How New York Waiters Got the Upper Hand

Chronically underpaid and undervalued, restaurant workers are now in high demand, and the power balance may be shifting for good.,

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If crankiness is your default restaurant setting — if the bread basket is always too late and the scaloppine is always too cold and the manager better get over here — then the past few months have probably made you insufferable. Labor shortages stemming from the pandemic have affected a broad range of industries and the restaurant business acutely so. The problem is self-perpetuating. Obnoxious people throwing tantrums over lobster rolls that fail to arrive quickly only threaten to further diminish the supply of people who are willing to wait on them — ensuring a future of delayed lobster rolls.

In New York, restaurant owners expected workers to be begging for jobs when things reopened. But the opposite has happened. Where so many servers are supporting careers in the arts, the pandemic effectively eliminated any professional reason to remain in the city, forcing many young people in particular to move back home. A result — once restaurants reopened — has been slower or less efficient service, which has provoked an outbreak of universal jerkiness so remarkable that a restaurant on Cape Cod recently gave workers time off to recover from an “astronomical influx” of swearing, yelling and threats of litigation.

Conservatives and many small-business owners across the political spectrum have blamed the labor crisis on stimulus benefits that they argue de-incentivize a return to work. But recent research has delivered a more complex accounting. Low wages and diminished tips are clearly driving workers away; a lack of child care has been another problem. One survey, conducted between October and May by the advocacy group One Fair Wage, in conjunction with the Food Labor Research Center at Berkeley, found that among nearly 3,000 respondents, 39 percent listed “concerns of hostility and harassment from customers” as one of the reasons they were leaving their jobs. In order to stem further exodus, One Fair Wage has assembled a million-dollar fund to offer grants to restaurant workers to supplement earnings until those wages increase.

Unemployment insurance has undoubtedly given some people a cushion, but more valuably it has provided the gift of greater flexibility and choice — the option to walk away from a job when a customer tells you he is going to call his lawyer because of a sandwich. “People are thinking about what they want to do,” the economist James Parrott told me. “This is a good thing. As an economist, it is what you want to see happen.”

New York City’s recovery will depend in large part on the success of a restaurant industry now required to extend its definition of prosperity to include the ability of workers, both front and back of house, to live decently. In this case, the rhetoric of returning to normal is inapt, because “normal” was dysfunctional and bleak. Before the pandemic, as Mr. Parrott’s data indicates, 84 percent of restaurant workers in New York City made less than $40,000 a year, with roughly a quarter of them receiving food stamps.

So what is the equitable path forward? Part of it lies with legislative changes to the rules governing pooled tips. In New York State, only employees who interact with patrons are eligible to receive a share of tipping proceeds. This means that while bus boys and bartenders may get a cut of a waiter’s tips, kitchen staff cannot. The restaurateur Danny Meyer, who has been pushing for this change, points out that hourly wages for kitchen workers have remained essentially stagnant for decades while tipping rates have risen considerably.

There would also seem to be a moral imperative for affluent people, who have watched their portfolios soar as they largely worked from home during the pandemic, to bear the burden of paying more for the experience of going out. Last summer, when people began returning to restaurants again and eating outside, euphoria and savings from months spent in the house resulted in a newfound largess — often aided by alcohol. Tips were plentiful, in many instances exceeding 30 percent, but eventually the spell wore off.

Given the climate, there should be little issue with jacking up the price of a shellfish risotto. “Restaurant goers figured out years ago that it was worthwhile to pay more money for better ingredients,” Mr. Meyer said. “But we haven’t done a great job persuading them that what we really need to be paying for is people. When you see an heirloom tomato on a menu, you know that you are going to pay more for it. Restaurant workers have been subsidizing dining out, and it is going to take some education to change things.”

One potential outcome of the pandemic may be that restaurant work becomes more professionalized and less transient, adhering more closely to the European model. “I try to think about what people want from the workplace,” the acclaimed chef Alex Raij told me. In a moment in which workers have more leverage by virtue of their scarcity, they are freer to ask for more opportunity. Ms. Raij has been exceeding the minimum wage in her restaurants for years. But because her operation is relatively small, there are not layers upon layers of management structure, so she has had to be creative in coming up with paths to advancement for people who are looking for more of a hand in terms of operation.

Not everything about the pandemic’s impact on the restaurant world has been terrible, Ms. Raij told me. “But you can’t cook yourself out of this problem.”

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