- October 16, 2021
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Zero waste. Locally sourced. Organic. Seasonal. Independent.
In recent years, it has become commonplace for food and drink businesses to prioritize sustainability, and to highlight all the ways in which they are working to shrink their carbon footprints. Plant-based options are multiplying, closed-loop systems are gaining popularity, and ethical farming practices are becoming a normal part of the conversation when choosing where to eat or drink.
Of course, these changes are largely positive, and need to be made to ensure the long-term viability of the hospitality industry (not to mention life on our planet). But rarely do these necessary conversations about sustainability extend to the experiences of the workers at those businesses.
I’ve been employed in the hospitality industry for four years, and I’ve seen all the ways that it treats employees not as people who have specialized skills and who should have adequate compensation and workplace protections, but as an endlessly renewable resource—and therefore disposable.
Despite that, I really value what I do. I would love nothing more than to give a customer a perfect experience every time—it would certainly make my life easier. Unfortunately, that’s hard to achieve when you’re on your third 12-hour shift in a row, on barely enough money to pay your rent. Or maybe you’ve spent the weekend trying to ensure people have a good time, but have been met with sexist remarks and inappropriate behavior in response. Or perhaps none of the ovens are working and it’s December so there are multiple tables of 20 understandably wanting the Christmas platters that they’d booked in September.
Earlier this year via Twitter, I conducted an informal survey on Typeform for those employed in the hospitality industry in the U.K. Across 100 responses from people working in food and drink in England, Scotland, and Wales, only 40% of workers reported that they felt they were fairly paid for their work. Just 33% of workers were paid above Real Living Wage, with 32% of workers paid the Real Living Wage and 35% of workers on or below the government’s “living wage.” (In the U.K., there are two living wages: One dictated by the government, which is, in my opinion, grossly low; the other by the Living Wage Foundation, which encourages companies to pay their employees at a slightly higher rate.)
Those responses may represent a fraction of the country’s hospitality workers, but these hostile conditions have long been considered an industry norm. Recently, the pandemic has shone a brighter light on the precarity and poor treatment such workers face. As of May 2021, the U.K.’s hospitality industry has seen a loss of over 188,000 employees since the arrival of COVID-19. A lot of these people have yet to return—and with such low rates of pay, as well as heightened customer aggression and abuse, lack of government support, and increased health risks, is it any wonder that many have sought alternative employment?
This, too, is a crisis of sustainability. And it will remain one, until wages rise, until sick pay is mandated, until 10+ hour shifts with no breaks disappear—and until we see hospitality workers as fundamentally skilled and deserving of fair treatment.
For centuries, our understanding of “hospitality” has been predicated on an uneven power dynamic: The guest is there to be served, and the worker is there to submit themselves to their every need and whim.
Even amid the tumult of the pandemic, that long-standing framework has remained in place. “I’m interested in how the pandemic has changed very little about people’s relationship to the hospitality business, where relationships are inverted,” Alicia Kennedy wrote in a May 2021 piece, “On Hospitality.” “The people doing the welcoming in a restaurant or bar are not the people who have the power, as opposed to in the home or on the level of the state.”
It is striking that this archaic model continues to exist, even as hospitality has become one of the country’s biggest and most important industries. According to a report from the Resolution Foundation in 2019, 2.4 million jobs in the U.K. were in hospitality, making up 7% of the economy. From 2008 to 2019, the amount of jobs in hospitality increased by 23%.
Compared to other key sectors, however, the report found that hospitality typically has the lowest earnings, with the median hourly pay just £8.72 ($12.11). 50% of roles in the industry are classified as “elementary”—the lowest level of the Standard Occupational Classification in the U.K.—which the government defines as jobs not requiring a degree or specialized training.
This metric doesn’t feel like it takes into account the true rigors of these jobs. I have known people with multiple degrees who wouldn’t be able to do a bar shift to save their lives—and classifying such difficult work as “elementary” ultimately encourages low pay, employment abuses, and even mistreatment by customers.
