I’ve always been proud of working for my money. Before I was old enough to ‘work’, I had a paper round. At sixteen, I was making coffees in an apron every weekend. I worked bar in university and served brunches with a tattooed-on false smile to middle-class yoga mums on Sunday mornings. When I moved to London, I paid rent serving pizzas. I am the queen of wrangling tips and I can fake-laugh at a stag party’s vile jokes like an Oscar winner. I’m nothing special.
According to Economic Insight in June 2019, 34% of hospitality and tourism workers are under thirty-four years of age. According to Statista, the average age of bar staff in the UK is twenty-eight while the average age of waiters is twenty-six. I know in the hospitality jobs I’ve worked, in three different cities and between the ages of sixteen to twenty-two, it’s rare to find anyone other than the managers above thirty.
Many of us started our working lives in hospitality, serving tables, making drinks, cooking the food for people who earned ten times our monthly income and never knew our names. Now, in the time of COVID, I feel ridiculously lucky to have started a nine-to-five a few months before lockdown. My workload at the job that pays my rent has been slashed so here I am with the time and financial security to sit at my laptop most days and write.
But how are my ex-colleagues in hospitality coping amid COVID fears? How do they feel now pubs are re-opening and servers are encouraged back to restaurants behind walls of PPE?
I asked around.
The week before lockdown was strange. Customers had been advised not to dine out so the bar was quiet and our hours were cut drastically. Only a handful of people came in but no one knew much about COVID so I felt anxious serving anyone. – Anonymous A.
In a way, it was business as usual. There was no PPE. We just washed our hands more often. While of course hand washing is important, when we wait tables, our hands are regularly disinfected so, with the increased handwashing, I was leaving work with my hands dry and cracked. – Anonymous B.
The pub wasn’t receiving any financial help before lockdown. Many of us were asked to take holiday or had our hours cut in a desperate attempt to reduce the losses. – Anonymous C.
Just before lockdown, Boris made a huge mistake telling the public not to go to restaurants and pubs while simultaneously keeping them open. We lost a huge amount of money; a huge amount of food was wasted. Staff had no choice but be sent home and have their hours cut. – Anonymous D.
But what about those customers who did still ‘brave’ the restaurants and pubs in those early days before lockdown?
Some customers were completely unconcerned but there was one couple, who were so unhappy that I’d sat them near an Italian family that they came up to me and said that they wanted to move to a table further away as if the virus was somehow synonymous with being Italian. – Anonymous B.
If you worked in restaurants, you’ll know food waste is a nightmare. Dropped food. Wrong orders. Twenty minutes out of date. It all goes in the bin.
We had to remove hundreds of pounds’ worth of food. We’d just launched a spring menu which had cost the company a lot of money and now it wasn’t getting sold. – Anonymous A.
I remember as a naïve sixteen-year-old at my first ever café job, asking what we did with wasted food. It shocked me how much totally edible, still-packaged food had to be chucked out or would disappear off home with workers. When I asked whether we were allowed to give it to homeless shelters or food banks, I was told we don’t do that.
For some, furlough has been a welcome rest from their usual work balancing trays and popping champagne for cheering customers.
On the bright side, lockdown has given me the time to save money and work towards my future. – Anonymous A.
The only advantage is having a break from working. Anyone who has worked in hospitality knows it can be exhausting and demanding at times. – Anonymous D.
Given the impact that COVID has had on the industry, I count myself lucky. – Anonymous B.
But there remains the continued job uncertainty. While many pubs opened their doors again on Saturday 4th July, only a few days later customers and staff across the country are testing positive for COVID and pub doors are closing again.
Seeing other places struggling or closing down, I don’t feel like I have any job security. There has been a complete lack of communication. – Anonymous C.
And, for so many young adults who use hospitality to fund their studies and pay their rent, a whole generation of university students and graduates just lost the industry that many of us fall back on when our finances are failing us.
I’m a new graduate and personally this isn’t an industry I plan to work in long term. On the bright side, lockdown did give me more time to study. But for a lot of people, training and work experience opportunities have vanished with no clear plan for how they will start again. – Anonymous B.
And what about returning to the tables and the bar and the dreaded day dots?
I think we need one waiter to a specific number of tables, tables two meters apart, group bookings of no more than six, no children’s parties at all (kids run around everywhere so trying to manage that while socially distanced would be basically impossible), and staff need appropriate training. – Anonymous B.
I feel a bit anxious. We’ve been told we’re going to be given masks. I hope we’ll be seating people outside. If I did raise my concerns, I don’t feel they would be taken seriously. I’m worried it would cause issues if I refused to go back to work. – Anonymous A.
Some managers would be willing to financially penalise anyone that had reservations about returning to work. The individuals themselves can be compassionate but, when the company pressures them to cut hours, they have no choice. It’s typical in the industry that, when hours need to be cut, it is the part-time and the less experienced staff that lose hours first. The industry doesn’t really allow you to raise concerns. – Anonymous C.
What should Boris do?
The government needs to financially support restaurants in some way. PPE should be a legal requirement. Masks, protective glass over tills, hand gel available at all times. It needs to be stressed that the virus hasn’t gone away and to encourage to order takeaway or eat outside. – Anonymous A.
I may have already noted the average age of hospitality workers but it’s important to recognise the class divide that is seeing the working classes and the less wealthy returning to work while the middle and upper classes remain safe with their sanitiser behind their laptop screens. (Myself included.)
The government should allow people who want to return to work to do so, but people also need good financial support if they want or need to shield. People shouldn’t have to return to work because of financial necessity. – Anonymous B.
Photo courtesy of Bimo Luki.