Socially distanced outdoor dining on Dana Street, between Exchange and Wharf streets, in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)
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Walking through Portland’s Old Port on a Friday night it almost feels like any other summer.

Wharf Street’s cobblestone paths host crowds of enthusiastic drinkers and diners, while the sounds of music and conversation fill the air. One block over, groups of summer tourists stroll along Commercial Street licking ice cream or waiting for a table on the waterfront. 

Only a few walkers and diners are wearing masks, and in the background, essential workers – servers, cooks, delivery drivers, sanitation workers, and retail associates – all wear masks to keep the bustling summer business running as smoothly as possible. 

It’s been more than two months since Maine allowed all restaurants to reopen for outdoor dining, and just shy of two months since Portland allowed indoor dining, and yet the reality that the state still faces a pandemic seems to fade behind the desire for a normal Maine summer. 

“Everyone obviously wants things to be normal and wants things to go back to normal,” said one Portland bartender, Hanna, who left her job in July after feeling uncomfortable with on-premise dining. “If we can make things feel normal for a couple hours then that seems worth it to a lot of people, but I know that my coworkers were pretty uncomfortable with everything.”

Despite new COVID-19 regulations, sanitation precautions, and mandated masks, industry workers said they feel unsafe returning to work, yet feel pressure to continue working at the risk of losing financial security.

Former Flatbread Company employee Ben Asselin: “I in no way felt safe serving tables, even outdoors. And then we were made aware that we were going to be opening up indoors, and then I was thinking, ‘OK, can I actually do that? Can I keep working here?’” (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

For one Portland server, Ben Asselin, who worked periodically at Flatbread Company for 15 years, continuing to serve during the pandemic became increasingly uncomfortable as guests refused to wear masks, dining spaces began to feel crowded again, and indoor dining became an option.

While initially excited at the prospect of returning to work, Asselin quickly faced an ultimatum: return and risk personal safety, or lose his position and potentially his qualifications for state unemployment benefits. The same ultimatum was given weeks later to employees who expressed concerns about reinstating indoor dining. 

“I wasn’t allowed to make choices about my well-being without my job being held over my head,” said Asselin, who picked up a part-time position to supplement his income with unemployment benefits.

“I in no way felt safe serving tables, even outdoors,” he said. “And then we were made aware that we were going to be opening up indoors, and then I was thinking, ‘OK, can I actually do that? Can I keep working here?” 

Although Asselin’s experience may be unique, restaurant workers across Maine are facing hard decisions, as are the businesses that employ them: reopen and try to scrape by, or cut their losses before more damage is done.

Revenue down 50%

Two University of Maine economists who study the state’s hospitality industry estimated in early July that the pandemic will cause earnings at restaurants and lodging establishments to drop by a third compared to last year. The actual results may even be more devastating.

“We are at about half of our typical revenue for Portland, so we are seriously taking a hit in order to maintain health and safety standards,” said Amy Marchessault, general manager of Flatbread Company, who added that the Portland restaurant is not able to safely operate at full capacity.

For many, summer business provides the cushion that allows them to last another season, or the tips for servers to pay rent through the slower months. And this season had a late start. 

Customers, most of them masked, line up on Exchange Street in Portland to get into the Holy Donut. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

With dwindling federal assistance, industry workers and businesses are struggling to support themselves in a less-profitable peak season. 

Asselin agreed that reports about the effects of the pandemic on the restaurant industry often focus on owners and what they have to lose, and less on the thousands of workers who rely on the industry for their income. 

In Cumberland County, there are nearly 20,000 people employed in the restaurant industry, according to last year’s data from the Maine Department of Labor, and the summer months make up about 60 percent of the state’s $6 billion annual tourism industry, according to the Maine Tourism Department. 

Since March, tens of thousands of Mainers have lost jobs and filed for unemployment insurance, and the highest number of unemployment claims come from workers in what are classified as “Food Prep & Serving Related” positions, accounting for more than 13,000 unemployment claims, or 21 percent of all claims in the state.

For many, the additional $600 per week in federal unemployment benefits from the CARES Act has made living off unemployment benefits possible. But that additional benefit expired at the end of July, along with the financial security it offered.

