Workers' Stories in the COVID-19 Era: Installment #13
November 6, 2021
Written by Christina Love (Undergraduate Student, Indigenous Studies and French)
Edited by Tinu K. Mathew (PhD Student, School of Human Resource Management)
In the thirteenth installment of our series Workers' Stories in the COVID-19 Era, we interviewed Morelia, a server and supervisor at a Queen St. bar/restaurant in downtown Toronto. In the dialogue below, Morelia speaks to the way they were treated during the pandemic. They discuss how the responsibility for reopening the economy has disproportionately and unreasonably fallen on our most vulnerable workers. Morelia insists that hospitality workers deserve to be humanized and that the onus to do so is on the public.
For privacy, all names have been changed to protect the identities of our interviewees.
Christina: Can you describe your job, how long you've worked there, and some typical duties?
Morelia: I work as a server, bartender, supervisor—I basically do it all. But mostly I bartend. I’ve mostly been working at the bar I’m currently at since August of this year. Throughout the pandemic I’ve had a couple of other jobs and been laid off, but this and a job I have teaching yoga have been the most consistent. Some weeks I'm full-time, some weeks I’m part-time, but because I teach yoga in between, my hours pretty much balance out week to week.
I've been working in hospitality since I was first legally allowed to, so it feels like forever. Around 18 or so was my first hospitality job where I worked in a beer tent at a racetrack. Now I'm a supervisor at a bar on Queen West. My relationship to my current position is that it’s my secure, pay-the-bills, pay-my-rent type of job.
Christina: How has the pandemic impacted your work and working conditions?
Morelia: I could go on and on and on and on about this. First, the transition from one place to another during the pandemic was definitely a learning curve. I left one of my old serving jobs to work just at my current one last winter and at one point I was juggling both plus teaching yoga and it was overwhelming to say the least. It was generally the same deal for both places: very short-staffed, obviously, because everybody wants to stay on EI instead of working in crappy conditions. They’re getting paid to stay home and out of harms way, let alone the other issues with this work, so why wouldn’t they if they could?
…everybody wants to stay on EI instead of working in crappy conditions. They’re getting paid to stay home and out of harms way, let alone the other issues with this work, so why wouldn’t they if they could?
But yeah, because we were so short-staffed, the people we did have were working way overtime. In this line of work that also meant the services weren’t that good, people weren’t always very happy, everything takes more time, etcetera. You end up dealing with a lot more dissatisfied customers and things like that, which is awful. On the other hand, you get some people who are really understanding of the circumstances. They'll usually tip more and they're really grateful that you're even there to serve them a beer or whatever it may be. That's a surface overview of how it's changed for me as a server during the pandemic.
Christina: Would you say that the balance of really good to really bad patrons was equal or does one outweigh the other?
Morelia: I can’t give a definitive on that; it really depends on the day. I would say in most of my spaces I'm pretty lucky; a lot of the folks coming to the bar that I work in now are younger so they understand the situation more and I can relate to them on a peer-level, I think. So that's been nice, and I've met a lot of great people.
I will say, though, that there are still a lot of people coming in who aren’t necessarily cognizant of the situation given the area that my bar is in—Queen and Bathurst. You’ll get folks who are just walking by and want to get lunch or whatever but totally don't understand the circumstances and are really impatient because of it. If I had to put a number to it, I’d say the divide is around 60/40 good vs bad.
Christina: How has the pandemic impacted your relationships between your boss, coworkers, and customers?
Morelia: It definitely makes it a little bit more difficult as staff. Specifically, again, because nobody wanted to work in the beginning, we were understaffed, so for the people like myself who came back to work when we could, it was really tough. I know I didn't necessarily have to come back to work right away but I sort of felt like I needed to because, as an able-bodied person, this restaurant I worked at needed me. I was all gung-ho, “Okay I'm going to go do this and contribute back to the economy right away.” Since I could go back to work, I went off EI and I was working full-time again.
It was difficult because, physically, I cannot work six days a week. Not to mention that I have other things going on and a life, I just physically am not able to work that many shifts, I will keel over. But the situation with the restaurants and understaffing meant that there wasn’t anyone else to do them. So, either you come in or they didn't open. That was way more stress than I wanted to carry for this workplace that was supposed to be my easy, pay-the-bills, type of job—my security job. It started to really weigh on me. I know many of my coworkers have expressed the same thing because a lot of businesses have gone under, and we all felt a sense of responsibility to keep this one running. In terms of customers, it seems like the pandemic brought out the worst in the people who might’ve been just unpleasant before. The stress and pressure definitely created a hostile environment for all of us.
