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'A vicious cycle': Food workers speak out about confrontations during the pandemic

Restaurant workers have dealt with increasing levels of bad behavior from customers amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Food workers say customers "feel like they are more entitled than they have been before," and are more likely to respond negatively towards inconveniences like long wait times or reduced menus.
Food workers say customers "feel like they are more entitled than they have been before," and are more likely to respond negatively towards inconveniences like long wait times or reduced menus.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

The restaurant industry has been battered by the coronavirus pandemic: Tens of thousands of establishments have closed permanently, and more have struggled to keep their doors open.

While many COVID-19 related restrictions have been removed in the United States, making it possible for restaurants to operate with some degree of normalcy, many issues remain: Limited menus, disrupted supply chains, and staffing shortages mean servers are doing more work than usual, while also trying to stay safe from the virus.

"We've all seen these viral videos of servers being assaulted or yelled at by customers who are upset about masks or how long they had to wait for their table," said Darren Cardosa, a long-time server who runs a blog called "The Bitchy Waiter" where he posts about the reality of restaurant life. "There is this sense in the whole country right now that there's a lot of anger and frustration, and it seems like a lot of customers feel like it's OK to take that out on their server."

Mary Martin Hafiani, a restaurant worker in North Florida, said that customers "feel like they are more entitled than they have been before," and are more likely to respond negatively towards inconveniences like long wait times or reduced menus.

"Their expectations are above and beyond what was the norm," Hafiani said. "I think a lot has to do with maybe they've been inside too much. And now they're out, they're taking out their frustration on the servers a lot. It's never good enough, it's not fast enough."

Disputes over coronavirus precautions

While many states have reduced their coronavirus restrictions, like mask mandates and social distancing rules, some localities have stricter rules. Private businesses are also allowed to make their own rules in most states, including mandating masks, asking for temperature checks or continuing to enforce social distancing.

Ashley V., a restaurant worker in Florida who asked to only be identified by her first name because of her establishment's social media policy, said that at the height of the pandemic, customers would argue about wearing masks. Now, customers don't need to wear masks, but servers at her restaurant still do.

"You have them screaming in your face 'Take your mask off,' and you have to politely tell them 'I'm not allowed to, it's a requirement. You don't have to wear yours, I'm not asking you to wear one, but we have to wear ours,'" Ashley said.

Now that the restaurant she works at no longer has any restrictions in place and the state is entirely reopened, she said that people have also tried to use the pandemic to criticize servers at the end of their meal.

"This week alone I had two elderly women make a server cry because ... When they sat down they demanded nobody sit near them, and this family with two small children was sat near them, and the women proceeded to embarrass the server for that to the point where she was crying," Ashley recalled, noting that the restaurant has made it clear that they no longer can guarantee social distancing. "I had a gentleman make a request for something that I couldn't do, and he proceeded to start yelling at me on social distancing and 'COVID is real' and this and that, and I looked at him and I said 'I really agree, but I am wearing a mask and you are not.'"

Stephanie Le Mere, a restaurant hostess and manager in Wisconsin, said that servers are juggling these concerns while also managing their own health.

"People are starting to not even act like there was a pandemic, and I do worry about it," Le Mere said. While she is fully vaccinated, she has a health condition that makes her high-risk if she does contract the coronavirus. "I always wash my hands, I'm always very careful about what I touched and not touching my face and keeping my personal distance from people. But it's hard in this business."

Sometimes, disputes about coronavirus precautions lead to tragedy. In May 2020, a security guard at a Michigan dollar store was shot and killed during an argument about mask-wearing, and in the same month, two workers at a McDonald's in Oklahoma were shot and injured after asking a man to leave the restaurant's closed dining area. Most recently, a cashier at a supermarket in Georgia was shot and killed after an argument about mask-wearing.

Ashley explained that food workers are just following orders. "They're doing what they're told and just coming to work and trying to make a living. It's not fair on any level ... They shouldn't bear the brunt of policies that are put in place by their employer."

