It’s no secret that the hospitality industry is a difficult one to work in. Hours are long, wages are low, benefits are minimal. Then COVID-19 exposed just how close many service workers are to peril—from financial instability, environmental hazards, and workplace mistreatment. With an industry-wide unemployment rate that peaked at almost 40 percent in April 2020, the unrelenting stress of working in hospitality during a global health crisis is taking its toll on employees’ mental health.
For Emmeline Meyers, who recently quit her job as a server at Earls Kitchen + Bar in the Back Bay to focus on school, the shifting COVID-19 guidelines contributed to the stress and confusion of her job. “It was just like a new phase of the restaurant with every set of rules that COVID rolled out,” she says. “The layout of the restaurant would frequently change because of how close together things could be, or how many people we could sit.”
Once she began working night shifts, she stopped taking the T home because of safety concerns. The pandemic limited transportation options. Waiting for an Uber amid driver shortages could take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour.
Other realities of front-line work under COVID, like wearing a mask during long shifts, became an unexpected advantage. “You don’t have to be as worried about how people are perceiving you, because they can’t see you at all,” Meyers says. But once the restaurant let its employees go maskless after COVID had subsided and before the Delta variant hit, she adds, “I had to focus on my facial appearance and demeanor and all this extra stuff. I just felt so much more vulnerable.”
For one server who recently quit their job at a restaurant in Allston, a big part of the stress came from weighing the cost of tolerating harassment versus needing to make a living. Theo, who identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, says that dealing with harassment from customers, co-workers, and managers was a recurring issue in several service jobs they’ve had. (They’ve asked not to use their full name or identify their former employer out of fear of retaliation.)
Theo recalls that out of the blue, a customer said to them, “‘If you went to the South, you would be shot.’ The worst part is, you can’t really say anything to them because it comes out of your paycheck.” A low hourly wage that depends on tipping to make it worth while means that, yes, the customer is always right—even when they’re not.
Elle Jarvis, founder of In the Weeds, a Boston-based nonprofit organization advocating for the physical, financial, and mental health of hospitality professionals, says that the restaurant industry is not always conducive to good mental health. “At its core, our job working in restaurants is to take care of people,” she says. “But this type of labor doesn’t necessarily afford the luxury for the individual to take care of themselves.”
The restaurant sector has one of the highest rates of substance use disorders in the United States, with one study classifying 41 percent of restaurant workers ages 18 to 29 as problem drinkers. Jarvis says the high prevalence of substance use can be attributed not only to the inherent stresses of the job, but also to the lack of benefits and nature of perks available to workers. “In the restaurant industry at large, health care is not offered,” Jarvis says. “A benefit for an employee is you get two shift drinks after work. So instead of getting the tools of understanding how to manage boundaries and microaggressions from guests, customers, and then also your co-workers, you’re then rewarded for a job well done at the end of the evening with alcohol.”
The pandemic has only exacerbated an already widespread issue. According to a 2020 study, restaurant workers who retained their jobs throughout the pandemic “experienced higher levels of psychological distress, drug use, and alcohol use than those that had been furloughed.” To combat this growing mental health crisis among service workers, In the Weeds has launched a series of mental health workshops designed for restaurant employees. The workshops are led by a licensed therapist and cover a variety of subjects, including managing stress and microaggressions, setting boundaries in the workplace, and dealing with trauma and substance abuse.
“They’re everything that I wish I knew when I was 22,” says Jarvis, who is 37 and has worked in the service industry since she was 14. By tailoring the workshops around the stresses of restaurant work, she says, “I think we really have dug deep to get a low-cost solution to folks, to actually start giving them the tools to protect their mental health.”
Jarvis and her team have been aiming to make their workshops and other support services available to restaurant employees across the country since the organization’s launch in October. But amid massive shifts in the industry, many employees have already made up their minds about leaving. “It wasn’t like I looked forward to my shifts per se, but it was good money and it was a good job,” Meyers says. After working at Earls for a year, she decided to leave as well.
Now, as the hospitality industry struggles back to life, perhaps it’s time for us all to acknowledge that a living wage and access to health care should be a given, not a perk. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, essential workers have been the backbone of our society, quietly serving as pandemic superheroes. But we need to remember: They were never truly superhuman.
Maya Homan is a co-op at the Globe and a journalism student at Northeastern University. Follow her on Twitter @MayaHoman. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.