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Service Workers Are Now Frontline Public Health Enforcers

Is it any wonder they are quitting in droves?

bouncer turns away unvaccinated patrons
An employee turns away patrons without vaccine cards at a club in North Hollywood.

The final affront to Helen Yin was the signage. It’s not like customers read signs anyway, the former bartender said, but at least you could point to one as proof that the person pouring the beer wasn’t personally making the rules. Yin worked in bars and restaurants for 15 years, until last month. Management at the “lucrative bartending gig” she’d had for three years in New York wanted customers to feel normal during the pandemic, so Yin’s bosses wouldn’t hang signs reminding patrons to wear a mask. When Yin realized that she would soon likely be required to verify a customer’s health records, she found other work. “There’s so much onus on the staff to quell disruptive customers,” she said. “Service industry folks have had to do like six different jobs during this time.” 

Early in the pandemic, customers were grateful, polite. Yin said they tipped excessively until about eight months in. “You could just see the tips get lower and the expectation for service the same as before,” she said. “At some point, the staff just quit trying to police people” over mask mandates and distances between customers. Bar patrons were going to do whatever they wanted anyway, she reasoned. “And if I say no, you’re not going to tip me.” A lot of the people at the brewpub where she’d been working were making $10 an hour.

Yin found another job outside of the service industry in mid-September. “It just became too much emotional demand, and unrealistic expectations from the consumer, and from your bosses, without any compensation for the added job roles we had to do,” she said.

The so-called Great Resignation, triggered last April when four million workers abandoned their posts, continues to eviscerate the Department of Labor’s existing records. In a report released this week, the agency found that in August, 4.3 million American workers quit their jobs. Over the summer, the corporate world, animated by the idea that its white-collar employees were burning out following the trauma of Covid-19, rebranded vacations as retention measures. They introduced “wellness weeks” and “rest and refuel Fridays” and, in the case of Marriott International, gave their employees a couple extra days off. Naturally those perks applied mostly to the office workers who’d spent the last year and a half working from home and not to Marriott’s hotel staff, the kinds of hospitality workers who were suddenly furloughed last spring and then watched their CEOs lobby the federal government for some of the $2 trillion stimulus package without bringing workers back. The uncertainty took a massive psychological toll on those workers, and if they did return to work, they were likely to be hassled and mistreated by guests.

The unconscionable abuse of hospitality workers is a well-documented pandemic trend, even as those workers are key to letting the country return to “normal.” And normal now depends, in many places, on those workers’ ability to keep customers from spreading a deadly disease. As the mayor of New Orleans said when she introduced vaccine and Covid test mandates for indoor activities this summer, “We really have no choice, this situation is dire.”

According to the recent data from the Labor Department, around 900,000 of the people who left their jobs in August worked in service. They were the people staffing hotels, working counters, and tending bar, acting as conduits between customers and the public health mandates imposed by states and cities; how effectively staff managed those mandates was what kept their employers open for business. The latest numbers mean that about three out of every five people working these jobs quit.

One line of thinking about this situation, most likely to come from a manager, is that expanded unemployment benefits seduced a fundamentally lazy populace. Another interpretation is that people have reacted with reasonable fear to the spread of the delta variant: Across industries, more workers quit in areas where Covid-19 spiked.

But surveys of front-of-house workers have found that a broad majority invoke customer behavior as a reason to abandon their posts or switch jobs, behavior that’s likely fueled by pandemic-related changes to the experience of being served. In high-profile incidents over the last months, patrons have assaulted and killed service workers over public health mandates. Restaurants in states without vaccine mandates who have barred the unvaccinated from dining indoors find themselves overwhelmed by bad reviews; in Massachusetts, patrons were such assholes to a café’s staff that the restaurant simply briefly shut down. The week San Francisco imposed a vaccine mandate for indoor dining, an industry group found more than half of its members reported at least one incident related to their attempts to enforce it. “We told our members, we are not police officers,” said Laurie Thomas, the executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, which performed the survey. “Will there be fake cards? For sure, people are going to do that. But we can only do the best that we can.”

Many hospitality workers have seen their responsibilities significantly expand as they’ve been deputized as agents of public health, a role most people I spoke to referred to as “babysitting” their customers, while also attempting to provide them with a comparable experience to what they remembered from before. It can create a bizarre set of circumstances, where the patrons that workers are relying on for businesses and tips following a lean couple of years are also the ones they’re supposed to patrol. This is in addition, according to Yin, to the already difficult work of being in a customer-facing position. “The people that are bartending still have to play therapist to a lot of people,” she said. She added that she had increasingly been playing grief counselor, as well.

Service work, like all work, has changed during the pandemic in ways both dramatic and mundane. When indoor dining shut down, bartenders became waitstaff for hastily built outdoor venues. (“We got the smallest taste of what people deal with, as far as the rudeness and entitlement and disregard for our safety,” said Zoë Beery, who works at a music venue and briefly served food. “It gave me even more sympathy.”) When major cities opened back up, the same staff had to decide how aggressively to enforce mask mandates, with employees often varying widely in their threshold for risk. “I can tell you from personal experience, just dealing with masks, it’s like babysitting a bunch of drunk, rich, entitled toddlers in Jackson Hole,” a server named Blake, who was recently working in Wyoming, told me. “Often restaurants would turn a blind eye and then close down every few weeks when enough staff got Covid.” In a tourist town dependent on wealthy vacationers, he said, “the staff was just trying to make enough money to afford the absurd housing costs.” A New York bartender spoke of the “unpaid labor” of the dozens of untipped takeout orders he transcribed every hour as he attempted to please all the customers inside. In San Francisco, a server referred to the patchwork of mask and vaccine enforcement efforts as the “Wild West.” “It’s very draining” to ask customers to put their masks back on every time she approaches the table during a busy shift, she said.

Now, in a handful of major cities with large influxes of tourists, those same people are responsible for asking their customers to prove their vaccination status or be turned away, a regulation most people I spoke to found personally comforting but which further expanded the scope of their jobs. In the club where she works, Sophia Alami-Nassif, a bartender and bouncer, said she’s seeing three to five obviously fake vaccine cards a shift. People are bringing computer printouts; some are screenshotting New York State–issued Q.R. codes that belong to their friends. Those who aren’t vaccinated get frustrated when she turns them away, sometimes becoming hostile or trying to pay her to gain entrance to the club. It’s less of a hassle than enforcing the mask mandate, she said, which inspired surprisingly intense reactions from a relatively conscientious crowd. But “it’s a lot of pressure,” she said. “I end up having to be the person to advise the public on their health, which is not my expertise.” She finds herself explaining, again and again, why it’s important that people entering a crowded dance floor would want to have gotten the jab.

Of the handful of service workers I interviewed, no one expected this aspect of their job to disappear anytime soon. And it can be difficult to separate the toll of policing customers from the general exhaustion of living through the last few years. “There’s been no widespread reassessment of how work and labor might really change in light of the trauma” of the pandemic, said Beery. “But sometimes I just think briefly, while I’m scanning somebody’s Excelsior app, oh God. What a weird thing that we have to do now, and how sad and strange it is that this is now just an acknowledged part of our work.”