By Catherine Franks
Working in a public facing role can be a challenge at the best of times.
These are not the best of times.
Here’s something I received from one of our Instagram followers after I posted some thoughts recently about working in hospitality during the pandemic:
Its a nightmare. I work for X* Cafe (*well known upscale brand - name removed for anonymity), and we are facing all the same issues of staff shortages and isolating etc., but the company are scared of brand damage, so fail to admit all this to customers, and are continuing to try and trade on the same opening hours and the same extensive menu. And now that social distancing isn’t a thing, they want to add tables back in despite not having the staff to deal. We are all picking up extra hours, staying late, working through lunch breaks and are just knackered. To make it worse, we have the X Cafe entitled customer, who just assumes we are back to normal, and have become so horrendously rude because they have to queue or wait a bit longer or can’t find a clean table. It is not a pleasant working environment at all right now. Something has to give, and I am constantly in fear of catching Covid as our customers have never been good at following any of the rules and it’s just getting worse.
Are we normal yet?
We have just all collectively been through hot freedom summer or whatever permutation of those catch phrases we have all clung to as the government have mandated the opening up the country again. We have all desperately hoped that life could return to some form of normality, that we can meet friends, hug family, parents could wave their kids goodbye at the school gates, teens could come out of their damn rooms into the sunlight again.
We long for music events, parks full of children, stuffed bellies at favourite restaurants, the whoosh and gurgle and clink of cups at our favourite cafe. We want to make plans! We want to casually talk of dream trips to far flung corners of the world as if they might theoretically happen again if only we had the cash. We want to work on the assumption that we will still have a job in 6 months time. We want to run our businesses thinking that most of our team will actually be able to come in to work. We want to go to our family member's wedding without having to go through the agonising process of weighing up the costs and risks and possible weeks off work that could result from doing so.
But just longing for these things, even if it is with every fibre of our frazzled, worn out, fed up, burnt out souls does not make them so.
So where are we?
At the time of writing this, case numbers in Scotland are the worst they have ever been. Yes, 18 months in we cannot expect everyone in the world to be cloistered away in a massive lockdown. Clearly that is impossible.
And yet. And yet.
There is something so wrong about the way this opening up is happening. Something rotten yet almost intangible that is hard to put your finger on. Until you follow the money. Then you realise what that wrong thing is. It is the same wrong thing that has always been. It is the unfairness, the unevenness of the consequences that this opening up will unroll. It is well hidden. Yes it shows up in the stats of Covid cases and deaths but those are just numbers, not people. They don’t show how disproportionately affected are those who are always disproportionately affected. If you are poor, if you are from an ethnic minority, if you live in crappy overcrowded housing, if your health is already bad. All of these factors make it much more likely that you will suffer the worst that Covid has to offer. So has the opening up taken this into account and tried to redress these inequalities? No, it has only exacerbated them. What could have helped? Clear, unambiguous science-led information from the government. A commitment to reaching those most badly affected and redressing unequal access to healthcare and resources. A no tolerance approach to misinformation and scare mongering online. A commitment to as full vaccination as possible and consistent messages about mask wearing in all public spaces to protect the most vulnerable. These things could have helped.
One of the most galling things for me, in this whole Covid catastrophe, has been the privileged ‘I’m alright Jack’ attitude I've seen in places. This is only growing as anti-vaxers harden their lines behind which swell the ranks of mainly white, well off, ableist, healthy, vitamin popping immunity boosting new age a-political good vibes only brigade, their newest foot soldiers. Those privileged ones who can shelter in their hygge sage-purified WFH environments, who have a ‘choice’ about whether to vaccinate, whether to take the bus, whether to go to a restaurant, whether to 'be political'. As is always the case, those with the most privilege are completely blind to it.
On the other side of the line are those without whom there would be no economy at all. Those who take the bus. To work. To work in those restaurants. To work shoulder to sweaty shoulder with the other poor sods working long hours in steaming hot kitchens, carrying heavy trays up and down stairs, washing the dishes and cleaning the toilets and wiping the surfaces left behind by those who are exercising their right to determine whether they get a vaccine, or wear a mask, or leave a tip because the service just isn’t what it used to be. The people on this side of the divide do not have a choice. They have rent and bills and money to send home to families who are even harder hit than them. They have obligations, they are carers, they are often holding down multiple jobs, their jobs have no security. Their jobs put them in contact with lots of other people who also have no choices. None of them have any choice about the extent or terms of this contact. They have no say in safety measures or their lack. The decisions about how many people they work crammed alongside are taken by others. And this is just in traditional hospitality work, what about the newest wave - home delivery - which has boomed during the pandemic? Many who lost their pre pandemic jobs have taken up the delivery of food where they have no contracts, no job security, and often not even a minimum wage. The gig economy is just the latest boil of exploitation on the bloated corpse of late stage capitalism, waiting to be lanced by legislation and workers fighting for the protections and basic rights which have been hard won in other areas. These things could take years, especially in the current political environment.
