The restaurant community, inspired by the growing protests around the country against police brutality and racism, is finding ways to engage in anti-racist work. Some restaurants quickly converted to medical and food supply stations to support protestors over the weekend. Others have pledged donations, even as funds have been tight after the months of social distancing due to the pandemic. But some restaurants are looking towards a more long term way to help solve for issues of inequality and racism in America: offering workers time off to vote.
In theory, a restaurant worker who works a night shift could make it to the polls in the day time, but late nights don’t make early mornings easy, and lines to vote can be notoriously long. A worker who clocks in for a double may also find themselves out of luck. In the United States, our Tuesday election days are not national holidays. Whether an employee has the right to take time off work in order to vote depends on state law. Those laws vary: In some places, employers do not legally need to give employees time off if it’s reasonable to believe the employee can make it to the polls before or after work, elsewhere, local laws establish a certain amount of time that employers must give employees off to vote (in some states, it’s as little as an hour). Whether or not such legally mandated time off to vote is paid largely depends on the employer.
In order to be effective, restaurants must also offer paid leave along with time off to vote, and many are doing so. Sara Mardanbigi, the co-owner of Austin’s Nixta Taqueria, will be updating employee policies to reflect a new option to have a paid day off for voting day. “Sometimes employees aren’t comfortable asking and/or don’t have the means to sacrifice taking a day off,” she says. “For us, we want to empower and incentivize our team to vote by granting days off and paid time to do so.”
After internal conversations about how the company could better support Black employees, Christina Tosi’s multi-unit bakery chain Milk Bar announced on Instagram that among other policies, they will make voting easier. An infographic explains that the company will be “leveraging paid time off and store closures to accommodate employee voting during the workday.” In the caption, the company, which had nearly 400 employees as of 2019, explained: “We also recognize that we have a responsibility to the neighborhoods in which we operate and the communities in which we live. The current presidential administration does not align with our company values or beliefs. With elections at local, state, and national levels already at hand, we urge our following and our staff to VOTE at every opportunity.”
Some restaurants have had such policies in place for years. Chef Cara Chigazola Tobin has offered paid time off for voting since opening her Burlington, Vermont restaurant Honey Road three years ago. Her policy is to give staff off for election days and town hall days so they can fully participate. “We close the restaurant for any day that there is voting involved. Election Day, primary voting, town hall day, etc,” she explains. “We feel that voting is an important part of our democracy and everyone should have time and space to perform this important task. We treat the day as a holiday and close the entire restaurant.”
Giving workers voting days off — or offering paid time off to make voting easier — is ultimately about stepping in where, so far, the government hasn’t. In the U.S.A., several prominent Democrats, including Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren have called for making Election Day a national holiday. It’s worth noting that plenty of other countries from Australia to Germany have scheduled elections to fall on weekends and holidays so that it’s easier for workers to get to the polls. Many restaurants remain open on holidays — and obviously on weekends — so a national holiday alone won’t get restaurant employees to the polls. Days off, on the other hand, can.
By making it easier for restaurant workers to vote, these operators hope to foster civic engagement and even change. Says Nixta Taqueria’s Mardanbigi, “Engaging in our civic duty is something that is more important now than ever, and as new business owners, it’s paramount that we are champions of this.”