Although I’ve been a filmmaker and freelance media producer for over a decade, my main source of income often comes from hourly wages in kitchens: I’ve worked everywhere from industrial dining rooms, to hole-in-a-wall take-out joints, upscale dining in Griffintown, and bougie cafés in Old Montreal.
Nobody gets into this industry for the money — it’s physically intense, with hours that throw off any normal sense of routine. Plus, the abuse of kitchen labour in this city is so rampant, many of us accept near-minimum wage and no overtime pay, as long as the kitchen is up to code and (relatively) free of harassment. Despite all this, I find it low-stress, stable work that keeps me fed in between contracts.
Of course, with the coronavirus crisis, that stability has gone out the window, putting scores of restaurant and bar staff out of work in Montreal and beyond. And while practically all businesses were caught off guard by the mass shutdown of public life due to COVID-19, some employers have handled it better than others — even though none of them had any clear roadmap of how to respond.
I was fortunate enough to work for one such employer: since I started washing dishes at the Italian restaurant Rita in Verdun last summer, my boss had often noted that “without my employees, I don’t have a business.” This wasn’t just lip service: Rita’s owners offered a generous hourly wage, staff meals, and generally positive work environment. And while COVID-19 could have allowed them to throw all of that out the window, the restaurant owners’ response to crisis has truly demonstrated their commitment to this philosophy.
Owners Joey D’Alleva and Sophie Bergeron were proactive and supportive from day one. When the initial social distancing rules were announced on March 15, Rita was immediately shut down, even though many restaurants chose to squeeze out an extra week of profits by operating at 50 percent capacity.
In the days leading up to this decision, there was no anxious waiting for orders to be relayed through managers; as the situation evolved each day, we could all communicate face-to-face about updated plans and concerns. No one was asked to work if they were sick or uncomfortable.
They kept in constant communication with us through a staff group chat, assuring us we would not be permanently laid off, but were entitled to receive EI. This allowed us to immediately begin planning for social isolation and budgeting before many restaurants had formally shut down. As anyone who makes close to minimum wage can relate: A pay gap of even one week can throw you into severe financial jeopardy. By ensuring all the necessary documentation was filed with the government as soon as possible, we were all guaranteed an income before the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program had even been set up.
It may seem like a small, even common-sense gesture to treat the safety and well-being of your staff as a priority, especially during a public health crisis. Sadly, I’ve seen some of the wealthiest restaurant owners show minimal solidarity and concern for their workers (some of whom are my former colleagues), focusing on their own revenue losses while hunkering down in comfortable vacation homes.
I applaud Rita’s response, not simply for a few technical decisions that resulted in good crisis management, but for treating their staff, right down to dishwashers, as equal partners in an organization, rather than sunken labour costs or a barrier to their profits.
There were clues that they’d respond well to this sort of crisis, too: Joey and Sophie are involved with the day-to-day labour of their business–bussing tables, working on the line, unclogging drains — not a single task is “beneath” them. This is in contrast to some much more established restaurants in this city (which I won’t name here), led by people who provide capital for a successful machine, yet are completely disconnected from the financial and social reality of their workers.
With all the uncertainty going forward, I’m grateful to have employers who value my labour as something more than a disposable object. Perhaps this pandemic is an opportunity to shine a light on businesses who genuinely support their staff, crisis or not, and to move away from the toxic dynamics that put workers at risk.