Burnout is something that's been really prevalent among many of the staff I've worked with. A lot of people are just trying to keep their head above water. Then, factoring in the ever-changing circumstances we’re constantly trying to adapt to, it’s just too much for us. There’s a tangible lack of support that we all feel as workers.
Christina: If your place of employment offered better pay and benefits do you think that more people would have wanted to return?
Morelia: Oh, absolutely. A lot of the folks who worked at my bar, or any bar, would be making more money on EI than they would be working part-time. There’s no reason for them to come back unless the bosses make it worthwhile. Another thing at our restaurant was difficulty hiring and retaining senior staff. Not a lot of people wanted to become managers and supervisors because it really wasn't worth the pay raise considering how much more responsibility you have. There’s so much labour involved, and not just physically, but emotionally as well. De-escalation, motivating the team, dealing with any problems that come up, it’s a huge thing to do day in, day out.
There’s so much labour involved, and not just physically, but emotionally as well.
Christina: What supports were available to you through work and the government during the pandemic? Do you think that they were enough?
Morelia: It was weird because when I was getting CERB before I went back to work in summer 2020, it was great because I was able to actually pay my bills with it. Then I went back to work for a short period of time and another lockdown happened shortly after. At that point I wasn't getting CERB anymore, I was getting EI, which was not as good as CERB. It was taxed and also a smaller amount of money, so I ended up having to start a dog-walking business to scrape by and pay my bills.
CERB was sort of like UBI in a way because everyone got the same amount of money and for the most part it was enough. I wish I never had to switch to EI and it could’ve been CERB all the way through. The experience really humbled me as well. I’ve been financially independent from my parents for a long time now, but I had to reach out to my mom to help me make rent sometimes. I’m so lucky to have had that support too because not a lot of folks have those resources. All of the people having to move back with their parents and all of the people who became homeless during the pandemic in Toronto really go to show that the financial support was not enough.
I’ve been financially independent from my parents for a long time now, but I had to reach out to my mom to help me make rent sometimes.
Christina: Going off of that, do you think that the government did a good job with restrictions, aid, and everything? What do you think they could have done better?
Morelia: I absolutely think that the restrictions were needed to keep our population safer, but I think that the brunt of the work caused by them fell disproportionately on frontline and service workers, and that we’re the ones having to police everything. For example, every time someone walks into the restaurant, I have to take an extra three or so minutes to look at their vaccine passports and their IDs and have them sign in before they can be seated. It’s just… I'm not getting any extra money for this. I didn't get any extra training on how to authenticate vaccine passports—for all I know they made them up on Procreate. [Editor’s note: Procreate is a graphics editor app]. It's unfortunate that all of this is falling on people like ourselves and we're receiving no training and no subsidized pay for it.
I look at my coworkers and think about how lucky I am to have at least some de-escalation training from outside this job. There are a lot of customers who’ll come in ready for an argument, especially about government-mandated masking and the vaccine passports. Since our employer won’t sponsor trainings around this and doesn’t compensate us for all the extra work, it’s really up to the government to mandate it and follow through on giving us support. These skills are coming to be necessary, and we’re just not being taught them. The government has honestly failed in that respect, and I think it speaks to how little they think of us workers.
At our work, higher-ups are not working frontline; they don't understand the severity of the situation and how crucial it is that we have these tools. Case in point, it took us having been robbed to get security at the bar. It’s just ridiculous. They only seem to do anything to change when it begins to impact their bottom line.
Christina: In terms of how your workplace was governed, how democratic is it? Do you guys have a union at all or any collective decision-making power?
Morelia: We don't have a union and I would say it could be more democratic. At this point we can lodge complaints and if it violates company policy or any laws then it has to be dealt with, but we’re not in a position to come up with our own policies and procedures, or modify existing ones, as workers. As an employee, I wish my voice was heard and prioritized more. I've had situations where I'm like, “Okay I feel like my safety is compromised when I come to work and I'm reaching out to you to say that I'm scared to come into work.” In those cases, nothing would be done until four, five, six, seven, eight employees reach out and say, “I don't want to come to work anymore, it’s unsafe.”
As an employee, I wish my voice was heard and prioritized more.
I wish that these things didn’t have to get to this point for them to do something about it. I wish that it just took one person having this experience for them to act. I like to think that I have a tiny bit of power as a supervisor and I try to bring that to the other workers during those shifts, but as for the bartenders, kitchen staff, servers, and support staff, they don’t have much of a say at all, really. It’s difficult to approach higher-ups with a problem or with their opinions.
Christina: What has your experience been as restrictions have relaxed?