Staffing issues lead to long waits, confrontations

Amid the pandemic, many restaurants have had trouble keeping their establishments fully staffed, which means longer waits and less availability for diners. It's also put on a burden on those who are working in restaurants right now, since many are doing extra duties and working more shifts than usual.

"It's been a lot for the staff," explained Ashley, who works in a managerial position but has found herself filling in as a busser, line cook and more in the past few months. "You never know what you're stepping into from one day to the next. You can go one day being fully staffed to the next day walking in and having one server and one line cook for the entire restaurant."

Le Mere said that her large restaurant recently had a day where only two servers were available for the entire shift. One party, when told it would be a 20-minute wait for service despite tables being open, seated themselves and lashed out a server when they weren't taken care of immediately.

"(They) started screaming at my waitress, calling her a f---ing bitch and threw their drink and stormed out and didn't pay for anything, because she was so busy," said Le Mere, who said the server told the party that they could order from the bar while they were waiting. "We shouldn't have to deal with stuff like that."

Nicole Pullen, a server in Iowa, said that customers tend to start their visits out on a bad note when they are asked to wait.

"They take it out on us that we don't have enough staff," Pullen said. "That wait just throws everything off, and they take that into account, like 'We didn't get great service, because we had to wait so long,' even though when they got to their table I gave them everything they needed. ... It doesn't matter if we give them the best service possible. They're still mad about it."

Le Mere said another complicating factor is the increase in to-go dining: Since so many restaurants expanded their takeout and delivery operations during the pandemic, customers have come to expect that level of service and may use that more frequently. On busy nights, it's like running two restaurants at once, she said, and the bad behavior from customers comes from both sides.

"It's very stressful," she said. "Our restaurant is almost back to capacity, we're busy like we were before the pandemic ... Now our kitchen has, instead of what it was before, they have twice as many orders with all the takeout orders we get, so the cooks get all stressed out and then the customer's food takes longer and then the customers get mad and it's just a vicious cycle."

'Like shooting the messenger 25 times a night.'

On top of the struggles with wait times and safety precautions, the pandemic has led to supply chain disruptions, which in turn means menus have changed: Some staple items have been removed or altered, and sometimes customers can't get their favorite drink or dish. Large chains and local restaurants alike have struggled with these issues.

"We have supply chain issues across the country," Ashley explained. "Things that we used to be able to get, liquor-wise, food-wise, we can't. A lot of restaurants reopened with smaller menus, and the guests are taking that out on staff."

Le Mere said that her restaurant has changed recipes and made other alterations during the pandemic.

"A lot of our beers aren't coming, and customers don't understand why, and then they get mad at us," she said. "It's like shooting the messenger 25 times a night."

All of those factors add up to financial trouble for restaurant workers: Every worker interviewed for this story said that they had seen a change in their tips amid the pandemic.

"I don't know if it's because of the wait or people just want to get out of the house and don't have the money to leave a good tip," said Pullen. "I literally had a table over the weekend, a 13-person table, and their bill was $364, and they left me a $14 tip. And that was my only table for two hours, and I had to tip out the busser, and it's like, I literally paid for you tonight. ... I don't know if it's just that people want to get out and they don't realize that in the service industry we don't get paid much hourly and we have to do those tip outs, and we really rely on those tips."

Ashley said that she has definitely seen tip percentages "decrease" recently, and said that it often feels like servers are getting blamed for "lack of product or prompt service" even when those issues are beyond their control.

"Even if you try to bend over backwards and try to make it better for them, there's a certain percentage that will take it out on the server," Hafiani said.

Le Mere said that after a year of seeing people prioritize other frontline workers, it hurts to see her industry and coworkers treated this way.

"You see all these health care heroes and all these frontline heroes, and I don't want to put myself on that level but we were almost as essential as everybody else during the pandemic," Le Mere said. "It just seems like the restaurant industry just got crapped on during all of this and I just feel so bad for all the businesses that didn't make it through."