In the United States, restaurant workers have famously had to put up with a lot of shit from customers in the interest of good service and in order to earn the tips they rely on, but doing so rarely meant a risk of dangerous illness for themselves and loved ones — until the pandemic hit last year. Now, restaurant workers have to play the role of enforcer of ever-changing mask and capacity policies with a smile on their faces, and choose between their safety and their livelihood.
Eater talked to six service workers — employed at places ranging from a food truck to a high-end restaurant — to find out what it’s been like to work during the pandemic. Some reported supportive management, offers of free testing, and customers who bring their own hand sanitizer. Others told stories of threats, harassment, arguments, and being treated as less than a person. Three servers reported that their regular guests had been replaced by a younger, wilder crowd that frequently ignored rules put in place to keep staff safe.
The following stories were collected from six Austin restaurant workers (three of whom have requested to remain anonymous) and have been edited for clarity, length, and to remove identifying details. Please keep their experiences in mind the next time you tip your server.
Editor’s note: This article was written before Texas Gov. Greg Abbott revoked the state mask order and returned indoor dining to 100 percent capacity. There is still a mask mandate for Austin and Travis County, although the state of Texas is currently suing to overturn it.
A server at a bar and restaurant near downtown Austin, whose name Eater changed to protect her anonymity
“It’s been horrible.
“We were one of the first places to open back up after everything closed in March, and there wasn’t a mask mandate or anything. So we were the ones that were stuck with policing everybody. For the first two months, I would go cry in my car before I drove home.
“I was constantly worried that I was going to get sick. Then, ‘Am I going to bring it home and get my boyfriend sick? Am I going to interact with somebody else and get them sick?’ Management told us back in March that if someone got COVID, they would figure out a way to do sick pay so you can stay home, which they didn’t do. They told us several times that there is no chance that we’re going to be getting health insurance. We’ve received no hazard pay. We’ve had three people get COVID. We’ve never shut down to do a deep-cleaning or anything. They almost didn’t pay for us to get tested after our coworkers got sick.
“And they just cut the front-of-house staff wages. Which wasn’t the best way to boost morale, especially at the point when we have zero morale.
“In the beginning, 50 percent of my interactions were negative. Now it’s more like 20 percent. I’ve been in the service industry since I was 16. This isn’t bartending, this is policing. And it’s exhausting.
“We regularly get threatened. When I told someone it was last call, he said he would bring a gun next time. I’ve been called bitch so many times just for being like, ‘Hey, I need you to keep your mask on.’ As soon as you had to ask someone to put a mask on, you might get immediate hostility, which means no tip. Your income is reliant upon you receiving tips from people; now you’re out there putting your health at risk to get paid $2.50 an hour.
“I recently got verbally assaulted by this group of guys for asking them to sit down at their table. And I couldn’t really do anything about it. Because not only was I by myself out far away from my coworkers, I’m a fairly petite woman; what the fuck am I going to do? I’m surrounded by 15 guys that are picking on me. You’re in a situation where you feel very on your own. It’s a really good analogy for how most of us have felt this whole time: ‘Well, I’m just by myself out here trying to not have this escalate any more than it is for nothing more than trying to do my job.’
“Service industry people aren’t on the list to get vaccinated in Texas. We don’t have health insurance. We don’t have sick days. We don’t have anything. And it feels like we’re being asked to do a lot and getting nothing in return.”
A server at a popular high-end restaurant in Austin
“March was my first time on unemployment, and I’m in my 40s. My job made it very accessible as far as contacts and people to talk with. When we opened, they offered to keep anyone who didn’t feel comfortable working on unemployment, which was nice. But then another call came, and management made it seem like your unemployment might be in jeopardy if you didn’t come back. So I felt forced back to work. I looked around at other jobs, but I don’t think I have a skill set that would be helpful in other industries, so I came back to work. One employee lost multiple family members to COVID, but is now back at work.
“When this all began, we were so terrified, and rightly so. We didn’t know much about the virus. We’ve kept a lot of those early protocols in place. Management supports us when we confront people because it can be scary.