“In preparation for this pay cut with the extra (federal) unemployment running out, I don’t know what to do,” Sarah, a server in Portland for the past three years, said in an interview on July 31. “I’m just trying to take it day by day.”

She’s not alone.

Katie, a server at a Portland restaurant on-and-off for six years, is a single mom who supports her daughter completely on her salary. She said working presents additional health risks for her relatives, who take care of her daughter while she’s at work, as well as her putting her immunocompromised grandmother at risk. 

“It’s been really frustrating. You’re basically risking your personal health to wait on other people and you’re not even bringing in $100 (at the end of the night),” Katie said, adding that she could not get by on just the state unemployment benefit of $300 per week. 

When indoor dining restrictions were lifted for Cumberland County on June 17, it came with the expectation that restaurants were safe to operate with Maine’s low and stable COVID-19 case numbers, and that they would follow the health and safety protocols described in Maine’s COVID-19 Prevention Checklist.

However, there are no COVID-specific regulations on health and safety standards for restaurants operating in the pandemic that are enforceable by law.

“We have a designated person that’s supposed to be wiping down the tables, and that’s not happening,” Sarah said about her restaurant’s sanitation practices. “Obviously I’m wearing my mask and putting gloves on, but no one has ever taken my temperature.”

Sarah nearly quit because of her concerns about safety but ultimately, at her manager’s quiet suggestion, decided to stay on as a part-time employee to continue qualifying for unemployment benefits.

She works a few hours a week to support herself and her three children and is now one of only two employees at the restaurant who has worked there for more than a month.

“There are COVID-19 checklists everywhere, but employees just walk by,” Sarah said. “A lot of that is left up to the individual that’s working.”

OSHA’s warning

At the federal level, the agency responsible for inspecting and investigating issues of workplace health and safety is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has received thousands of complaints about COVID-19 exposure from workers since the pandemic began.

“The large number of complaints they have received is powerful evidence that workers across the country are terrified and frustrated that their employers are not providing them with safe workplaces,” David Michaels, former OSHA chief in the Obama administration, told The Washington Post in April.

OSHA also has its smallest number of active health inspectors since 1945, according to an April report by the National Employment Law Project. And nearly half of the agency’s top leadership positions are unfilled, including director of Enforcement Programs, and director of the Whistleblower Protection Program; both have been empty for several years.

Despite the limited regulatory activity, OSHA published COVID-19 guidelines for the workplace, placing the onus on employers to prepare for pandemic conditions.

“Lack of continuity planning can result in a cascade of failures as employers attempt to address challenges of COVID-19 with insufficient resources and workers who might not be adequately trained,” the guidance warns. 

Flatbread Company’s takeout window on The Portland waterfront. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

Hanna, the Portland bartender, said “You can have all the rules in place and do your best to enforce them, and there are still going to be people who don’t get it or don’t respect them. That goes for rules everywhere. And, that especially goes for people who have had a few drinks and aren’t thinking as much.”

At Flatbread, management conducts daily COVID-19 check-ins with the staff, and guests are required to social distance and wear masks, even at tables if servers are present. 

“It is very difficult to be a business in hospitality during this pandemic,” said General Manager Marchessault, who is seven months pregnant and also an at-risk individual. “A lot of companies may not survive through this. We are doing our best as a company to ensure we are able to continue to be viable after this pandemic while keeping the health and safety of our employees and customers alike at the forefront.”

Asselin agreed that Flatbread follows all COVID-19 guidelines and has communicated with staff throughout the process. But while tables are measured to be 6 feet apart, he said guests often sit at the edges. The 6-foot passages then fill with servers, bussers, and hosts walking through, quickly reducing the physical distance.

Whether restaurants and the government are doing all they can to create safety regulations for their workers, there is still an unknown risk for workers who deal with guests.

“I’m reaching over people and inside their personal space, and they’re inside my personal space, and they’re unmasked,” Hanna said about her job as a server at a Portland brewery. “I’m grabbing their glasses, which are things they put their mouths on. I’m just in so much contact with other people’s spit.”

