I’m a hospitality worker and after three months furloughed I returned to work in a restaurant on ‘Super Saturday’.
Careening into an 11-hour shift was not the gentle landing I had hoped for. It started off slow, with customers arriving sheepishly, many shocked when we asked for their full names and numbers to comply with track and trace rules.
But as the day wore on and the prosecco lunches turned into drunken dinners, the space got busier and even with some tables removed to enable social distancing it felt like too much too soon. Customers who were at first ‘just happy to be here’, soon began to drunkenly approach me to pay the bill, disregarding the one-metre distance rule.
The clear rules and defined roles set for each staff member were gradually forgotten in the rush, as the impulse kicked in to help out where we could. The busier it got, the more our thorough handwashing was replaced by a squirt of sanitiser. Managers began to brandish the track and trace clipboard, chasing dismissive customers around the restaurant.
The new rules would always have proved hard to follow when dealing with an excitable public. But what made it even harder was that I had so little time to prepare.
Just two weeks ago I stopped by to visit colleagues who were running a takeaway kitchen, at the time 4 July had been mentioned as a prospective reopening date in a leaked document, but no official measures had yet been announced. As has become standard procedure in the easing of lockdown measures, the Conservative government provided as little information as late as possible. But no doubt if, or when, there is a second peak the service industry will be blamed for not putting adequate measures in place.
In addition to being given too little time to train staff and practice dry runs, businesses – especially small ones – were put under financial pressure to reopen by a government that did not offer them adequate financial support. And staff like me were under financial pressure to return to work.
Furlough has been difficult for a lot of people. But many hospitality workers are surviving on far less than 80% of their wages, as the government refused to acknowledge that the service charge paid to us monthly via tronc systems made up a significant portion of our wages.
Many independent businesses claim they cannot afford London living wage and instead pay their staff minimum wage, using tronc to make up the rest. Tronc is a taxed payment system, therefore recognised by the government as part of employees’ wages in other ways, but not taken into account when calculating furlough pay.
Earlier in the lockdown, 21 MPs backed a letter from London restaurant owners asking the government to reconsider leaving some hospitality workers living off as little as 55% of their usual salary, but no amendments were made to the furlough scheme.
Returning to a busy work environment was a shock. It wasn’t something I am comfortable with. But like many others, I simply couldn’t afford not to.
Similarly, many small businesses felt they had no choice but to reopen.
The government has essentially made it optional for landlords to offer rent waivers or reductions, saying it: “encourages tenants to continue to pay their rent in full if they are in a position to do so and advises that others should pay what they can, whilst acknowledging that landlords should provide support to businesses if they too are able to do so”. Predictably, landlords have offered little leniency, even to commercial tenants who have consistently paid their rent on time for years.
Continuing to pay rent on a space where no money is being made, while in some cases also offering small top-ups to workers struggling to survive off the inadequate furlough scheme, has put a severe strain on many restaurants and pubs. For a lot of business owners, missing out on the profit they knew they would make this weekend did not feel like an option.
Customers, meanwhile, have made their own decisions about whether to return to pubs and restaurants so soon, and if so, which to visit, taking into account their own safety, and in some cases the safety of staff.
A contested boycott of Wetherspoons has highlighted the issue of skipping the pub to support workers who might feel pressured to return.
People pledged to stop frequenting Tim Martin’s budget pubs after the Brexit-supporting, millionaire Wetherspoons owner refused to pay his 40,000 employees at the start of lockdown, suggesting they take jobs at Tesco instead. But a response from unionised staff made it clear this would only hurt the people it was supposed to help.
While people shouldn’t do anything they don’t feel comfortable with, staying at home out of solidarity with workers like me, who feel they had no choice but to return to work, isn’t helpful. The same logic that applies to the Wetherspoons strike applies to all pubs and restaurants. Staying in is only likely to harm staff, with fewer customers resulting in reduced hours, less money, and quite possibly another round of dismissals.
It isn’t right that the onus is on the public to support businesses and prevent further job losses. It isn’t right that it is financial need that has pushed us back to work, rather than a guarantee that it is safe. It isn’t right that we live in a country where the economic interest is placed before the safety of staff, customers and the general public.
But until we see real change from the government, some of us will have to make compromises to get by. Thanks to the Tories, some of us still have to worry about paying rent in the midst of a global pandemic.
As a hospitality worker, I say go to a restaurant or a pub if you feel comfortable doing so. But please respect the venue’s safety protocols, and if you are privileged enough to still be earning your full wage during the lockdown – don’t forget to tip!
Billie Walker is a Campari anticapitalist and writer based in south-east London.