NEW YORK - When restaurants started reopening this summer, Ian Garrity wasn’t sure if going back was the right move for him. He had been laid off from his restaurant job in March when the whole city shut down. And after the death of George Floyd by a police officer in May, he was spending a lot of time protesting in the streets. 

What You Need To Know

  • Return to indoor dining raises concerns for restaurant workers

  • Workers say they have long faced serious issues, from low pay to a lack of measures aimed at protecting them

  • They are worried about mask enforcement and their own health

  • Many workers have no option, and must return to work

“I was caught between dedicating my time and energy towards a move that I think could actually create greater change in the world or ultimately going back to a business that deals in escapism,” Garrity said.

It was either return tableside or wait it out on unemployment. Garrity eventually decided to return to service after a friend explained that two great dining-out experiences helped him get some stress relief. Garrity has been working since July at a restaurant in the East Village serving diners outdoors. But now that New York City is returning to indoor service, the role he plays as a server is changing.

“We're really going to be coming down hard on masks,” he said. “That's going to be an interesting new layer of social training that these guidelines are going to be teaching the guests.”

Since the return of outdoor dining this summer, restaurant workers say mask enforcement has been inconsistent at best. But with the increased threat of the virus spreading within close quarters indoors, that level of enforcement has to change. And for restaurant workers across the city, it means grappling with hard decisions about work as the city shifts to indoor dining.

Kelly Sullivan, who co-founded the Service Workers Coalition, a network that provides grocery stipends for service workers impacted by layoffs, has been working in a bar in South Williamsburg since July, but it’s not opening its doors for indoor dining yet. If it did, she says she wouldn’t continue working there.

“You cannot right now safely return to indoor dining,” Sullivan, 29, said. “I can't think of the measures that would make me feel safe with it.”

Although the move indoors includes safety regulations such as temperature checks for employees and patrons, reconfiguring kitchens to maintain social distancing, staggered shifts and mandated masks for staff at all times, many workers, like Sullivan, don’t think these measures are good enough.

The pandemic has put a spotlight on issues foundational to the service industry that perhaps made this moment so difficult to handle in the first place.

“We continuously think that restaurant jobs are not real jobs,” said Anthony Advincula, communications director at Restaurant Opportunities Centers, a non-profit advocacy group for the restaurant workforce. “This is a real job for millions of people. The city cannot survive without these restaurant workers, but we're not compensating them properly.”

With an average salary of $33,700, restaurant workers are among the lowest paid in the private sector, according to a report by the state comptroller

In December of 2019, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an order ending the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers. It applied to nail salon technicians, hairdressers, car wash workers and more—all tipped industries except restaurant staff. It means restaurant workers in New York still rely on tips to offset their hourly rate, which can be below minimum wage. But as owners reduce hours and fewer customers stop to eat, restaurant staff have to grapple with smaller paychecks. It’s brought even more urgency to the work that groups like One Fair Wage have been fighting for.

“There is a growing openness for one fair wage, believe it or not, after COVID,” said Gemma Rossi, lead organizer for the advocacy group in New York. “There are a lot of owners, from big restaurateurs to small mom and pop owners that are actually advocating for one fair wage and see it as the future of the industry. They understand that the tip system wasn't sustainable ever. And we actually need to reinvent the way that the pay model is structured in the restaurant industry.”

It’s the kind of change that would allow someone like Sebastian Cornieles, who now works two service jobs to make up for the reduced hours that many places are currently offering, to have peace of mind in this ever-changing and uncertain industry.

“If you don't rely on tips, and you know that you have a stable salary, you don't worry about the stress of overdoing things and [can] take care of yourself a little bit more," he said.

Workers say that little bit of self-care can make all the difference for a healthy immune system when you work on the frontlines of the pandemic.

Michelle Watson, 30, is a self-proclaimed “industry lifer.” She’s worked in service for 15 years and has worked nearly every position in restaurants, including the role she held until COVID-19 hit. Looking back at the time right before the city shutdown took place, she can recognize some of the red flags in the way things operated.

“We were really concerned about getting hand sanitizer and getting the right kind of cleaning stuff,” she said. “Looking back on it, it's like, ‘why weren't we worried about all that the whole time?’ Maybe this wouldn't have spread as fast and if we had all this stuff in place, the transition would have been a lot easier. But it came as such a shock to everyone and pointed out a giant flaw that maybe not everybody was as clean as they should have been.”

Despite criticisms of the industry — both now and before the pandemic — staying at home is not an option for many workers. Anita Bailey, 54, is currently applying for restaurant jobs but is looking for specific things from her next employer.

“I want to make sure that whatever protocols are in place for the business, that they are consistently following them,” said Bailey, who organizes with Restaurant Opportunities Centers. “Don't let a customer come in and they may not have a mask or they don't want to wear a mask. Catch them at the door. Don't let us have to encounter anything unfavorable from a customer.”

As restaurants take precautions to keep their businesses in line with safety guidelines, the main variable remains guest behavior.

“A lot of the concerns that people in the industry have right now is around the guests,” said Cornieles, who works as an expeditor at one restaurant, overseeing the flow and timing of how food is delivered to patrons, and a cashier at a food court in another. “If you know you're working in a safe environment and you know that everything is being taken care of, you don't feel that much of a stress.”

It’s their new role as enforcer that puts front-of-house workers in a conundrum. They’re forced to become the rule-bearers for the very people they depend on for tips.

“It shouldn't be low wage workers who enforce masks,” said Sullivan. “But it's also like, you're enforcing that for your own protection, which is definitely not something that's taught in the service industry. Everything that you're taught in the industry is to accept disrespect from management and from guests.”

Returning to service right now is about taking a calculated risk and hopefully finding a place that takes the welfare of their employees seriously. And with stricter guidelines for indoor dining, it means recognizing that any small allowance could shut down the entire restaurant.

“I am risking my job by creating this allowance for one guest,” said Garrity, the East Village restaurant worker, talking about patrons who refuse to wear masks. “I am not going to let this one guest take my job away from me.”