Amid looming uncertainty, Canada hospitality workers question their future

When COVID-19 forced the nation-wide closure of bars and restaurants in March, Michelle Nguyen wasn’t too worried.

A veteran hospitality worker, Nguyen is the general manager of Favourites, a popular Thai restaurant in the West End of Toronto, Ont. At the time, she was optimistic that things would settle down and she and her colleagues would be back to work within a few weeks.

She anticipated that there would be a sluggish period after the mandatory lockdown was lifted, and that in the ensuing weeks, as people re-adjusted to being out in public and fears of the pandemic dissipated, her restaurant’s sales—and those of other restaurants—would rebound. 

“At the time, we all just thought we were going to come back in a few weeks,” Nguyen said in an interview with The Pigeon. “We were like, ‘Okay, sure, great. Two weeks off? We’ll be back.’ We didn’t know what to expect.”

Nearly seven months later, that optimism is gone. Despite her initial high hopes, Nguyen was unemployed for months following the lockdown announcement in March. She finally went back to work in early September, but the restaurant industry remains on federal life support, and the future looks bleak.

Before the pandemic, Nguyen made around $150 a night in tips in addition to her annual paid salary of $30,000. Since her return, her average daily tip out has been halved.  

Like many other hospitality workers, Nguyen misjudged the severity of the pandemic and underestimated the potential it had to paralyze her industry. Now, after a long, idle summer and months of just barely scraping by, she finds herself doubting, for the first time in her life, the long-term viability of her chosen career path.

She’s not alone.

Across the country, many other hospitality workers are in the same boat as Nguyen. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, it immediately put hundreds of thousands of bar and restaurant workers out of work. Some, like Nguyen, were able to resume working this summer, but nearly all have returned to a vastly different work situation than they left.

For starters, hourly incomes have been affected. To ensure the safety of their guests and prevent further spread of COVID-19, restaurants and bars now have to observe strict safety protocols and limit the number of guests they serve at any given time. As a result, most are seating fewer customers and doing significantly less business each day, which translates into fewer tips—and lower overall earnings—for most workers.

There’s also less work to go around. Because restaurant and bar traffic has decreased and most venues still can’t operate as they normally would, the need for serving staff has declined significantly.

Practically speaking, this means that many hospitality workers who previously worked full-time aren’t simply earning fewer tips now; they’re also working fewer hours and are getting smaller paycheques.

Complicating these matters are the CERB rules and eligibility requirements. CERB provides a taxable benefit of $2,000 a month to Canadians who have lost work and are now earning less than $1,000 a month due to the pandemic.

Restaurants don’t want to prevent their staff from claiming this $2,000 if they can’t offer them enough work to make up for it. This means that most restaurants are forced to choose between two options when re-hiring a staff member: bring them back on a full-time basis that’s profitable enough for them to justify sacrificing CERB; or bring them back on a part-time basis that doesn’t affect their CERB eligibility.

Re-hiring everyone full time is out of the question for most bars and restaurants because there isn’t enough business to justify it, so most workers now find themselves in the latter position of working one or two days a week and relying on federal aid to survive.

Nguyen’s restaurant weighed its options and initially decided on an extreme solution. Instead of re-hiring all staff or a small team to serve the restaurant when it first reopened, it hired back one person to do multiple jobs simultaneously. 

“Their plan of action was to hire one person to be the front of house team […] He came back within like two weeks of being down on quarantine, and he’s been the host, the busser, the front of house person,” she said.

“He sets up everything by himself every single day. He’s been working by himself for five months, so you can understand the toll that would take on somebody.”

Still, in Nguyen’s mind, it’s not the restaurant’s fault. It’s a tough situation across the board.

“I have nothing but empathy and respect for business owners, regardless of who they are, especially in hospitality,” she said. “I have learned through this process that everybody does not start off at zero. Everybody has a different set of tools to succeed.” 

Kathy Marsh spent more than a decade working at bars and restaurants in Toronto prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. She’s heard similar stories of hospitality workers being worked hard in recent months but sees things a bit differently than Nguyen. 

