Black-and-white photo depicting a tired food service worker in chef's hat and apron with their head in their arms on their work surface with a pile of un-prepped food beside them.

OPINION | Working With COVID

by Jesse Kennemer

For a food service worker, even a mild case of COVID in the “post-pandemic era” can lead to critical loss of personal income or even losing a job. This is before even taking into consideration the potential health impact of the infection itself, especially in the long-term.

I recently interviewed in person for a part-time prep gig at a restaurant I have eaten at for years — a place where I could picture myself being proud to work. The owner/manager texted me to schedule an interview the morning after I sent in my resume. When we sat down Tuesday morning, she was enthusiastic about my 6 years of cooking experience. She gave me a quick tour of the kitchen, introduced me to the prep cook on duty, shook my hand, and said I would hear from her the next day. Sure enough, she called to offer me the job Wednesday morning, and I accepted.

The plan was to train Friday and Saturday, to watch and learn the various prep tasks for one weekend before I’d be left to my own devices going forward. Unfortunately, I started to feel sick Thursday morning and tested positive for COVID. I knew it would not ingratiate me to my new boss to call in sick for my very first shift, but in my mind, there was nothing else to be done. I could not work alongside my new coworkers while knowing I tested positive for COVID. I notified my boss and apologized that I would have to delay the start of my training.

“So sorry to hear that. I really need to get someone in this weekend to train. I will be in touch if nothing changes by next week.”

The job offer I had accepted and celebrated was gone. The prospect of waiting even a single week to begin my training was enough to motivate this manager to cut ties and reach out to their second-choice candidate. I asked for clarification that I no longer had the job because I was sick.

“I’m sorry. I just need to start training this weekend. You were definitely my first choice.”

If this restaurant manager had chosen to keep me on board, they would not have had to pay me a dime while I was out sick. Employers in Seattle are required to provide paid sick leave, but there is a 90-day waiting period before employees are legally entitled to use their leave. The minimum legal rate of accrual for employees in Seattle is one hour of paid sick leave earned per 40 hours worked. So even if the 90-day waiting period were not a factor, I would have started out my new job with zero accrued sick leave. It would take months of work to collect enough sick leave to cover shifts missed during a COVID-19 infection.

I did not lose my new job as a cost-saving measure. I lost the job because having to start even one weekend late made me a mild inconvenience and marked me as vaguely unreliable. When I explained losing the job offer because I tested positive for COVID and called out sick, my friends from outside the service industry were shocked and outraged on my behalf. Several of them asked if it was legal, if there was anything to be done. “Can they really just do that?” My friends who work service jobs were apologetic but much more resigned. It did not shock people with experience in customer-facing work, especially restaurants, that a manager would make such a cold, calculated decision upon learning of an employee’s illness.

There is a rough understanding that a good restaurant or bar owner keeps the lights on and money coming in at all costs. As a result, there is a similar understanding that a good food service worker is willing to show up and work under almost any conditions so that the owner can keep the lights on and money coming in at all costs. This broken culture incentivizes employees and employers to lie about COVID, or at least to avoid testing and notifying each other when an infection occurs.

I was not told to come in and work while COVID-positive. I was told I no longer had a place to work once I notified my boss that I had COVID. It is not difficult for a worker in this position to connect the dots and decide the best way to keep getting paid is to keep quiet about their COVID status, or to avoid testing in the first place to maintain plausible deniability. Staying home until that fading sliver of a test line disappears completely can mean staying unavailable to work for 10 or more days. That whole time, the worker is losing money and the manager is desperately scrambling to cover their shifts. If enough workers are infected at the same time and are willing to test and report to their employer, it could even lead to the mysterious, dreaded one-day “staffing shortage” closure.

The normalization of food service workers coming in to work while COVID-19 positive is not sound public health policy. It does not protect workers or the public they serve. Seattle should strengthen its paid sick leave ordinance by requiring that 40 hours of paid sick leave be made available to workers from day one of their employment. There should also be a significant, well-enforced penalty for employers that retaliate against workers for reporting an illness or taking necessary precautions to safely recover from an illness, especially COVID-19.

In the meantime, another road to improving the culture around working sick in food service is through workplace organizing. While only 1.3% of food service workers in the U.S. are unionized compared to 10.1% of overall workers, there are reasons to believe this is changing. We have seen a serious wave of unionized Starbucks locations nationally, including several Seattle locations. Locally, Homegrown and Glo’s Diner have also formed new unions in the last year.

Restaurant workers who are members of a union can bargain for greater workplace protections, including paid sick leave and COVID-specific protocols, as part of their contracts rather than waiting for City Council to pass new laws. Ideally, if more restaurants unionize and more of those unions bargain for stronger protections for their workers, it can serve as a rising tide to improve norms across the industry.

It has been demonstrated to me firsthand this summer that COVID is far from over for food service workers. We are still getting sick, our bosses still expect us to show up to work no matter what, and we still can’t afford to miss shifts. I should not have had to choose between working sick or losing my job. It is a quiet public health failure that should catalyze workers to organize and outrage the public into calling on the City Council to strengthen sick leave protections.

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