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Restaurant workers are feeling a sense of déjà vu as omicron threatens the industry


When Nya Marshall opened Ivy Kitchen and Cocktails in Detroit toward the end of 2019, business was good.

NYA MARSHALL: We were booming. I mean, we were at capacity every single shift. We were quickly becoming a community staple. I could not have asked for a better opening. That's how well we were doing.

CHANG: But it was short-lived. Soon after, COVID hit, and like thousands of other restaurants across the country, Marshall's was forced to shut down for six months. Since then, she says, it's been a total roller coaster.

MARSHALL: Spring came, and we all thought that we were getting back to normal. The vaccination came. Things began to, not normalize, but you began to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

CHANG: Then omicron hit.

MARSHALL: So on days where I would normally be packed or even have a steady groove, now I'm seeing - you know, my business has dropped about 95%. Takeout is down. Carryout is down. Even sitting on outdoor patio, which we spent tens of thousands of dollars on to build, it's just down because people are so fearful of catching the virus.

CHANG: Emily Alveranga is a server and bartender in Boca Raton, Fla. Things look a lot different where she is.

EMILY ALVERANGA: Right now is our busy season, so we get so many reservations that walk-in wait times are over an hour.

CHANG: But like many people this winter, she caught COVID. In fact, many of the people she works with did.

ALVERANGA: It went through everybody pretty quick in our restaurant. We all missed work during the holidays. We missed Christmas and holiday plans with family, so it was a bummer.

CHANG: The omicron variant is ripping through the restaurant industry right now on top of all the other challenges they're dealing with like a labor shortage and the price of food going up. Restaurants are struggling. So I asked Marshall, the restaurant owner, how she's planning for the future.

MARSHALL: It's tough. We are on a week-by-week planning to see how long are we going to stay open because, again, we've lost so much business. Obviously, we're listening to what the leadership tells us - our local leadership, our state leadership and our federal leadership. But because the messaging is so confusing right now, you know, I'm not really certain as to, you know, what the next variant could be. No one knows. So we are taking things on a week-by-week basis.

And it's not just my restaurant because I have a lot of restaurant friends. And, you know, we have conversations about closing, about staffing, about supply chain issues, about all these things that are challenging are issues - worker retention and just, really, worker satisfaction, their health and the appreciation for them actually coming to work because we appreciate them. And we want to make sure that they know that.

CHANG: Do you think it's very possible that you will end up closing your doors again and waiting out another period only to reopen in the future? Is that looking quite possible at this point?

MARSHALL: I don't know that I could survive that, which is why I'm doing absolutely everything that I can to stay open right now.

CHANG: Well, I want to talk to you, Emily, about what has kept you in the restaurant industry. I know that you took some time off and then you returned to being a bartender and server during the middle of the pandemic last year. We're seeing people leave your industry altogether. What is keeping you inside the restaurant industry, you think?

ALVERANGA: I like the flexible hours. I have a special needs child, and my partner works full time during the day. So the flexible hours are nice, being able to have weekdays off to take him to appointments but yet still make enough money and work full time because I can work weekends and nights. That's great for our family.

I do make good money. I enjoy what I do. I enjoy working on my feet. I enjoy being busy. I enjoy talking to people and making people's day better by giving them good service. I really do enjoy working in the restaurant business.

CHANG: Well, COVID has really put a spotlight on how extremely precarious things can get in the restaurant industry. I'm curious for you, Emily, what do you think this pandemic has taught people in the restaurant business about how to better take care of its workers?

ALVERANGA: In my experience, I'm not sure.


ALVERANGA: I think our staff, our management, is doing the best they can. They're following the CDC guidelines. They are following the rules put in by our local and state government. However, in Florida, our local and state government has not taken it as seriously as other states. Nya mentioned that their restaurants were closed for six months in the beginning. Ours were only closed for about 2 1/2 months. We've been at 100% capacity since summer of 2020. So, yes; they're following the CDC guidelines. But they're also still staying fully open at all times.

If someone does call out for being sick, there has been almost a little bit of guilt-tripping. Like, we're going to be short-staffed if you don't come in. We really need you and, you know, stuff like that, which only adds to the problem.

CHANG: Totally.

ALVERANGA: You know, one server misses a shift, you're short-staffed for a couple of shifts just a little bit. But if they come to work sick and give it to everybody, then you're short-staffed for weeks by a lot. So I hope that they've learned from omicron for the next variant or the next virus, flu, whatever may happen. But I don't know if they really have.

You know, I work for a large corporation that's nationwide with several different restaurants under their umbrella. It still feels like profits over people sometimes.

CHANG: What about you, Nya? What do you feel that you have learned during this pandemic as a restaurant owner when it comes to taking care of the people who work for you?

MARSHALL: Yeah. Fortunately for me, I have always been an advocate for the people, and we are a restaurant where no one makes less than minimum wage. Even our tipped employees didn't - you know, they make minimum wage plus their tips. You know, my back-of-the-house staff is paid almost double what minimum wage is.

I've been an advocate for my workers since I opened, which is one of the reasons we're fortunate enough that people do want to work for me because I do care about the people. If someone catches COVID in my restaurant, my restaurant shuts down, simply put, because you've been in contact with someone who has COVID directly for hours and hours at a time.

And so, for me, it's just further understanding that no business survives without their people. I can't say that I didn't know this lesson prior to COVID because I did. But you do grow a certain appreciation. And you understand, much like Emily, people that are still in our industry. If you're still in the hospitality industry, it's not because of money. You know what I mean? Because so many of us has taken...

CHANG: Yeah.

MARSHALL: ...A loss.

CHANG: Yeah.

MARSHALL: It's because you love it. People look forward to coming to see you, Emily. I'm sure you get people that come back often, and people look forward to that. And without that, they would be very disappointed. Without the love of hospitality that she's providing them, they would be very disappointed. And so these are things that are immeasurable and add so much value that I hope people understand. And it really amplifies the importance of our hospitality employees.

CHANG: Nya Marshall is the owner of Ivy Kitchen and Cocktails in Detroit. And Emily Alveranga is a server and bartender in Boca Raton, Fla. Thank you to both of you so much.

MARSHALL: Thank you for having me, Ailsa, and amplifying the message about those of us in the hospitality industry.

ALVERANGA: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF VALLIS ALPS SONG, "RUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Sarah Handel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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