“Maybe 5 percent of customers are difficult. During the week, people behave themselves. It’s the Friday/Saturday crowd, or people coming in pulling luggage — they’re especially hard to deal with, and they don’t want to follow the city mandates.
“The true humanity is coming out of people. And we are on the receiving end of that. It feels like they treat us like we don’t exist because we’re just the help. And that’s really sad to see in Austin.
“I had a gentleman the other night who apparently was a physician who’s already been vaccinated. He didn’t want to wear his mask. Now, we’re in another scary scenario where I can’t tell if you’re actually a physician and if you’ve actually been vaccinated. Even so, it doesn’t matter. There are two new variants out there at least [Ed. note: As of publishing time, there are three known variants of the virus], and he should know that.
“I wasn’t present for this, but one server asked a customer to wear a mask, and the customer followed the server to the back of the restaurant, screaming, ‘You can’t tell me what to do!’ A manager had to break that up. We’ve had to ask a few guests to leave.
“We’re pooling tips at my location, [and] I’m happy about that, but it makes me feel like I can’t be stern with guests. I’m sacrificing somebody paying their water bill, or somebody paying their heat bill, or somebody getting medicine to their kid.
“I want people to enjoy themselves. That’s what my job is about. But everyone needs to stay safe.”
A server at a fast-casual restaurant in Austin
“We lost all the managers and most of our staff when we shut down, and the majority of the remaining few quit due to stress. We were told that once per hour somebody was going to have to hop off the line and sanitize the entire place. We haven’t done that. It’s not a realistic expectation when we’re operating at 80 percent of our normal staffing.
“Since last March, the only restaurant I have eaten inside is the one I work at, and that’s only because I don’t have a car to eat in. My car fund went to rent for a few months last summer before I could get unemployment.
“Every single day, I must tell at least five college-aged guests to put their masks on correctly while they wait, and many of them wear mesh masks or bandanas that do not do anything. We can’t do a whole lot to enforce the mask thing. Maybe 10 to 20 percent don’t comply, but that wears on you after a while. I have had to serve people that weren’t wearing masks, before the federal mandate came through because you can’t say no to customers. Honestly, I’ve given up. After a while, you just get numb to it. I’m probably going to get sick at work at some point. I can’t care — I’m going to get sick if I stress out over that too much.
“We had one employee get COVID — I didn’t know she got it until she came back to work. It was a very don’t-ask-don’t-tell thing.
“One little happy thing that happens is sometimes, when we did curbside, we would take deliveries out to the car. It was really nice to see people put their masks on before they roll down their windows. It was like, ‘Okay, you’re going to treat me like I’m a person, even if nobody else does.’”
A server at a high-end restaurant in downtown Austin
“I was working at two restaurants at the beginning of last year, and then got furloughed from both around the same time. One used the pandemic as an excuse for not having the money to pay us.
“I immediately applied for unemployment and I was accepted pretty quickly. But so many people I know either never saw a dime, had a lot of trouble getting paid, or are continuing to have problems even a year later. I have too much financial responsibility to rely on unemployment alone. In the beginning, we were getting an additional federal contribution of $600 per week, but that on top of the maximum weekly payout I got definitely wasn’t enough for me to survive. I don’t know anybody who can live on that in Austin.
“I was reluctant to go back to work because I was a little scared. But once I went back, I didn’t feel as scared anymore. My restaurant has done a really good job — everything I’ve seen is following the instructions and the guidelines that have been put forth.
“On two different occasions, the restaurant has called me and said, ‘Hey, can you come in and get a test? Someone on the staff has COVID.’ We got a free test (we do have health insurance) and closed for one shift. As long as everyone else was negative, we deep-sanitized and reopened the next day. But you can imagine how much even losing one night of service is a big deal right now. The restaurant not only rallied us all together, but they also put out a message on social media to let the public know.
“I’ve never received any pushback when I said, ‘Hey, can you just put your mask on?’ My managers are great. The only thing is that they’re both women, and, I hate to say it, but I know that sometimes, it’s hard for them to command respect from customers.
