Restaurant workers ask Governor Inslee for health, financial protections

Dec 18, 2020, 5:48 PM | Updated: 6:02 pm
Seattle COVID, mask mandate, King County, restaurant workers...
Restaurants continue to require patrons to wear masks, and likely will for the foreseeable future. (Seattle-King County Public Health, Facebook)
(Seattle-King County Public Health, Facebook)

Nearly three dozen restaurant workers across the state have written and signed a letter to Governor Inslee and the state legislators demanding more financial and health protections for service workers.

The writers of the letter ask the state government to acknowledge the risks they take every day being around unmasked people who are eating.

“Restaurant dining is not an essential service,” the letter states. “When we go to work, we risk our health and the health of our loved ones.”

The workers are requesting:

  • an efficient unemployment system
  • economic relief for restaurant workers — similar to the grants given to restaurant owners
  • financial help with COVID-related medical costs
  • more detailed workplace health protections

Sriya Chowdhury works at two Seattle restaurants. She said that trying to obtain unemployment benefits during the first lockdown turned into “an absolute nightmare.”

“The system is set up to deny people … having a system that gives people the benefit of the doubt needs to replace what we currently have,” she said.

Her employers have taken strict precautions in terms of what to do if there is a COVID outbreak among staff, but she noted that not every server is that lucky. She knows of restaurant owners who have not alerted staff members if there is a coronavirus case at work, or who have not allowed employees to self-quarantine after exposure.

“There really is a lot of abuse of workers going around right now, and with a virus this deadly and contagious, we need stricter rules for what businesses have to do if there is an outbreak,” she said.

Bartender/server Averie Knapp of Tacoma, who worked in a Gig Harbor restaurant before the latest restrictions, said she felt scared going to work every day, especially because customers often tried to get around precautions.

“I noticed a lot of pushback from customers, a lot of people demanding I take my mask off … people pushing tables together,” she said.

She said she received little support from management when this occurred, and risked the tips she relies on if she took a hard line against those trying to skirt the rules.

“We work in a tip-based industry, so it’s hard to do anything in those situations … you kind of just have to tell them what they want to hear while also not risking your safety, in a way,” she said. “It’s a really delicate line to tread, which was part of why it was so frustrating and scary to be back at work during that time.”

These are the sorts of scenarios that she would like to see stricter rules for in the workplace.

She added that financial aid from the state would be a huge help, and would mean that she wouldn’t need to prioritize tips as much when dealing with rule-breaking customers. Knapp noted that the governor just set aside $100 million in grants for small businesses that had to shut down again — but none was set aside for employees.

“A lot of the support and care, while they fully deserve it, is going toward the businesses, but not the people who work in them,” Knapp said.

That kind of support could allow her to put her own health before her finances, she said. At one point, Knapp was having COVID symptoms (that turned out to be allergies), but she felt pressured by her skeleton staff of coworkers — and by her own pocketbook — to go to work.

“You’re feeling sick and you think, ‘Oh my gosh, if I go into work today, I could get anyone sick, I could be the active cause of someone losing their grandmother,'” she said. “Also though, you think, ‘If I don’t go into work today, my rent is not going to get paid.’ It’s this internal conflict.”

In her workplace, she said it was seen as letting the team down if a person stayed home — and it could cost a person their livelihood.

“Nobody can afford to lose a job right now,” Knapp said. “Even if you don’t feel safe [working], you can’t just say, ‘Hey, I don’t feel safe coming into work today,’ that’s a quick way to lose your job.”

If she does catch COVID and needs treatment, Knapp worries about how she would pay for that.

“For people who are hospitalized because of it and are considered an essential worker, there should be a government program to help those people out and write off any debt incurred from that,” she said.

Chowdhury noted that restaurant owners are not obligated by law to provide health insurance to their employees.

“Restaurant workers usually don’t get coverage, and at this point they’re probably not making enough in tips to afford coverage,” she said.

In addition to the requests made of politicians, the restaurant workers are also asking the public to get involved by writing to their representatives in government.

Finally, while they note that it’s important to support small businesses, they ask that customers also do their part to keep those workers safe.

“It is a privilege and luxury to be able to dine out during a pandemic,” Chowdhury said. “If you choose to do so, please respect your server, wear your mask, be kind, tip generously.”

To illustrate this, she observed how much it means to see people scramble to put on their masks when she walks over to the table, even if they’re in the middle of eating.

“That never goes unnoticed or unappreciated,” she said. “At some points it feels a little redundant because I know I’m already exposed to them, but I don’t think we can be careful enough.”

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Restaurant workers ask Governor Inslee for health, financial protections