Last fall and winter, when the city of Washington was experiencing an outbreak of Covid-19 infections, Tizoc Zarate struggled to support himself and his girlfriend while he worked as a waiter in a restaurant.
The 22-year-old, an American of Mexican origin, protests against the health risks he has faced at his job, especially considering the low pay he was receiving and the lack of support from his bosses.
“I had the impression that I could not say anything to the management,” Tizoc Zarate told AFP, stressing that at the time he and his colleagues were simply grateful to have a job.
Hundreds of restaurant workers and activists went on lunchtime strike this week across the country, demanding an end to wages deemed unworthy.
In the United States, employees of restaurants and other businesses in the service industry depend heavily on tips and may therefore be paid less than the prevailing minimum wage.
And with the pandemic and the containment measures, very few Americans have dined outside their homes, which has resulted in a drastic reduction in server income.
“During the pandemic, tips fell by 60 to 70% and there was an increase in hostile behavior from customers and attacks,” explains Yamila Ruiz of the One Fair Wage association, originally of the strike movement launched last summer.
In Washington, a handful of restaurant workers gathered in front of the Old Ebbitt Grill, a capital institution popular with politicians and tourists, near the White House on Wednesday.
“Low wages are halting America’s (economic) recovery,” proclaimed a sign.
Anguished by the pandemic
More than 2.5 million restaurant jobs across the country were cut during the pandemic, and more than 110,000 establishments have closed according to the National Restaurant Association.
As the United States begins to reopen, many restaurants are struggling to recruit. The fault of low wages, according to activists in the sector.
Among restaurant workers surveyed by One Fair Wage, more than half said they were considering changing jobs because of their low wages.
The second most mentioned reason? The health risks associated with Covid-19.
Coming home from work Tizoc Zarate was writhing in his mind, anxious to have potentially been infected with the virus or to have infected someone else without his knowledge.
“Almost half of the people didn’t wear a mask when I walked up to them, some didn’t follow the rules about how many people were allowed at a table, and management ignored that sort of thing,” he recalls.
When Washington imposed tougher anti-Covid measures in December, the restaurant where he worked closed and Tizoc was fired.
Now that the country is reopening, several fast food chains such as McDonald’s and Chipotle have announced that they want to increase the salaries of their employees in order to attract new workers.
But, the situations can differ greatly depending on the geographical location of the restaurant, points out Hudson Riehle, vice president of the National Restaurant Association.
“Local market forces will have an impact not only on increasing the workforce needed, but also on the specific incentives needed to recruit these employees.”
Some Republican elected officials blame the labor shortages on unemployment benefits, provided for in Joe Biden’s gigantic stimulus plan, which they consider too high.
“It’s a shortage of wages, not workers,” sweeps Yamila Ruiz of One Fair Wage, an argument that she says adds fuel to the fire.
After spending months trying – unsuccessfully – to figure out how to collect unemployment benefits, Tizoc Zarate finally found a new job at a nursery school.
“I received an offer this week, I accepted it on Tuesday.”