Being hospitable in a hostile environment
‘Hey, I don’t have a mask with me but its ok, I’ve been double jabbed!’ booms the man as he strides up to order his cappuccino. He is secure in his assumption that his cappuccino is the most important thing in the room just now. I mention that being jabbed doesn’t stop him from being infected or passing that on to other people. I feel an anger rise up inside me at my own timidity. It’s cool he assures me, he is just back from a trip to the United States where everything is opening up again. He didn’t even have to quarantine on return. I stand still in shock behind my till, unsure who these assurances are for. Is it meant to be comforting that people can travel more easily from one high infection area to another? As a business owner should I be so grateful for his custom that I don’t care whether he is exhaling covid-y air all over us, fresh off his flight? Or maybe we should all just be relieved that ‘the economy’ is being allowed to return to normal ie generating lots and lots of wealth that is mainly concentrated in the pockets of a very small privileged group. I’m at a loss for words. We quietly make the cappuccino.
This interaction with my recently landed double jabbed mask eschewing customer highlighted something about hospitality. And this is the tension those of us working within it are feeling acutely just now. This is what makes it so painful for us to enforce mask wearing, to ask whether people have an exemption, to question the reason behind their uncovered face. Have they forgotten their mask? Have they not realised it is in their pocket/under their chin/ dangling from their wrist? Are they making a political statement about their freedom, their refusal to be a ‘sheeple’? Or are they just forgetful? After all, how many of us still forget our reusable shopping bags on occasion??
Of course if you are working in a cafe with indoor seating the mask wearing is a moot point. You are in a room full of people without masks, eating, drinking, talking, coughing. Hospitality is one of the most dangerous settings for the spread of airborne infection. The spaces are confined, the air circulation often poor, people are close together - all of the conditions are ripe for spreading it. Hospitality workers are not exposed to this for a half hour coffee break window, they are exposed to hundreds of different people over hours and days. Furthermore they tend to be from the youngest age brackets who are the least likely to be fully vaccinated.
The core principle of hospitality is that we are hospitable. The clue is in the title. The customer is always right, the experience is everything, we hold it as second nature that making sure our customer is happy is at the top of our agenda. This is the main goal of any hospitality business, or it should be. A great experience is of equal importance to the great food/coffee/drink served. But now with Covid there is a contradiction. The customer’s need/want/desire affects the server not just in the traditional way of extracting their labour but with a new sinister twist of also possibly requiring their health to be offered up too. Of course this is nothing new - people have toiled in the fields, at the looms, down the mines and in the factories to pay for the grand cathedrals, the plantations and even the spaceships of the super rich. Workers have always paid with their bodies and their health for these things. But many of these types of jobs are hidden away. The factories and sweatshops and diamond mines are never visited by those who wear the clothes and jewels they produce. But the restaurant? The cafe? Those are spaces shared by both the producers* and the consumers (*the agricultural workers of course remain hidden). Hospitality is a sort of coal face where we meet. In an ideal scenario this meeting is a dignified and mutually beneficial exchange. A farmer shares his excitement about this week’s berry harvest with his customers at the market. A barista crafts a flat white while chatting with their regular about the provenance of the beans. These interactions are valuable. They acknowledge our mutual humanity. This is what we all hope for and thankfully at Steampunk we get a lot of this!
Sadly this is not the case more widely as the story from our friend in the famous brand X Cafe can attest. Of course much is hidden from sight in hospitality. The dangerous kitchens, the macho chef culture, the predatory customers these things generally lurk in the dark, behind closed kitchen doors, with liberties taken in the guise of banter. Only occasionally a light shines there and a TV chef is exposed as an abuser or a me too moment highlights what every waitperson knows happens regularly when you work a service gig. But much is also hashed out in the open where in the hospitality setting we meet face to face. The server and the unmasked customer. The barista on their 8th hour with no break covering a shift that would normally be done by two and the irate customer who has waited too long for their latte.