Morelia: Moving from patio to indoor wasn't really a big deal. We were mostly excited for it because it meant we could make more money. More customers would come, they’d stay longer indoors, tip more, and it was generally supported because we really needed the money. The one thing though is vaccine passports were a really difficult adjustment in the beginning and, being on Queen St. West, we’d get a lot of ‘protestors’ come by and try to mess with us, push our buttons, generally just see what they could get away with. So that was really stressful.
I also feel like the first couple days of each new lift of restrictions, there's always a little bit of weirdness that goes on, or people trying to test the boundaries. And then it’s this cycle of it becoming more neutral until the next change happens. How it plays out typically is that they’ll try to test the boundaries or whatever and they’re turned around at the doors and immediately leave. As for the other patrons, it gets annoying to have to remind people to wear their masks and still distance inside when they’re not seated. People don't like to be told what to do, they will get annoyed even if you're very nonconfrontational and say something like, “Hey, I just need you wear your mask inside please to keep the other guests safe.” As a supervisor they’ll also complain to me about being reminded to wear their mask and it’s just like, have they not heard the news? The server’s just doing their job. It’s like that one meme where it says, “Get your nose in your mask and out of my business.”
Christina: How has working during the pandemic impacted your physical and mental health?
Morelia: Back to me not being physically able to work six days a week, there’s definitely a pressure that’s put upon you when the establishment says that you need to come in or they won’t be able to open. That’s like a dual physical/mental issue that’s come up with the pandemic. I’m human, I need a few days to recharge or else I can’t operate the way that I want to, my capacity and social battery are only so big. I’m not the person I want to be, and everything gets neglected for work. I’m also not as good at my job when I'm tired and burnt out.
My time was something that was sort of robbed from me for a bit. I definitely felt the consequences of that in that you get to feel depressed, disassociated, and you’re basically on autopilot when all you’re doing is getting up, working, and going to bed. More to do with the physical side of things, all of this work and stress meant that I couldn’t prioritize certain things. At one point, I’d be eating like one meal a day—I’d be getting home at 4:00 am and no one wants to make food at 4:00 am. All I could do was sleep. Working 10 hours a day, six days a week isn’t healthy or sustainable, you can’t prioritize yourself in the most basic sense. Cooking, grocery shopping, resting, hobbies, all that gets brushed away and your life is just a cycle of work and sleep. I don’t think that was necessarily everyone’s experience, but for the people who initially came back, it definitely was.
My time was something that was sort of robbed from me for a bit.
Adding onto that already crappy situation was the general anxiety of having to deal with people who view you as less-than. Having to say no to people and argue and de-escalate all these different situations made it really uncomfortable to come into work. I’d get these knots in my stomach before going in and I know that many of my coworkers felt the same way too. It definitely hasn't been easy, but I've learned a lot from it, and I now approach situations with strangers in a new way.
Christina: We got into it a bit with your comments on CERB, but if you had ultimate power, what are some of the things you’d do going forward?
Morelia: I think I would like to have somebody advocating for the staff and for our voices to be heard, considered, and acted upon. If we even just had one person who had our back and could go up to the higher-ups and tell them something needs to happen, that would be so helpful. I’d also want for the government to realize how much extra work we've had to do—we’ve been doing twice as much work for half as much pay, basically—and support us accordingly. Especially as tip-based workers, we need to be subsidized for our lost income. I don’t think I would have minded all of it as much if it felt like it was worth it.
I would love a union. I might look into it, actually.
Christina: What do you wish people understood about being a server during the pandemic?
Morelia: I wish people understood everything that it takes for us to get here and do the job. Because they only interact with us when we’re directly serving them, it’s almost as if we stop existing when we’re not. Our sacrifices are going almost entirely unnoticed in general society outside of some people who will say they’re grateful we’re there but who won’t advocate for us. For example, when I went back to work, I couldn’t see my mom for a whole year because she’s immunocompromised and I just couldn’t risk it, she’s my best friend. People need to understand that service industry folks are making sacrifices to be at work. We’re sacrificing our health, safety, mental health, and a lot of people just sort of treat it like it's the same old, same old. They expect perfect service, and they expect their server to be a superhuman at all times.
Our sacrifices are going almost entirely unnoticed in general society…
Hospitality workers need to be humanized and others need to understand that we’re people too. Don’t treat us like we’re providing you a service. First and foremost, treat us like people. The connection and respect are gone a lot of times in this entitlement culture. We are a part of the community whether they like it or not and we deserve better. It’s easier to be nice than it is to be a jerk and kindness is free. You’ll get better service and a healthier community.