Few industries have been hit as hard by the coronavirus pandemic as the foodservice industry. The statistics are staggering: the National Restaurant Association estimates that 8 million restaurant workers have been laid off or furloughed since the crisis began—and that the industry will lose $240 billion in revenue by year’s end.
In a May 8, 2020, statement, Sean Kennedy, executive vice president of public affairs for the National Restaurant Association, noted that in February, “there were more than 12 million people on the payrolls of eating and drinking places across this country, but today more than six million restaurant workers are home without a job—and that number is going to grow.” He also urged Congress to “provide targeted relief for the restaurant industry and its employees.”
With dine-in restrictions now lifted in most states, the industry is slowly getting back to work. About 49% of operators have brought back some or all of their employees, with 51% planning to invite more back when business picks up, according to Technomic.
However, the workplaces these employees return to will have changed. Many foodservice businesses have pivoted to different business models, such as instituting or expanding delivery; adding curbside pickup; or selling meal kits and grocery items. Fifty-eight percent of restaurants have also updated food safety procedures, which means new responsibilities and pressures on employees. The question is, what do workers expect from their employers in a post-COVID-19 world?
Like many people, foodservice employees are very concerned about their safety and that of their families right now, says Mark Brulerandau, group manager at Datassential. In fact, the top reason 53% of furloughed foodservice employees gave for not wanting to return to work was fear of getting sick.
“A lot of restaurant employees didn’t sign up to be essential workers along the lines of health care providers, but now they’re being asked to work at greater risk to themselves or their families,” Brandau explains. “They should be treated like other first responders.”
Going forward, operators will need to continue heightened safety measures and provide employees personal protection equipment (PPE), including quality masks and gloves. Employees also will want to be protected as much as possible while interacting with customers. Many businesses have already taken steps to minimize such interactions by putting up Plexiglass shields at checkout stations, taping off 6-foot distancing markers on the floor, and asking customers to wear masks. They also may invest in contactless payment systems and other technologies.
According to Black Box Intelligence, restaurant operators are implementing an array of safety measures:
- 53% are taking employee temperatures
- 76% are requiring gloves for all staff
- 89% are requiring masks for all staff
- 61% are removing some tables
- 63% are using Plexiglass shields
- 97% are positioning hand sanitizers throughout their location.
Such actions “might complicate making ends meet in the short term,” Brandau says, “but those costs are necessary for the long-term health of any restaurant right now.”
They’re also practices customers are expecting. Seven in 10 consumers surveyed by Technomic said they would feel comfortable going to a restaurant if the food prep workers wore masks and gloves; 69% said the same about wait staff and cashiers wearing masks.
“Protective equipment and overt cleanliness are essential marketing expenditures right now,” Brandau says. “The messaging consumers most need to hear from restaurants is about how those brands are keeping their customers and their employees safe.”
Meanwhile, employees will expect management to clearly spell out the operation’s policies to help protect them against the “potential anger, confusion and rule-breaking by customers,” Brandau continues. “The guests should clearly know why they’re being asked to maintain social distance, wait in line, pay ahead of time, or deal with other inconveniences. People feel insecure, scared, or angry about how the pandemic has changed everything they do, and when those feelings boil over, restaurant employees can be the target of everybody’s frustrations.”
It isn’t just the possibility of getting sick that worries employees; it’s what happens after they get sick. Pre-pandemic, only 25% of foodservice workers had paid sick leave. Datassential research from late May found that only 9% of restaurants have begun offering paid sick leave since the coronavirus outbreak.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) offers two weeks of paid COVID-19 sick leave for employees of companies with 500 or fewer employees, although companies with 50 or fewer employees can ask for a financial hardship exemption. Very large companies aren’t required to offer any sick leave, but some—Starbucks, for example—already do, and others like Walmart are offering COVID-19 paid leave.
For employees and customers to feel safe, Kinetic12 Consulting, in collaboration with the International Food Manufacturers Association, predicts that managers will need to enforce “go home, stay home” sick leave policies. Many businesses may also want to consider pre-work screenings to check employee temperatures or ask about potential symptoms, as recommended in the National Restaurant Association’s Reopening Guidance.
“Any food safety incident would cause a restaurant to lose trust with consumers for good,” Datassential’s Brandau warns.
Better Pay to Stay?
Along with sick leave pay, employees also may expect better pay. Some workers, including grocery store employees, began getting “hero pay” or “hazard pay” for their efforts when shelter-at-home policies started. Walmart handed out cash bonuses, while Starbucks and Target increased hourly wages by $3 and $2, respectively.
Not surprisingly, foodservice workers want the raises to be permanent, yet some companies plan to or already have rolled back those bonuses. Consumer support for an increase in the minimum wage was high even before the pandemic. A 2019 Hill-HarrisX poll found 55% of Americans supported a $15 minimum wage; an additional 27% supported an increase, but at a lower amount.
Whether the minimum wage approaches $15 or benefits like health insurance and child care become standard practice will depend on two unknowns, Brandau says: the outcomes of COVID-19 and the 2020 election. But even with record unemployment numbers, operators who want to keep top employees may have to pay them more. “Many restaurants will make do with a smaller staff, but the employees who are left will have to have higher levels of hospitality and empathy, he explains. “They’ll need to be more skilled and they’ll have to be paid a bit more.”
One-third of restaurants have already shuffled staff to help in other areas, according to Datassential. Other industry experts say operators will likely continue to rely on staff who can multitask instead of play highly specialized roles. That means providing ongoing training on safety protocols, assigning specific staff members to be sanitization experts, and providing as much PPE as possible for staff. Operators should also clearly communicate their sick leave policies to all staff members. The safety of employees and customers will be key to improving the health of any business.
In this new post-COVID-19 world, to have an engaged, healthy workforce, employees will need to feel their health is a priority. To make that happen, operators will need to regularly ensure all employees understand sanitation and food safety policies and continue limiting unnecessary interaction with the public.
At minimum, employees should have easy access to gloves, masks, and soap and water. It’s also wise for operators to consider giving employees paid isolation pay if they do get sick; such a move not only keeps employees from coming to work sick but also helps them feel they valued.
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