“Ultimately, I decided, because the future was so unpredictable, I started looking for other types of work. A lot of people are doing the same thing. I have friends at the restaurant that are getting their real estate license. I got really lucky and I landed a full-time gig at a tech company, but I still work at the restaurant on the weekends. My sister is also in the hospitality industry, and the restaurant she was working at went out of business due to all the issues surrounding the pandemic. It’s scary not knowing what’s going to happen and having zero job security. It’s making the job market in Austin outside of the hospitality industry even more cutthroat right now.”
A food runner at a high-end downtown restaurant, whose name Eater changed to protect their anonymity
“All of us saw the pandemic and thought it would last two weeks and then we’d go back to normal, and then things got progressively worse. Then I was like, ‘It’s okay, we’ll have unemployment for all this.’ And then that also disappeared. So I was like, ‘I guess I have to go back to work now.’ I love my job so much. I imagined when I went back, we wouldn’t have masks and we could hug and be happy, but we’re still in this pandemic. It’s bizarre.
“Luckily, at my job, they offer same-day testing. It’s nice because it takes into account that a lot of people in the restaurant industry don’t have health insurance, they may not have a car, and they may not be able to go to a hospital or a doctor to get tested.
“I had a really bad table last week. It was a party of 16. We split the tables up, because obviously, one, it’s not possible within our restaurant to sit like that, and two, there is a pandemic. They didn’t adhere to the rules — I saw two of the guests standing over another table that was not in their party talking to them without a mask on. That same night, another table that was supposed to seat five people had eight people at it.
“The chef was very mad — they didn’t want us to be seen as a place that doesn’t care about the pandemic, because we do care. We’ve had multiple people at this restaurant get COVID; we put in all the precautions and it’s the guests who are now not doing their duty. We’re not taking away the dining experience, but you have to have a new dining experience when you’re in the middle of a pandemic.
“You also meet people who have been inside for months. They maybe haven’t gone out in three months, and they come with their hand sanitizer. They’re very polite. When you walk to their table, they’ll put on their mask. They’ll have great manners and say, ‘Thank you so much,’ and want to make sure I’m safe as well.
“It’s usually one table a weekend that causes problems. One time, when we had a private event, I asked a man to put on his mask and he said, ‘No, I don’t need to do that. I work for the police department.’ Another time, it was someone who was an investor in the restaurant.
“Would I prefer it if we did takeout? Yes, because that keeps risk factors to a bare minimum. If you’re going to go out, I wish that people would be mindful. We’re just as important as anyone else. We’re all working, just trying to pay bills. There’s a risk that we’re all taking on. So if you’re going to go out, bring that hand sanitizer, be calm, and be courteous.”
A server at a food truck in a bustling bar, whose name Eater changed to protect their anonymity
“At first, we were very hesitant to open at a high-volume bar during the pandemic. As the months ticked on, knowing that our unemployment checks weren’t going to cut it and we weren’t going to make it forced us to open.
“When we opened back up, I was excited to get back to work. I was going stir crazy. I really love my job and the people I work with, but I knew that we would have to deal with crap from customers and the risk of infection.
“Safety has been our number-one concern. Because we have an online ordering system, we don’t have much contact with customers. However, the bar crowd doesn’t like to listen to rules. We get at least a half-dozen people every day who walk up and try to ask a question or order, and very often, they either won’t have a mask or pull it down.
“We have specific instructions to yell at people. If we ever feel like they’re not being respectful to us, we are allowed to be disrespectful to them. We already know to not even engage in a conversation.
“Weekends are crazy busy — like, way too many people in there. All the precautions we take are only precautions. If a half-dozen people talk to me without a mask on every day, there’s an ongoing risk that never goes away.
“Stage 5 restrictions didn’t make any difference because that’s asking people to lose money. So when the mayor closed bars at 10:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, we already knew that bars are going to pay the fine, because it’s a lot less than the money they would have lost by closing. It was just a political move, and we watched the mayor and the governor duke it out, and nothing changed for us. Nothing was going to change.
“As someone who works in the industry, wants to go to work, and enjoys going to work but doesn’t want to get sick, the only solution to keep us safe financially and healthwise safe is to close the restaurants, close the bars, do takeout only, and pay us to stay home. Which I know is not going to happen. But really, we know that that’s the only option.”