Ontario’s restaurant crisis is a mental-health crisis, too

OPINION: The hospitality industry is precarious in the best of times — and it will probably never be the same again. We need to take this opportunity to prioritize the physical and mental well-being of workers
By Corey Mintz - Published on Sep 09, 2020
Over the summer, some restaurants have been able to expand patio spaces onto sidewalks. (iStock/Harry Wedzinga)

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In our household, we tell each other that a vaccine is 18 months away. But that it will always be 18 months away. When our daughter, who is not quite one year old, graduates high school, the vaccine will be a mere 18 months away. For people fortunate enough to have the stability of jobs and homes uninterrupted by the pandemic (as a freelancer, I’m as employed as I ever was), “18 months away” is not so distant that we feel hopeless, but not so soon that we should start baking a cake.

For people depending on the government to help them during this massive upheaval, incremental extensions are feeding uncertainty and anxiety — the ingredients for a mental-health crisis.

The Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, introduced in April, was a lifeline for people suddenly out of work and unable to pay bills. It was also an essential tool for hospitality employees, enabling them to make the choice not to work in an unsafe environment. Speaking with both workers and owners in May, I heard from a lot of Americans who were still waiting on unemployment benefits, while Canadians mostly told me that they’d applied for and received funds within days.

In June, CERB was extended by an additional eight weeks. By August, the government had added another four weeks. On September 27, the program, which has been accessed by 8.5 million people, will be transitioned into a modified EI system.

Some of the biggest tech companies — Google, Facebook — have already told employees that they can work from home until at least summer 2021. That means workers in expensive cities, such as San Francisco, will be able to sublet their costly apartments and decamp to more affordable, or rural, areas. Or they might be able to go stay with family, leveraging retired grandparents for the child care they can no longer safely access. The intent is for people to be able to make at least something that resembles a plan for the coming year.

Workers in the hospitality industry, precarious in the best of times, cannot work remotely. And, as the government can do only so much, kicking the can of financial support down the road, they’re left in a state of limbo.

Psychologically, that’s a dangerous place to be.

“All fingers point to a mental-health crisis” in the near future, says Hassel Aviles, co-founder of the popular taqueria brand La Carnita and of the Toronto Underground Market food festival. “I just don’t feel like our industry leaders are acknowledging what’s happening this year and what’s continuing to happen — all of the trauma that the global pandemic has had and racial trauma that Black, Indigenous, and people of colour are processing. No one is unaffected, and there is a collective grief that we are all living with, even if we recognize it or not.”

In recent years, Aviles has been focusing her energies on creating conversations about and solutions for the mental-health crisis she sees in the hospitality industry.

Through Not 9 to 5, the non-profit she created with restaurateur Ariel Coplan, Aviles has been organizing workshops and spreading support resources for hospitality workers dealing with anxiety, depression, and addiction.

Fragile, is how Aviles describes the current mood amongst her peers.

“I talk to workers on a regular bases — servers, GMs, chefs, front of house, back of house. There’s very little to no support for them. We constantly get messages from people seeking legal advice or employment-lawyer support, which is not at all what Not 9 to 5 does.”

COVID-19 didn’t create the restaurant industry’s problems; it only exacerbated them. Long before March 2020, restaurant workers were struggling with the emotional fallout from wage theft, tip-based income disparity, abuse (verbal, sexual, physical, emotional), and addiction in the workplace (hospitality has the highest rate of addiction of any professional field).

Many of these problems are fuelled by consistent access to intoxicants — the everyday after-work beers that becomes the Friday-night bag of coke — which both prevents staff from confronting the emotional toll of their work and also creates conditions for inappropriate sexual behaviour.

Aviles argues that, if you’ve worked in restaurants for three years, front or back of house, there’s a high chance that you have some form of undiagnosed PTSD from workplace trauma.

“Because of the things that happen in our industry, which are so normalized and socially accepted, and the way that you’re treated, leaves you with some level of trauma,” says Aviles. “And you just don’t deal with it. And the whole thing that keeps it going is the silence around it. Instead of causing a problem in the place you work at, you end up going to another place, because you heard it was better there or your friend told you it was better there. And you go to another place because that wasn’t the case.”

When restaurants closed in March, some of them quickly adapted, producing takeout and delivery versions of their menus, mostly at a drastically reduced revenue, profit, capacity, and workforce. Owners frequently delivered meals personally. Some people kept working, even when they could have collected CERB. Some were in safe, controlled environments; others, in cramped quarters without proper protective equipment.

After restaurateurs shook the belief that the disruption would last only a few weeks, there was a general expectation that it would be a few months and a hope that business could resume in July. If they had to last until August, many told me, they were in deeper trouble. It’s now September. And, while Ontario is so far not seeing the major spike in transmission expected when indoor restaurant dining resumed, pre-pandemic normalcy is nowhere in sight.

Over the summer, some restaurants have been able to expand patio spaces onto sidewalks. But this is Canada. Even at the southernmost tip of Ontario, warm weather is coming to an end, and with it, restaurants’ abilities to safely offer full-service dining.

The federal government isn’t going to pay everyone’s bills indefinitely (although it is high time we start a lively discussion about Universal Basic Income and/or Modern Monetary Theory). For anyone already suffering from anxiety and depression, this level of economic uncertainty is like pouring gas on a fire.

“I can’t tell you how many businesses want us to do things for them that we aren’t ready to do,” says Aviles, listing training tools, workshops, and seminars. “There’s a sense of despair in the air. It’s been there since April, and it’s just getting worse. As the winter comes, it’s going to intensify.”

Though it should, our health-care system isn’t going to suddenly accommodate our mental-health needs. But we have the power to shape our workplaces so that we avoid creating these problems in the first place.

For the last decade, there’s been a lot of attention paid to sustainability and an ethical approach to the ingredients in menus. With Not 9 to 5, Aviles is pushing for the industry to direct that same passion, focus, and action into the ethical treatment and sustainability of the humans that produce, grow, cook, and serve food.

“It starts with acknowledging all of what's happened and is happening, “she says. “Acknowledge that, traditionally, the culture in our industry has been shaped by masochism, where workers are trained to repress and suppress mental and emotional experiences.”

This recognition needs to happen verbally. But, ideally, it should be written into businesses practices. The office world calls it a culture deck — a clear statement of the social principles of the workplace. And restaurants can do it, too.

Since mid-March, we've been watching the death of what hospitality once was. Although Ontario has cautiously resumed some business, like limited dine-in service, everything is different now. It will probably never be the same again. But this is also an opportunity to rewrite some of our behaviour.

“Quarantine sparked reflection, and we're seeing the beginning of the next step, which is unlearning archaic principles that cause damage to our mental and physical health,” says Aviles. “We are all in the early stages of reimagining, and this is vital. The goal is to learn about intersectionality and create psychological and physical safety for all. Everyone has a responsibility, and, whether we recognize it or not, we all have power and influence over each other. Individual healing and learning contributes to the collective.”

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