To test or not to test - that is the question. But what if testing means you will go without pay for the next 10 days? What if switching on your track and trace app means you are likely to be regularly told to isolate because you are in contact with so many different people throughout your day? What if that isolation, instead of being a holiday or the inconvenience of working at home from your kitchen table for a week, instead means you are unable to pay your rent this month? How does a small business pay its team members if the shop closes while tests are done and isolating happens? Hospitality businesses now have to face up to the reality that over the upcoming months it is almost certain that at least one member of their team will be absent at any time. Thankfully if someone is double jabbed and has a negative test they no longer need to isolate for 10 days, but there will still be constant absences while tests are carried out. Over the past week we have had at least one member of the team absent on most days due to isolating while tests happen. The impact of this new reality is longer wait times, running out of stuff, and of course harder days at work for remaining staff. We can either acknowledge this reality and ask customers to understand or we can pretend it isn’t happening and run our teams ragged in the background behind a smiling ‘we are so excited to be open again’ facade.
Where have all the staff gone?
That is the grim situation in hospitality just now, made grimmer by the fun addition of a global pandemic. How to make this even more interesting? Let’s create a hostile environment for people who come from other European countries to travel and work in the UK! Students here to improve their English, young people working while travelling around, workers from other European countries - for a long time these people have been the backbone of the service economy.
Working in jobs which are largely poorly paid, have long unsociable hours, are gruelling and insecure is never the first choice of employment for those who have a choice. So these jobs are largely filled by migrant labour. Brexit was a massive f&@% you to these people.
Our government knows that our economy depends on migrant labour - not just in hospitality but in agriculture and logistics too. But our Prime Minister knew the votes that would bring him to power depended on the anti-immigrant populism that he stoked for years. Well it seems like migrants have listened. Why after all, when you have a choice of working in any of the European countries would you choose to come to the UK where you will have to go through a lengthy visa application, where your partner will be unable to travel with you, where you will be treated like a criminal? The public have listened to the xenophobic rhetoric too. Not only have anti-immigrant and racist attacks increased, but daily unpleasant low level mistreatment seems acceptable in a way that it just wasn’t before. I have a Polish friend who is treated regularly with the sort of contempt and rudeness that can only be the result of casual racism and to which no British (white) person is regularly subjected to. This hostile environment means that many European workers who would have been with us here in the UK are now working elsewhere. And so it is no surprise that there are massive staffing shortages in hospitality and other migrant dependant sectors. Cafes and restaurants are struggling to recruit the staff we need. Look around, you will see cheerful - ‘join our team’ pleas coming from pretty much every hospitality business around.
In some cases, businesses (especially small indie ones) have pivoted and changed their business model to work within the new reality of Covid and Brexit. This is what we have done at Steampunk. Our offering is based on what we can provide in this new reality. In many cases though, especially in big organisations who are not nimble enough to change, the menus are kept the same - or even expanded to attract the customer back. But how can you offer the same menu with a reduced staff? Especially when you start to factor in additional staff absences due to isolating. The answer is you can’t. Not without a hidden toll being extracted from those working within these businesses. But the public can't see this - people ask constantly when we will fully reopen? When will we have cinnamon buns? When will there be soup and grilled cheese and comfy sofas and fires and all that good stuff? When we explain our reasons, I have found people generally understand.
Don’t get me wrong we want to get back to serving customers, curating a great vibe, sharing our produce. We want this desperately. We love the space when it is busy, when people are laughing with friends, when the coffee is flowing. We love the buzz, the vibe! This is why we do this crazy hard at times thankless work. But what are we willing to sacrifice to do it? Where do we draw the line?
Personally I think it is better to be honest with ourselves and our customers and figure out what we are able to do safely and be straight up about it. Whatever our decisions are you can know that there will have been endless agonising, self reflection and hours of thought put into them. And fear. The fear of losing customers, of losing the business, or of losing our livelihoods. There are many formerly regular customers that we just never see any more, we are acutely aware of this. But there are also many many wonderful people who have supported us through all of the ups and downs of the past 18 months. These customers have had our backs and they will always have our undying gratitude - it is thanks to them that we survive.
Amidst all of this drama we hold fast to one truth. Our team is the most important thing at Steampunk and we will take decisions as a team on how we will navigate these uncharted waters. I remain convinced that if we work together and we look after one another we have a better chance of survival. This is true in our small business and it it is true as a society.
Note: I have written this blog post in my head many times over the past 18 months. Sometimes I have written bits out - angry rants, tearful pleas, scraps of ideas. I have always resisted posting them. I don't want to offend our customers, hell I don't want to offend anyone. It is so ingrained, this need to please and fear of being rude. But I think it is always important to be able to see what a thing looks like from an alternative perspective and I want the public, as they visit hospitality places, to be able to look at it from the point of view of those who are working within them. Most of the coverage we see of Covid and opening up and hospitality is from the perspective of the economy, the government or business owners. Yes, I am a business owner too. I would urge you to ask those you meet day to day in hospitality settings what their experience is.