Workers deserve better — they always have.

It’s probably a common scenario: I got my first restaurant job at age 16. I had just gotten my license and my dad had fixed up a ’98 Grand Prix for me to drive but I’d need to pay for the gas and oil changes. I had worked at an ice cream shop one summer, and even as a filing assistant in my dad’s service shop in the car dealership where he worked. I don’t know why or how I gravitated to applying for restaurant jobs then, but that year I became a host and busser at an “upscale” (i.e., fancier than Olive Garden) restaurant a 15-minute drive from my house.

Many times over the years, I’ve been incredibly thankful for that choice I made. A hosting and bussing gig led me to a better hosting gig, which led me to two serving gigs that helped me feed myself through college, which led to saving (barely) enough to move to New York. After a couple of difficult months and being not so sure I’d make it, I landed a serving job in the city where tips were so good I started saving money for the first time in my life. I even made new friends and, finally, I started to feel like I was doing okay.

That first NYC serving job led to two more. In all of them I found community, a sense of belonging, and a steady-enough paycheck to survive and then some. But serving comes with consequences. Long hours, no breaks, and physically taxing work with little-to-no relief. A lot of servers end up working more than 35 hours a week but aren’t offered an employer-based health insurance plan, sick leave, or paid time off. In NYC, all employers must now offer up to 40 hours of sick leave per year which employees accumulate over time, but it’s often a difficult task to get restaurant owners and managers to pay up. It also doesn’t stop managers from demanding you find someone to cover your shift, even if you have a fever or your parent just died.

About five years ago I started working in non-profit arts full-time, but I never really let my server identity go. This was partially practical: my new job, though it provided benefits, didn’t pay enough to cover all my expenses, so I needed a second job. But part of it felt kind of spiritual: I liked serving. I liked the camaraderie, the satisfaction of completing physical tasks, and the sense of contributing directly to a community. In an office your co-workers might nervously laugh at your half-joking, half-actually-serious suggestions to strike or form a union, while your restaurant co-workers are forming text chains about organizing or actually walking off the job in solidarity with another co-worker’s wrongful firing. I’m sure there’s a deeper story here about class and labor history — who becomes a restaurant server and who ascends the ranks of the professional managerial class — but I’ll leave that part sans conclusion for now.

But why aren’t there any restaurant unions that I know of? Or grocery store unions? Why haven’t we demanded paid time off or breaks during an 8-hour shift? At a Bernie Sanders rally in October, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reflected on her time as a bartender and said something that hit me right in the gut:

“I didn’t think that I deserved [healthcare… a living wage]. Because that is the script that we tell working people here and all over this country, that your inherent worth and value as a human being is dependent on an income that another person decided to underpay us.”

Now, a lot of those working people who have been struggling for decades are deemed “essential workers” among the COVID-19 crisis. Most are being paid the same, low wages. Some are being forced to take unpaid sick leave or being fired for wearing protective equipment. Millions of service industry workers across the country are filing for unemployment, hoping it’ll go through before rent is due, since there’s no rent freeze. A short eviction moratorium, for the record, doesn’t mean squat if you can’t afford to pay your backed-up rent when it’s over.

And what about their health insurance? Can they still afford whatever marketplace plan they’re on which, by the way, probably doesn’t kick in with benefits until they’ve spent $7,500 out of pocket? In a time when everyone’s health is at stake, shouldn’t we be taking care of the people who take care of us?

In any time, at all, shouldn’t we be taking care of the people who take care of us?

What’s possibly even scarier than the current layoffs from millions of jobs across the country is the ones that won’t come back. It’s incredibly sad to think about the shops, cafes, and restaurants I love who have closed “temporarily,” but have no guarantee of returning. To me and many others, it’s about more than the product we were getting; it’s about the people who greeted us, served us, and helped shaped our experiences while we were there. We need ensure that small businesses can survive this pandemic and provide for their workers now and in the future — and we should demand that their workers are treated well in the process.

We are living in an unprecedented moment. It’s scary to feel like nothing will ever be the same, but it’s also an opportunity to make sure it’s never the same. It should be better. It should be more just. In our new emerging moment, we should honor our workers and treat them with dignity. Anything less should be unacceptable.

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Jessica Schmidt

I’m a socialist feminist studying policy analysis in New York City. I’m interested in labor rights, housing, healthcare, and enacting the Green New Deal.