When 28-year-old Stewart Fullerton started a new job as a server at an upscale French eatery in New York City in April, she was excited about the prospect of returning to the restaurant industry after being let go from an office job in November because of the pandemic.
“You can really be yourself in the restaurant industry,” said Fullerton, who said she worked in restaurants for three years after college. Her experiences working in the corporate world were comparatively “really buttoned up,” she added.
But when she started on the job, the reality of being a server during a pandemic set in. Both the restaurant’s and the city’s rules about mask-wearing and how many people they could sit were changing all the time, she said, adding that customers had also become more demanding than those she had dealt with in years past.
“I felt like at the beginning of the pandemic there was a respect for service workers, and I honestly think that’s been thrown out the window,” Fullerton added. “People were very upset and wanting food immediately.”
The restaurant was also understaffed, which meant that Fullerton’s schedule was grueling, leaving her little time to devote to her other gigs as a comedian and podcaster, she said.
So earlier this month, she quit.
Though she recently found another position at a smaller and more laid-back restaurant, Fullerton isn’t alone in quitting her previous position.
Restaurant workers have been leaving their industry — which is predominantly staffed by women — in droves, with the April quit rate for the accommodation and food service sectors reaching 5.6 percent, the highest of any recorded industry since at least December, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. As a result, employers are desperate for workers: accommodation and food service job openings have steadily increased since January, and in April, there were 1.3 million roles open in that sector — or half a million more than the amount open in February 2020.
For many restaurant and food service workers, it was the stress of working in the pandemic that pushed them to leave their jobs — often for higher-paying, more stable ones. Women restaurant and food service workers have been at the forefront of strikes and walkouts demanding restaurants pay a living wage. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers — more than two-thirds of whom are women — has been stuck at $2.13 for three decades, and only seven states currently require a full minimum wage for tipped workers.
Now, the women restaurant workers who have remained in their jobs are left to rapidly adjust to the health risks, short staffs and other stressors that accompany restaurants more fully reopening — including the elimination of many lingering covid-era safety guidelines.
Amanda Jimenez has been working at a Brooklyn pizza restaurant since September. When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced on Tuesday that the state would lift most social distancing requirements — including that restaurants would no longer be forced to sit people six feet apart — Jimenez, 27, knew that her job would get even harder than it had already become.
She was hired as a server and bartender. But she and the restaurant’s other employees also have to be bussers, runners and hosts, since they don’t currently have enough people on staff, she said.
“When it’s busy and I’m the only person here, it’s pretty rough,” she said. “Right now, we need all hands on deck at all times.”
Thursday was her first day back at work since the announcement that New York would lift restrictions — and the first day in months that she wouldn’t have to check customers’ temperatures or ask people to wear masks, a request she estimates she used to make about five times per shift.
For Jimenez, making those requests meant she sometimes went home with lower paychecks because of customers who tipped less after being asked to wear a mask, she said. No longer having to enforce that rule is one silver lining in an otherwise stressful time.
Fullerton can relate: “It was very difficult as a server to have to impose rules — I didn’t get into this to yell at an old man to put on his mask,” she said.
A November study by the nonprofit group One Fair Wage found that 59 percent of tipped workers experienced or witnessed hostile behavior on a weekly basis from customers in response to staff enforcing safety protocols. In New York, 79 percent of restaurant workers experienced hostile behavior from customers in response to staff enforcing safety protocols, compared with 78 percent nationwide.
Sexual harassment — an already pervasive problem for women in the restaurant industry before the pandemic — was also exacerbated during the pandemic, with 41 percent of surveyed workers noticing a change in the level of customers’ sexual comments. In New York, 65 percent of surveyed women workers said they noticed these changes.
As restaurants more fully reopen, Alexa Tirapelli hopes both of those statistics start to change.
During the decade she has worked in restaurants, Tirapelli, 28, got used to putting up with rude and inappropriate customers — often men — to make sure she earned good tips, she said. But this past year, things changed: After being furloughed from her New York City restaurant job last March, she started a job as a reporter at a children’s newspaper in July.
She was earning less money than she did in restaurants, but the job combined her passions of writing and teaching. Plus, it brought her a confidence boost.
“I’ve learned so much and I’ve been able to keep up with current events, so I feel smarter,” she said.
So when she picked up a side gig in March at the restaurant where she formerly worked, helping them out with events to earn some extra money, she was unprepared to play the role of mask enforcer for the first time. When a man rolled his eyes at her after she reminded him to wear a mask multiple times, “I thought, ‘I’m done,’” she said.
“I wasn’t used to it anymore — the lack of respect that you get — and I was shocked by the fact that even during a global pandemic where people are still dying … you’re going to get mad at me to ask you to wear a mask to keep the workers safe?” she added.
Tirapelli is still working the events job a few nights a week, in addition to the newspaper job; she likes her restaurant colleagues and enjoys the work — when she’s not dealing with rude customers — too much to leave, she said.
She still holds out hope for one day opening a restaurant with her dad. But for now, she plans to continue to build a career in journalism.
“I get to write about things I’m passionate about, and I get to make a difference for kids,” she said.
As diners return to restaurants, she hopes customers keep in mind that restaurant workers went through a lot the past year, working longer hours for shorter pay, and that they should act — and tip — accordingly.
Jimenez, who earns $10 an hour plus tips, wants employers to increase restaurant workers’ pay to a living wage so that they’re not overly dependent on tips — a plea echoed by women workers leading fights across the country, alongside advocacy groups like One Fair Wage and Fight for $15. Businesses in the food service and manufacturing sectors that have offered a $15 minimum wage have seen job applications increase.
“We work really hard, and if it wasn’t for us, you wouldn’t have a restaurant,” Jimenez said. “Pay us more and we’ll work just as hard.”