Kiehn, Spokane
Kaitlyn Lopez, Lacey
Kade Mattox, Mount Vernon
Ginny McAtee, Kent
Bree Mckenna, Seattle
Shayla Mcknight, Olympia
Janelle Pfeifer, Seattle
Cheyenne Potts, Renton
Nicholas Sanz-Gould, Everett
Carol Smiley, Ethel
Chelse Smiley, Seattle
Carolyn Terranova, Seattle
Cody Trotter, Seattle
David Ward, Seattle