Ontario restaurant workers need answers — and empathy

OPINION: Many got laid off. Some found new jobs in sales or delivery. Some collected CERB. All of them are traumatized
By Corey Mintz - Published on Mar 17, 2021
At the start of the pandemic, Alex Molitz was the sous-chef of a high-end French restaurant in Toronto. (Facebook)

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It’s easy to understand the collective anxiety of restaurant-industry professionals if we visualize three lines on a graph. One charts the pace of the vaccination rollout. Another represents the expected reopening of dine-in service. And a third marks the end of government subsidies meant to keep workers safe, businesses solvent, and the economy from sliding off the map.

The fear comes from not knowing when any of these things will happen, what order they will happen in — and, more specifically, whether they will be serving customers again before it is safe to do so.

Over the past year, restaurant fans have learned how hard the industry has been hit. The closures, the layoffs, and the high commission costs of third-party delivery have been an inescapable part of our public discussion. But the emotional toll on the people of the industry has gone largely unseen.

In 2020, Ontario lost 355,000 jobs. Nearly a third were in hospitality. Most of the full-service restaurants that have survived by transitioning to takeout and a grab bag of revenue streams (meal kits, groceries, bottle sales, etc.) are operating with skeleton crews. Entire staffs were furloughed or laid off in March 2020, enabling workers to apply for what quickly became the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit. Those that reopened have been generating about a third of their previous revenue. So even with wage subsidies, they’ve rehired no more than necessary, often 10 or 25 per cent of former staff.

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Some workers found new jobs in sales or delivery. Some have gotten out of the profession, seeking training and certification in other fields. Some collected CERB, which then transitioned back to unemployment. All of them are traumatized. They’re worried about their careers, money, and safety. Those who are working, in jobs that used to be very social now do so in isolation. One owner told me her staff now arrives exhausted and gets tired after two hours.

At the beginning of summer last year, patio service resumed, following Ontario’s initial lockdown. The majority of diners, thrilled to be eating in restaurants again after three months, were courteous. But it doesn’t take many of the troublesome sort — anti-maskers with open disregard for worker safety, consent, rules, and science — to make the experience awful. Like grocery-store workers, front-of-house staff had to deal not only with high demands from customers, but also with the new job requirement of communicating and enforcing public-health guidelines.

But in restaurants, these confrontations came with the understanding that income is tied to tips. Every diner who sat down was potentially the next one to declare that they wouldn’t wear a mask on their way to use the restroom, putting employees, their co-workers, and their families at risk. And it’s left those professionals, already battle-worn from dealing with entitled, unruly, inebriated customers, quite shaken.

“Because what we saw last summer was quite traumatic, there’s a lot of anxiety and fear around the reopening,” says Hassel Aviles, executive director of Not 9 to 5, a non-profit that provides mental-health resources to the hospitality industry. “A lot of people showing up with no mask, fighting the need to wear masks. The feeling of customers and guests not having much empathy or consideration for the high levels of stress and fear that workers were feeling.”

So far, Ontario is in Phase 1 for vaccine distribution. Phase 2, planned for April, lists many prioritized essential-worker classifications but does not include hospitality. With Phase 3 scheduled for July, it seems likely that patios will open before workers are vaccinated, leaving staff questioning whether they’ll have to go back to work without a vaccine — and what they can expect from diners this time around.

“Employers can’t answer these questions,” says Aviles, “because the government isn’t giving a lot of detailed information.”

A rare upside to the pandemic is that it has pushed forward the awareness of mental-health needs in the restaurant business. Aviles had felt that industry leaders were unwilling to face the severity of their employees’ depression, anxiety, and addiction issues, but the pandemic has moved the topic from the back of the line to the front. She now receives a deluge of requests for her services: mental-health-resource lists, training, seminars for the workplace.

Most restaurants still don’t have any kind of meaningful human-resources management, let alone for mental health. Bruce McAdams, a hospitality professor at the University of Guelph, while conducting a study over the summer, found that only three out of 20 restaurant managers received any training on employee mental health. All stated that they wanted it and that managing the mental health of workers has become a regular part of their day.

It’s hard for staff, who almost never receive benefit packages, to access professional help. But there’s a hospitality support group based out of British Columbia that’s filling that need. Supported by donations and fundraising, Mind the Bar is free for hospitality workers (you have to be over 19 with three years in the business, but they’ll make exceptions). Once registered, members have access to Lifeworks, an employee-assistance program that provides, in addition to other services, a 24-hour crisis line and additional counselling.

For Alex Molitz, help came in the form of a model airplane.

At the start of the pandemic, Molitz was the sous-chef of a high-end French restaurant in Toronto and just about to sign the lease on a new apartment. Since the death of his father a year earlier, Molitz had been living with his mother. His employers closed and then reopened, with a lack of direction that was common in restaurants. Molitz left before the summer, finding work in Prince Edward County until October. As he did during the first lockdown, the furloughed chef smoke and drank too much, his eating and sleeping habits out of sync thanks to years spent doing those things only when work allowed. Mostly, he stared at the walls, remembering the small details of restaurant life, the clinking of glasses or casual conversations with the dishwasher.

“I didn’t realize until [the second lockdown] how much being a chef defined me as a person. The feeling of not holding my knife, not coming up with dishes,” he says. “As you start to not take care of yourself more and more, your brain gets foggy. I didn’t want to cook at home. I didn’t want to create. I thought I was done. And that was scary.”

By February, his mother, a psychotherapist, seeing something was wrong, suggested he keep his hands busy. She bought him a model airplane, a B-17 bomber. Molitz spent the next four days assembling it, then nailed a job interview for a new chef position.

“It was the B-17 flying fortress that brought me back. The simple task of taking my time and painting. Going through the process. It was unreal. I couldn’t believe it. A model airplane. It was this catalyst for everything turning.”

Like everyone else I’ve spoken with, Molitz is concerned about the how and when of reopened restaurant service, whether pulling the trigger too soon will result in another lockdown, and how customers are going to behave.

“We’re all a bit nervous about what people are going to be like. Are people going to be cool? Understanding? A lot of us are out of practice. The bartenders, cooks, servers are going to be a bit slower. I’m going to be a bit slower. I’m nervous about having a dickhead on the patio who wants to be defiant about masks.”

Nervous or not, hospitality workers who have been waiting out this lockdown will head back to serve the public when they can. They hope the guests will have empathy.

“All of us are excited to work again,” says Molitz. “To serve tables, to make cocktails and food. We all miss giving an experience. I miss that feeling more than anything. We just want people to be a little bit nicer this time around.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Alex Molitz was the chef of a  French restaurant in Toronto; in fact, he was the sous-chef. TVO.org regrets the error.

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