Indeed, one of the challenges inherent to such work is the popular perception of who works in hospitality, and why. There is still a lot of stigma, which I’ve encountered firsthand: Some people assume you’re a student, trying to earn money before doing something else—because you couldn’t possibly have chosen this as a real career, right? In fact, in 2019, only 27% of the industry was made up of students, meaning that this stereotype disregards the bulk of the industry’s workforce. Other times, people assume that you’re doing this work because you weren’t able to get a “real job”—that you just weren’t clever enough to. Such attitudes make it easy to write off these workers, and assume they don’t deserve adequate pay, or even basic respect.
In reality, the skills needed to work in hospitality are wide-ranging, and take time and effort to acquire. Sure, some shifts go smoothly—you pour drinks, take food to tables, have friendly back-and-forths with customers. Other shifts, it’s all spinning plates and having eyes everywhere. It’s noisy, it’s hot, someone has vomited down a flight of stairs, two guys have started a fight but your bouncer doesn’t start their shift for two more hours, and one table has accepted another table’s food that they didn’t pay for. Your time management skills, and ability to multitask and problem-solve, are key. It’s a very fast-paced and complex environment, and it’s often not a pretty one.
This is not to mention that specialized knowledge is often a prerequisite to employment. When I started in the industry, I worked in cafes with speciality coffee and then eventually in bars with craft beer. Such jobs require an additional layer of expertise and training, from cellar management to knowing the styles, tasting notes, breweries, locations, and ABVs of every single beer on tap, even though they might change every few hours. So often, those specialized skills are still not compensated as they should be.
But ultimately, wherever you are in hospitality, it’s hard work—and the industry’s standards compound that. Because the pay is so low, people work as many hours as possible. That intense pace of work, in addition to a lack of protections, means there are also high rates of burnout and staff turnover. I’ve known really great people who’ve spent years going from place to place, in the hopes that maybe this time they’ll be treated properly by management and won’t get burned out, only to eventually leave the industry entirely.
Staff burnout isn’t just a problem for workers, either. As John Hall wrote in a 2017 article for Forbes, high turnover is also a considerable, and often unsustainable, business expense. “Employee Benefits News reported in 2017 that turnover can cost employers 33 percent of an employee’s annual salary. The culprit? The hiring of a replacement,” he notes, while also citing lowered efficiency during lengthy onboarding processes. Although he’s primarily writing in the context of office work, the message still has relevance for hospitality. “The fact of the matter is that happy employees are healthier, more creative and productive, and better at collaborating,” he says. As someone who has worked in unhappy, overworked, and understaffed environments, I would have to agree.
But all these challenges aren’t meted out evenly. Unfortunately, if you’re a hospitality worker from a marginalized background, you have likely experienced additional abuse and harassment from customers, even lower rates of pay, and unfair expectations of your performance on top of the industry’s baseline of mistreatment. As a queer person within this industry, I can attest to how demoralizing it can be: No matter how hard you work, it can feel like you’re moving through heavy snow.
For people of color in the industry, the situation is much worse. When speaking to Lorraine Copes of Be Inclusive Hospitality at the Common Ground Conference, which I helped organize through Burum Collective earlier this year, Copes said, “The consistent theme throughout my 20-year career has been, generally if you are Black or Asian, you occupy the lowest-paying roles in really junior positions. Throughout my time as director or even as an exec, there’s never anyone who looks like me within a decision-making room, even though the group which I am referring to makes up 17% of the sector.”
Be Inclusive Hospitality is a nonprofit organization, focused on improving the hospitality industry for workers of Black, Asian, and minority backgrounds. Earlier this year, Be Inclusive released the findings of its Inside Hospitality report, which surveyed 400 food and drink professionals across the U.K. The report found that “over half of all ethnic minorities, broken down by groups, have experienced or witnessed racism within the place of work.” When asked about the report, Copes said she wasn’t surprised by the findings but that “all in all the report really highlights how much work needs to be done.”
As the report suggests, the industry needs more guidelines, and businesses need to be held accountable for their employment practices. Imagine if—just like how we have kitchen inspections from health officers, with venues receiving publicly displayed hygiene ratings—we had inspections for workplaces on their paperwork, employment practices, and staff well-being?
