In the future, when we tell our tales of how we survived the COVID-19 pandemic, there certainly will be no shortage of material.
History will record the death tolls, the nationwide unpreparedness and the political discord, but we will be the ones who tell the real story of what it was like to actually live through the shutdowns, the distance learning, the masks, etc. And in our personal narratives, we can recall the nuances that might otherwise be forgotten.
A national shortage of chicken wings might not be included in future textbooks, but it’s something we will remember. Same goes for how an awkward elbow-bump greeting became a thing. I doubt capacity limits at grocery stores and one-way aisles will be on any history exams. But we’ll remember. We lived it. We stood outside of Shaw’s waiting to get in like we were trying to get into Studio 54. Remember that?
One of the pearls I hope we recall is how after months of being shut-ins, we — many of us — forgot how to people. We had been sequestered so long, we forgot how to act normal in social situations. Being back in public filled us with doubts.
Was I standing too close? Was I talking too much? Where do I put my hands? It was like the most awkward first date intensified by months of bottled-up emotions and a looming dread of COVID unknowns.
The server at a restaurant would politely tell us to enjoy our meal, and we would blurt out, “You too!” The clerk at CVS would ask us if we wanted a digital or paper receipt and we said, “Yes.” If an old friend came in for a hug, we’d jerk away as if we were back on the playground and afraid of cooties.
When we tell the stories of COVID, let’s tell the kids about the awkwardness. Future generations will appreciate a smile at our expense. But we’ll also have to tell about the cruelty and coldness of the times. Also, the rudeness.
The National Restaurant Association recently shared a survey from Snagajob-Black Box Intelligence that found “more than three-fifths of restaurant employees report suffering emotional abuse or disrespect from customers.” It also said nearly half of restaurant employees have endured emotional abuse from their own managers.
It’s no wonder the restaurant industry is having serious labor shortages. A safe work environment is a fundamental right of every employee. We need to make sure our hospitality employees feel safe when they come to work.
They’ve been working especially hard to keep things going around here. They know that you are out to spend money and celebrate at their bars and restaurants, and they appreciate your support. But being at your service doesn’t give you the right to berate them or touch them.
They deserve respect. And if you can’t treat others with respect, you’re the problem. It’s one thing to have a complaint, it’s another thing to take it out on your server, bartender or host. Don’t withhold a gratuity as punishment. Do your part and pay your share. That’s how the system works. If you think they did an exceptional job, pay more. But never pay less.
The mental health of most hospitality employees has already been stretched. They withstood the sudden shuttering of their establishments followed by months of long shifts and extra hours as they picked up the slack. Add disrespectful customers or an abusive manager, and people’s health and the labor crisis is only going to get worse.
Employees are at their breaking point. If this continues, more people will leave hospitality to find opportunities in other fields. Who can blame them? Nobody needs to put up with that. It’s one thing to be awkward, it’s another to be rude. And if you can’t be awkward without being rude, maybe you need to stay home a little longer.
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There will be plenty of stories of what it was like to live through a global pandemic. We’ll milk them for all they’re worth. “I once managed three Zoom meetings at the same time.” “I went to the store and forgot my mask and had to walk 40 miles home in the snow to get it.” “They swabbed so deep on my COVID test, the examiner lost her watch in my nose.”
But let’s also tell the story of how, when people in the hospitality industry were being emotionally abused or bullied, we came together to stop it. That’s the tale I want to tell.
Dan Lederer is a Middletown resident with 30 years experience in the food service industry throughout New England. He continues to work locally behind the scenes within the industry and remains a devoted fan of all things restaurant and hospitality related. His column appears on newportri.com and Thursdays in The Daily News. Cheers!