At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, new terms such as “essential employees” came to light and many restaurant workers found themselves being needed by the public to serve under new circumstances regarding the pandemic.
Beginning March 19, 2020 when quarantine for COVID-19 started and forced many businesses to close, among those that remained open were fast-food restaurants. What coined the term ‘essential worker’ during the COVID-19 pandemic were critical infrastructures needed to continue operating to serve their communities.
While nurses and doctors fought on the frontlines of the pandemic against an unknown and; incurable disease, the public also had those who served on the sidelines. Restaurant employees that came to carry more than just serving food.
They could be considered the silent hero that continued to feed America while earning minimum wage with little protection against the deadly but fast spreading virus. Like nurses and doctors, they only had a cloth mask and gloves.
What started as fast-food workers becoming the life line of a hungry country has ended in nationwide shortages as more employees quit their jobs in hopes of seeking better wages and benefits for them and their families.
Many restaurants implemented COVID-19 guidelines such as; recording the employees’ temperatures and asking questions about possible symptoms they could be experiencing, but was it truly enough to keep their employees safe? With no hazard pay or paid time off if they were to get the coronavirus, many were forced to come into work while experiencing symptoms.
Not only did they face possible health exposures but were also overworked and underpaid. With quarantine, much of the population lost their jobs and were forced into remaining in their homes with their families for what was supposed to be weeks but prolonged for months. Many, with nothing to do during the time, turned to food to relieve them of their boredom. With drive-thrus and take-out deliveries being the only way to get out of their houses, consumers flocked to their favorite fast-food places and employees found themselves dealing with consumers refusing to wear masks, further exposing their health and of those they came into contact with.
With essential employees policing and enforcing state-mandated laws for their own protection, the aftermath of being overworked and exposed was retaliating by quitting. Due to this, the nation faces shortages across the country in fast-food restaurants. Many restaurants are now offering higher wages in hopes of attracting new employees, but only after working for a certain time period can they reap those benefits.
In March of 2021, The Seattle Restaurant Alliance and the Washington Hospitality Association advocated and petitioned the state governor Jay Inslee for restaurant employees to be included in the latest phase of Washington’s COVID-19 vaccine plan along with other essential employees. Employees in restaurants were not included in the workers in food production who were eligible for the vaccine. This prompted backlash against the eligibility requirements for food establishments and a week later a local health official came out to confirm that restaurant employees were included to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
When low-wage employees were needed they became “essential workers” but as the fear of COVID-19 declined and normalcy began, they found themselves back to being unrecognized for their work.