Also speaking at the Common Ground Conference was Bryan Simpson of Fair Hospitality. Fair Hospitality is part of Unite the Union, a longstanding trade union within the U.K. that has 1.4 million members across a range of industries. Currently, it is pushing its Fair Hospitality Charter, which contains 10 reforms businesses can pledge to uphold, such as equal pay for young workers, anti-sexual harassment policies, paid transport after 12 a.m., 100% tips to staff, and trade union access.
“They are not radical demands, but they would radically transform the sector,” Simpson said. “We cannot have a situation where the industry is founded unsustainably on people not knowing one week to the next what hours they’re going to have, and what their wages will be.”
On pay, Simpson said that Real Living Wage needs to be between £10 and £15 an hour, and that there shouldn’t be disparity between hourly rates dependent on workers’ ages. (In the U.K., the living wage changes depending on a person’s age, and the gap is quite drastic, with the National Living Wage for a 16-year-old being just over half of the wage of a 23-year-old.) “Giving someone £6.30 an hour because they are 19 is unacceptable … you could have a mortgage, kids, bills to pay,” Simpson said. “Why should you earn 40% less than someone who might be less experienced?”
Of course, most of these problems and dynamics aren’t unique to the U.K. The United States has seen a loss of almost 2.2 million hospitality jobs across the country since the pandemic began, as Bloomberg reports. In a July poll conducted by Joblist, 13,000 hospitality workers—more than half of whom said they would not return to their old jobs, and over a third of whom said they would not consider reentering the industry—reported they were looking for better rates of pay, better benefits, and less physically demanding work.
Meanwhile, a study from the University of California, San Francisco from earlier this year found that line cooks have some of the highest COVID-19-related mortality rates out of all professions, including health workers. As the study’s co-author, Alicia Riley—a sociologist and postdoctoral scholar—noted, the industry’s low wages, absence of sick pay, and lack of remote-work possibilities have meant cooks continued working through the pandemic, despite the personal risks involved.
I spoke to several members of the U.S. food and beverage industry to learn more about their experiences. All of them highlighted low pay, the unfair reliance on tips, poor treatment from customers, the effects of COVID-19, and the lack of unions as key issues. Some also mentioned that the hospitality industry’s current crisis is a rare moment of the scales of power tipping towards historically low-paid, disempowered workers.
“I have friends that have lost homes, jobs, had to move, etc. It’s depressing to know how hard [the pandemic] has hit people in our industry … I’m personally glad we have a labor shortage; people are not going to go back to jobs in our industry until they have something real to offer, and that has been long overdue,” said Patrick Machel of Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco. When I asked if the rate of pay within the industry felt fair, Machel said, “Absolutely not—we rely on tips almost 90% of the time.”
Tipping is not just a justification employers have long used to keep wages low. In the United States, the practice became widespread after the Civil War, with business owners looking for ways to avoid paying formerly enslaved workers. “Tipping further entrenched a unique and often racialized class structure in service jobs, in which workers must please both customer and employer to earn anything at all,” Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II notes in Politico. Today, customers still give white servers higher tips than workers of color.
Additionally, despite early-pandemic exhortations to celebrate front-line workers, many have found that those calls haven’t translated to better pay. “Last December, a survey of 1,600 tipped workers from UC Berkeley and the nonprofit One Fair Wage showed that more than 80 percent of workers reported that their tips actually declined during the pandemic,” as Terry Nguyen notes in Vox.
Despite these factors, the reliance on tips remains common practice within the industry. “[In Ohio] tipped employees make $4.40 per hour, and hourly [pay] starts at the federal minimum wage [of] $7.25 an hour,” said Spencer Hackett, who works in coffee sales. “Back-of-house staff start around $10, and can get close to $20 with tenure and experience. Until 2016 I relied solely on tips.” In addition to reforming tipping, Hackett also thinks other changes must be made to the industry. “I’d like to see wage increases across the board, and public sharing of profits and losses amongst staff.”