“What does it do to your psyche when you go in [to work] and you’re actually working for $12 an hour, and running the whole kitchen, and doing the dishwasher, because they’re not hiring anybody back because they have no money?”

In Marsh’s view, hospitality workers have long had to contend with exploitative working conditions, and this is just another, more extreme example of that same pattern repeating itself. 

“The people who are getting f—ed over the most are still getting f—ed over the most but now they’re getting it even worse. And they still can’t take care of themselves, and they’re still having to make that decision of choosing between health and safety, and their pay cheque,” she said.

On the other hand, Marsh says the current situation seems to be fuelling demand for change. 

“It’s the same sh—t that the restaurant industry has been getting away with for years, and that’s why everyone is now pushing to abolish tips. That’s why this whole new wave is coming through. People in the restaurant industry have been doing this forever.” 

For years, there have been calls to eliminate tipping as it’s currently practiced in Canada.

Supporters of this movement say the practice leaves hospitality workers economically vulnerable and unfairly shifts the responsibility of having to pay workers a stable, living wage from employers to paying customers, who can’t legally be held responsible in the same way.

They also argue that tipping is inequitable because it leads to a restaurant and bar industry that discriminates in favour of white, affluent, middle-aged customers. Further, it exposes people of colour and women to an environment where their tips depend on customers who may hold biases of their own.  

In their view, doing away with the practice of tipping would make the industry more equitable and better protect and shield its workers—both from external shocks and predatory labour practices.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, these calls have grown even louder, and in the past few months, a number of restaurants have formally announced they are changing the way they pay staff—including three restaurants in Toronto alone

Nguyen says she likes the idea of the industry getting rid of tips. Incorporating labour costs directly into restaurant and bar prices would encourage patrons to think more actively about the overhead costs of dining out, and would remedy hospitality workers only having a small portion of their earnings insured.

As for opposition to the movement, Nguyen thinks it’s mostly misguided. 

“There’s a lot of lack of education and [a lot of] misinformation, and I think those two things concoct a really clouded, inaccurate view of the financial side of the business for employees,” she said. “I think they need to be informed as to why that is beneficial for [hospitality workers].”

Kyle Burch, a long-time veteran of the industry who spent six years as the head sommelier and general manager at Cava, a former Toronto restaurant that closed down before COVID-19, thinks it’s only a matter of time before the move away from tipping happens. 

“I think it’s inevitable that our industry is going to move slowly towards a no-tipping model,” he said. 

“I think with [COVID-19], and especially with people’s experiences with having to go on [employment insurance] and not being able to get more than a couple hundred of dollars a week […] there’s a lot more openness around losing tipping culture than there was before.”

Still, both he and Nguyen agree that transforming the wage structure of the entire industry is a tall order, especially given its size, diversity, and lack of centralized leadership. In Burch’s view, governments will have to step in and actively encourage change through legislation and incentives for tipping to be abolished.

Nguyen, for her part, sees an opportunity for better organized labour among hospitality workers.

“Why isn’t there any sort of union for restaurant workers?” she said. “Why are we forced to come to this place where we now resent this job not because of the actual responsibilities, but [because of] the way that the industry chews us up and spits us out?”  

In the meantime, with winter just around the corner, Nguyen, Burch, and thousands of other industry workers have their immediate and long-term futures to worry about.

According to a recent Canadian Survey on Business Conditions (CSBC) release, more than 60 per cent of Canada’s restaurants risk having to close their doors for good by November.

The troubling new report, released towards the end of August and produced by Statistics Canada, found that 29 per cent of accommodation and food service businesses cannot operate at all with social distancing measures in effect. Additionally, it concluded that “31 per cent of these businesses will only be able to remain operational for up to 90 days with distancing measures in effect.”

Particularly in Quebec, B.C., and Ontario, the forecast looks grim. Cases are once again spiking in those provinces, and all have re-imposed tighter restrictions on social gatherings in recent weeks to combat rising rates of infection and the looming threat of a second wave.

Faced with so much uncertainty, and with so many unanswered questions, many hospitality workers are now seriously questioning their commitment to the industry and whether they have a future in it.

Stephen Robinson is a Toronto-based writer and journalist.

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