As a server, hearing others blame CERB for restaurant staff shortages is dehumanizing. If an industry is harmful, why blame low-wage workers?

Posted on August 5, 2021 in Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Contributors
Aug. 5, 2021.   By Jaby Dayle, Contributor

Every restaurant worker knows that January to March are the lean months. People with money tend to take vacations and spend less. People who don’t have money have usually spent what they can in December for gifts — preparing to save up for a few dry months.

During this time, some restaurants close and most staff lose their hours. For servers, we try to survive on savings (if we have any) and our measly $12.20 an hour wages.

So, when March 2020 rolled around I was feeling hopeful being employed as a server and working at an events company in Toronto when the season was supposed to pick up. As my savings dwindled, I thought I could look forward to a great year of weddings and special events to boost my income.

Then, on March 16, 2020 I got the dreaded email. We were shutting down at what would be the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Watch for the reopening date,” it read.

I remember sitting in my basement apartment feeling the dread of unknowing. My partner and I had rented that apartment with hopes of saving up enough to have children in the near future. How was I going to pay the rent? Would I be able to keep up with the internet, phone and credit card payments? Given my hourly wage, EI would barely cover food. Even then, when would I be approved?

Now, slowly emerging out of this pandemic, I still see myself as one of the lucky ones. I work as a server with people who respect me as a human being. The kind of people who are doing their best as employers to change the restaurant industry for the better. People who understand that mental health is just as important as physical health. They understand that the oppressive systems built upon stolen land, and by enslaved and descendants of enslaved people, is the system we still live in. They are trying their best to dismantle it.

Not everyone is so lucky. I often speak with friends about how trashy our industry can be. One topic of many that come up is how many in our profession, servers, hosts or line-cooks are perceived as lazy, good for nothing, leaches on society by accepting aid from the government.

Just the other day I saw an opinion piece that basically said that businesses were being ruined because folks were refusing to go back to work because of CERB. From what I gather, these folks just want to be able to go to their favourite bars and restaurants, sit joyfully as they are fed delicious food and drink as they are waited on by people like me. Unfortunately, they often forget that those who work in service are in fact people. Actual human beings with needs, wants and desires.

I find it kind of funny (and depressing) that people are shocked by the idea of others wanting a better life for themselves. Do any of those columnists or customers currently work in service? Are there back of house workers penning thinkpieces on how they secretly just love making barely enough to pay for their basic needs while having their minds and bodies destroyed by the work that they do? Are there front of house workers who enjoy having customers brazenly flout COVID-19 safety protocols and literally endangering the lives of us all?

And beyond that, are there people who find it fantastic to try and live in Toronto on $2,000 a month — which, oh wait — is temporary?

Nobody wants to live in poverty. The idea that the government assistance available is more than what a business can pay makes you think: is it workers in the wrong or is the structure open to oppressive and abusive business models? I hear a lot of talk about how “this is just the way it is,” or “we’ll all go under if we raise wages.” My response to that is what happened to the magical bootstraps every person is born with, why don’t you give them a tug? Not to mention, the financial assistance from the government is the same money that we as restaurant workers put back into the state with every paycheque.

Another frustration is hearing customers complain about how places are closing early, have reduced menus, or feel angered by the inability to accomodate their requests to move tables “for the sun.” Some of these folks are also the same ones refusing to wear masks or get the vaccine. The ones who are actively ignoring the deaths of millions of people but still expect me, and others in my industry, to literally risk our lives to bring them a glass of wine and some snacks. The people I work for are very supportive, but I’ve heard first-hand the horror stories from other restaurant workers who are being forced to deal with abuse from anti-maskers and conspiracy theorists.

All that said, I still feel fortunate. My partner is a baker and worked throughout the pandemic. With her wages, the help of CERB (and later the CRB), we kept ourselves housed and fed, but still have to tackle mounting debt. And yet, there still is fear as the virus has not been eradicated and neither is a lot of the precarious work in this industry.

Let’s stop blaming low-wage workers in the service industry for shortages. Clearly, the industry needs to revamp to humanize its workers.

Jaby Dayle is a server and wine professional based in downtown Toronto.


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