In the recent series about Portland restaurants, the Press Herald quoted 41 business owners and one non-supervisory worker. As restaurant workers, we have seen this trend repeat through the pandemic: profiles of struggling business owners, told with little attention paid to the experiences of their employees. The failure to represent worker perspectives creates a one-sided story about so-called “labor shortages” that implies that workers are unwilling to work and would rather depend on unemployment. This misses the bigger picture: people risking their lives in an industry that does not provide health insurance during a pandemic; that often does not pay a living wage in a city with skyrocketing housing costs, and in which people have no legal recourse for unsafe conditions.

A recent University of California at San Francisco study shows that line cooks have had the highest COVID-19 mortality rate of any industry: up 60 percent compared to what would have been expected in a normal, non-pandemic year. These are the same low-paid positions that Portland restaurateurs are struggling to fill. During the pandemic, working adults saw a 22 percent increase in what public health researchers call “excess mortality,” while food workers saw an increase of 39 percent. To stem this disparity, the study recommends “free personal protective equipment, clearly defined and strongly enforced safety protocols, easily accessible testing, generous sick policies, and appropriate response to workplace safety violations.”

We have experienced these policies as far from reality in most restaurants in our city. The vast majority do not provide PPE to workers, let alone paid sick leave or health insurance. Additionally, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and Gov. Mills published health and safety “guidelines” that had no legal enforcement mechanism. This left workers no recourse but to quit when faced with unsafe working conditions in order to protect themselves or vulnerable family members. This paradigm led to a wide discrepancy in pandemic safety protocols by restaurant owners. We know of some who worked tirelessly to create safe conditions, and others who intimidated or retaliated against staff for speaking up about concerns.

While safety protocols vary, in most restaurants, bussers, bartenders, dishwashers and servers handle the silverware and glasses that touch customers’ mouths. Front-of-house staff enforce the mask mandate and screen customers for COVID symptoms. Line cooks work in close proximity to colleagues in compact kitchens with limited air flow and high temperatures. Without deliberate changes, social distancing is impossible in these conditions. No wonder food workers are dying. Is it at all surprising that people are leaving the industry in droves?

While these stories are not being told, restaurant owners are being glorified who are now considering benefits for workers because of the “labor shortage.” However, multiple worker-led proposals in recent years could have valued restaurant workers before the pandemic hit: raising the tipped wage, the municipal ordinance for paid sick days, the recent referendum that included hazard pay, to name a few. A number of the restaurateurs quoted in this series have testified repeatedly in opposition to these proposals, which would have helped workers in the industry. The series ignores the responsibility that owners have for conditions that workers find themselves in, and at worst implies that workers choosing their own and their families’ health, safety and lives are somehow responsible for the hardship of Portland restaurants.

The reality is that restaurant workers are leaving because they are taking stock of conditions that already existed (unpredictable schedules, low or inconsistent pay, treatment by customers and owners, physical demand, lack of health insurance, etc.), and deciding that it’s not worth it to put their lives at risk for the industry. Regardless of perceived benefit to owners, Portland’s restaurant industry should be a place where people can work with dignity, respect and safety – and until then, we don’t blame workers for leaving. Perhaps the tide is turning where owners realize that workers are actually the ones making them money – and that they should value the literal hand that feeds them.


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