As part of our conversation, I asked all four professionals if they felt like they were respected by customers within their roles.
“For some we are an outlet to let off some steam and just have someone listen to them; others just want to boss people around. But those people are really a small part of our job—we just focus on them sometimes because it can be jarring,” said Machel.
“I don’t think my role was respected by customers, particularly in more suburban areas where I have worked,” said one hospitality employee who wished to remain anonymous. “I remember being an angsty teen and almost losing my shit when a customer would speak nasty to my mother at the register, or leave mean reviews. I unfortunately think hospitality workers have gotten worse treatment since COVID as a whole. Yes, some people tip well and are kind. But have you seen what is happening with the harassment and abuse towards airport staff? It’s horrendous. And some of that can trickle into the food and beverage space.”
When asked if they had ever suffered any discrimination or harassment within their place of work, the anonymous worker said, “100%. Mostly by guests. And again, mostly in the suburbs. People are rude, racist, etc. They need something to be unhappy about and usually food is an easy target, if not the person serving it.”
Cari Crowe, the brewery sales and catering manager for Daredevil Brewing Co. in Indianapolis, highlighted how the lack of sick pay is one of the most pressing issues facing hospitality workers. “I’d like to see change in regards to how we view illness. It’s not uncommon for service industry employees to come into work ill then try to work but be sent home. Some employers expect it … being able to offer hourly employees some kind of sick leave [or] PTO would be great. And having managers value employees’ health, too, so that there is coverage or contingency plans, so missing staff aren’t detrimental to the other employees’ experience.”
When I asked Crowe if she felt the industry was sustainable for people looking to have a career, she said, “It used to be. I think that this entire experience has changed how we do work, and it definitely has shone a light on how things can change. Having worked in places that have a strong following and have a larger bill total—the latter because I worked in fine dining—so in places like that, people can definitely make a career of it. There is a lot of bouncing around, though, I’ve heard in other places.”
The irony is, if hospitality workers were paid properly—if there were real opportunities for career progression, work/life balance, sick pay, basic employment rights—then staff turnover wouldn’t be so high. How can the industry be called “hospitality” if the environment that workers are put into, and invite customers into, is inhospitable?
The pandemic has led to some reappraisals. Some businesses have responded to labor shortages by raising their hourly wages. As Business Insider notes, an ice cream parlor in Pittsburgh that was struggling to find employees doubled its base wage to $15 an hour—and received over 1,000 applicants afterwards. Even McDonald’s is increasing wages in its non-franchised outlets by 10%. These actions are a start, but they are just the earliest stepping stones required to make hospitality a genuinely sustainable industry for workers.
As Machel says, building a career in hospitality is harder than it should be. “I think this question really depends—I see myself being at [Anchor Brewing] for the rest of my life. Take into account that I’ve unionized and created job security and have gone with a union that believes in rank-and-file leadership. Others around the country have seen what we have done and want their piece as well, and until we have a solid group of workers who can create this amount of solidarity, we will be fighting for scraps. I think it can be sustainable though. I have aunts and uncles—I call them tios and tias—who work in hospitality and have been doing it for decades. It’s possible, but damn is it hard.”
Machel is lucky to be a part of the headline-generating unionization of Anchor Brewing in 2020. The work for that effort started back in 2018; today, it is one of only a few examples of a unionized craft brewery in the country. Similarly to the U.K., unionization is not common within the United States—only 12.5% of U.S. residents are registered union members, versus 23.5% in the U.K.
“I think if we can crack this union solution with others in the craft brewing world, we can dominate … the people are amazing and the drive is unmatched,” Machel said. “I think with enough big names that start to push their way into the labor movement we can be a beacon of hope and bring others on board. Look at what has been happening in Minnesota, San Francisco, California … We aren’t just going after breweries, we’re bringing in friends that we’ve made on the way.”
When I conducted my informal survey of hospitality workers, I asked if any of them were members of unions; at the time, 94% of respondents said no. A common theme in their answers was that they “didn’t know one existed.”
