Business owners aren’t the only ones with thoughts on the October lockdown. Seeing their employers react critically to premier Francois Legault’s decision to close Montreal dining rooms in response to a resurgence in coronavirus cases has left some of the city’s restaurant and bar workers wondering whether their safety is being overlooked.
“With all the money owners invested in carrying out the safety measures to reopen, I think it’s normal they are angry now. They were tricked in a way. But the most important thing has to be the safety of the people who come to eat at the restaurant and the workers, so it’s probably better off like this,” says Nikolaï Roscanu, a cook at a downtown Montreal restaurant.
On October 2, more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases were documented in Quebec — a high that hadn’t been reached since early May. Yesterday, premier Legault reported 1,078 new cases of COVID-19, ratcheting up the province’s total since the start of the pandemic to 82,992.
“Restaurants are in a very precarious situation, and I truly hope the government supports them because it is tough, but the owners aren’t usually the ones serving wine until midnight and having to deal with inebriated people giving you attitude about following the rules,” a server who has spoken to Eater on the condition of anonymity, says. “I don’t think they realize that many workers are feeling a sense of relief right now.”
Roughly half of the people that server had waited on before the October closures were uncooperative when it came to following the safety rules: “It felt like I was having to tell people hundreds of times a night, ‘Please, put on your mask to go to the bathroom.’ It was a constant argument,” they say.
That server had the misfortune of dealing with two COVID-19 scares at two separate workplaces since the start of the pandemic. Their most recent position, before the October closures, was at a diminutive neighbourhood restaurant, where government mandated health and safety measures were carried out to precision, but failed nonetheless to put them at ease. “For my livelihood, I had no choice but to go back when the restaurant reopened in the summer, but it was this catch-22 whenever I was there: I didn’t want it to be busy because I didn’t feel safe in the tight space, but when it was busy, I was also happy because tips are my livelihood.”
Wage instability, along with the limited protections in place when it comes to job security and benefits, mean restaurants can act as vectors in the spread of the virus, Kaitlin Doucette, the founder of the Montreal Restaurant Workers Relief Fund, and a sommelier by trade, says. “The fact that workers don’t have sick days, are faced with limited options for work, and that the work that they do have is under extreme pressure — even duress at times — makes it really difficult to control the transmission within restaurants.”
With that said, Doucette, who works at Old Port restaurant Dandy, has “mixed feelings” about the closures, citing the government’s unequal application of restrictions across industries. “I think restaurants are perhaps getting a little bit too much of the blame for the community spread that’s happening, but I understand that when death is the alternative, we have to take measures that are quite austere.”
According to data released by the Montreal regional public health department on September 29, two days before the October shutdown would come into effect, 10 of the 38 active workplace outbreaks reported on the island were at retail outlets. Yet, shopping malls in the red zone remain open. For comparison, four restaurants and one bar on the island were reported to have active outbreaks among workers. Insufficient contact tracing means these figures are likely to be inexact.
Hadaya Samatar, a server at Club Balattou on St-Laurent, says her qualms aren’t with her employer or her clients, but with a provincial government that failed to provide clarity and assurance to the city’s 100,000 restaurant and bar workers at the onset. “When I heard the news of the closures, my first reaction was to be worried because they announced that the owners would be taken care of, but they didn’t say anything about us.”
Top of mind for workers at the time was that the Canada Emergency Relief Benefits (CERB) program, which had provided 8.8 million people with $79.3 billion since the start of the pandemic, had expired on September 26, just two days prior to Legault’s announcement. Transitioning to regular employment insurance (EI), a system that historically disadvantaged hospitality workers who receive a large portion of their income in cash tips that tend to go unreported, would mean far less than the $500 a week CERB had guaranteed. (Though Quebec is the only province in Canada that requires employees to declare their tips, it is not the industry standard.)
After some research, Samatar discovered that the federal government had in fact, on September 27, temporarily expanded the eligibility rules for EI, so that Canadians who were out of work as a result of COVID-19 would receive $500 a week, the same as CERB. “I just wish they had mentioned that. I think it was wrong for them not to share that information with us up front,” she says.
Another restaurant worker who also spoke to Eater on the condition of anonymity says Legault’s failure to mention the impact on restaurant and bar staff was to be expected. “I can’t be very surprised that the government isn’t addressing workers when we are not even getting paid minimum wage. It’s unfortunate, but at this point I don’t even expect them to be addressing us.”
With many businesses pivoting once more to takeout and delivery, some workers have inevitably had to stay on. Working in the kitchen, Ronascu says he has been employed throughout the entire pandemic and was able to negotiate a new rate and benefits.
But that second anonymous worker says several people they know were excluded from the decision-making process altogether, told – not asked – to go back to work. Some were even goaded into returning with false promises: “I know a lot of people who were told the tips would be much better, but that just wasn’t true,” they say. “I don’t think the public necessarily understood that they should be tipping more than they normally would for takeout. They were thinking of it as, ‘They aren’t serving me, so why should I give more than 5 percent.’”
That server learned the hard way after having agreed to come back to work this summer on the takeout counter, receiving the same less-than-minimum wage they had before. Nine-hour shifts were yielding maybe $60 in tips, and ultimately, they felt it wasn’t worth the risk. “In the face of how uncertain our wages were already, I felt much more comfortable being on CERB, then working at a restaurant. I was lucky because I have a great relationship with my boss, who agreed to lay me off.”
But that server isn’t planning to go back — even once dining rooms reopen and tips level out — and it isn’t just because of the pandemic. “There is rampant abuse that is expected in restaurants, that relates to the hierarchy of staff as well as to the customers feeling very entitled to their experience. Sometimes they don’t even treat us like a human beings,” the server says. It isn’t lost on them that the ability to embark on a new career path during a time of global upheaval is a privilege.
Pre-existing fissures in the industry are compounding with ones brought on by the pandemic, and yet “many feel they have no choice but to go back to work when asked — even if they don’t feel safe,” the first anonymous worker says. They describe a shared feeling among industry friends: that of being held hostage.
As for the love that server once felt for an industry that pulled them in for the better part of a decade? It’s dissipating. “It ended up feeling like a babysitting job instead of a server position because 80 percent of it was now to ensure that everyone is disinfecting their hands, writing their names in the registry, wearing their mask when they are not seated,” they say. “Things like that made the experience uncomfortable, stressful, and took away my passion for working in restaurants.”
That worker is plotting their exit, too.