There is still a lot of fear built around unionization—any discussions I have ever had with other hospitality workers about unions have been quiet conversations in the corner. For a long time, I was even scared to talk about being a member of Unite on social media. But then I connected with Bryan Simpson and other Unite hospitality members, and that has given me more confidence—and more motivation to get involved with the union, and to help make our industry a better place.
The calls for change within the hospitality industry have only gotten louder since the pandemic began, as conditions for workers have become even less sustainable.
Over the past 18 months, a good portion of hospitality staff in the U.K. have been paid 80% of their wages as part of the government’s furlough scheme—if they were lucky enough to get furlough in the first place. That scheme has given businesses the opportunity to keep their staff employed during lockdown, and workers’ wages were subsidized by the government.
This was an essential help to those who were facing unemployment, which many were. In the lead-up to the first lockdown in March 2020, before the furlough scheme was introduced, many hospitality businesses had already begun to lay off workers. At the time, I was working for BrewDog’s Cardiff bar, and brewery management made the decision to fire anyone in the U.K. who had been with the company for less than three months; thankfully, the furlough scheme meant that they were able to bring those members of staff back later.
But for all its good, the furlough scheme has been painful for those on the National Living Wage, which at the time was £8.32 per hour ($11.47) for those in the highest age bracket, or even the Real Living Wage, which was £9.30 per hour ($12.82). Many businesses were unable to top up the final 20% of staff wages, or simply chose not to, meaning that for those employees, the National Living Wage became just £6.55 per hour ($9.05), and the Real Living Wage became £7.44 per hour ($10.26).
Adding to these financial stressors is the fact that many of the people and organizations that are meant to protect front-line employees—like U.K. charity Hospitality Action, which supports workers across areas of food and drink—have lobbied for the reopening of hospitality venues and for masks to be removed before safe to do so. The businesses-over-people attitude hasn’t stopped once, not even for a global pandemic.
When the pubs and restaurants reopened between lockdowns last year, and fully this summer, our jobs became even more difficult. The government has continually released new, changing COVID rules that staff are expected to enforce alongside their regular duties, plus the new onus to clean everything in the building thoroughly (even if doing so is more often about hygiene theater than real prevention).
Since the pandemic began, service has stopped being about hospitality for so many workers. It has become about the difference between someone having a pint and going home safely or potentially getting sick and ending up hospitalized. The responsibility is crushing, not to mention the health risks and personal costs. Skin on hands cracked red and raw from cleaning products, soap, and hand sanitizer. Mental exhaustion from having to argue with customers, imploring them to follow the new government guidelines. And financial uncertainty making everything feel even more strained and unsustainable.
There is still time to turn this industry around. Even through all of these challenges, I strongly believe in the work of people like Lorraine Copes and Bryan Simpson. It cannot, however, fall on their shoulders alone. Nor on the shoulders of those working for organizations like The Drinks Trust, a U.K. charity that provides financial and mental health support for those in the drinks industry. Or the brave women who have continued to come forward over and over again with their horrifying stories of sexual harassment and abuse within the industry. We have to do this together.
The slow shift in the discourse around climate change and environmental sustainability only came about when people fighting for the planet shouted so loudly that businesses and the government had to stop and do something—and that change is still a work-in-progress. What the industry needs now is to be shouting just as loudly about employment sustainability, loudly enough to make people care.
Because even before the pandemic, you might have worked until 3 a.m. and been back in at 9 a.m., and you wouldn’t have been able to say anything about it. You were lucky to have work at all, and there was a line out the door of people willing to break working time regulations, just as you were when you signed your contract. Employers didn’t think about the human interest aspect of sustainability because they didn’t have to.
But it doesn’t have to be like that anymore. The safety net that employers had—the knowledge that they could replace staff at the drop of a hat—has been pulled out from under them, which means now is the time to take action. Now is the time to shout.
Resources for Hospitality Employees:
Be Inclusive Hospitality
The Drinks Trust
Unite the Union
RAINN (Trigger warning)
Safe Bar Networks
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