Threats from away

The most problematic safety factors are unmasked guests visiting Maine from other states, Hanna said.

During July, out-of-state visitors were more than four times as likely to test positive for COVID-19 than in-state residents, according to an analysis of Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention data by the Portland Press Herald – although the overall weekly positivity rate in Maine is still much lower than hotspot states like Florida and Arizona. 

Another analysis, of JPMorgan Chase cardholders and Johns Hopkins University’s case tracker of national data, found that state-by-state increases in restaurant spending correlated with a rise in COVID-19 cases three weeks later. 

“At some point, it’s like, what is the point of having this business survive if we’re just making people sick?” Hanna said. “If we’re contributing to spreading a disease that’s killing people, what is the point of saving the business? It’s an issue of priorities, ultimately.”

On top of the direct contact with many people throughout the day, several servers including Hanna and Asselin said they have experienced customers who refused to wear masks when servers asked them to and even refused to tip because they were asked to wear masks.

“I’ve had other people call me names and ‘baaa’ at me like a sheep,” Katie said.

When she raised concerns about her exposure and safety at work, she said managers responded by telling her “’we wouldn’t want you to do something you wouldn’t feel comfortable with, but we do have a business to run.'”

“It makes me realize that my job is incredibly disposable,” Katie said. “It kind of makes you rethink things.”

It would be a typical summer evening on Wharf Street in Portland, if it weren’t for all the masks. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

Hanna, who worked both back-of-house and front-of-house during her time at the brewery, discussed her concerns with her manager and the owner before ultimately quitting in July after guests began drinking indoors when it rained.

“It was really frustrating for me to feel like I have some meaningful suggestions and easy fixes that I feel like would make me safer, and to have a manager that was just completely uninterested in hearing any of it,” she said.

“If they wanted to give us a choice, a choice, in the beginning, would have sounded like ‘you can come back now, or you can wait, and we will do everything that we can to make sure there is work for you down the road if you decide it’s not safe for you to come back right now. You’ll still be with the company so you’re not booted off your benefits,’” Asselin said. “That would allow people to make an informed decision about what they want to do.” 

Instead, he was told in June that his position might not be available when he returns, and again in July that he could not remain on the schedule if he did not work indoors. He ultimately decided to quit when indoor dining resumed and does not qualify for unemployment benefits.

“Each employee has a different situation or consideration about coming back,” said Marchessault at Flatbread, who held a staff meeting before returning to work. “I respected any employee’s decision on whether to come back or not.”

‘Dereliction of duty’

For workers, there are several forces in play that affect workplace safety conditions: the CDC guidelines, Maine’s decision to allow businesses to reopen at various levels, business owners and managers, the enforcement of safety protocols in the workplace, and the guests and customers. It can be hard to decide who is ultimately responsible for worker safety.

“Everyone in power should be held accountable, from federal and local government to business owners,” said restaurant owner Vien Dobui, who runs Cong Tu Bot, a Vietnamese restaurant on Washington Avenue. 

Cong Tu Bot has been closed throughout the pandemic. But if the expanded unemployment benefits are permanently cut, the restaurant will likely have to reopen to pay its staff.

“The lack of a coordinated response to a global, once-in-a-century pandemic is a deadly and absurd dereliction of duty,” Dobui said. “Society has been failing the worker long before this moment, but as many have pointed out, the pandemic has made those failings impossible to ignore.” 

The restaurant industry as it exists today is precariously built on a workforce that already confronts health risks, unpredictable incomes, and few means to advocate for its needs.

However, organizing such a broad workforce to push for change can be difficult because of the nature of many small, localized workplaces across the city, said Arlo Hennessey, a community organizer with the Southern Maine Workers’ Center.

 “A lot of people aren’t willing to be the one person to stick their neck out, even if there are hundreds of workers across the city who feel the same way,” Hennessey said. “They’re not all at the same workplace and they’re not protected.”

That was evident in reporting this story: many workers had experiences they wanted to share but did not feel comfortable talking publicly because of the possibility of retaliation by their employers. 

“Even in the rare places that are humane and trying to be equitable, workers are poorly compensated while being asked to do too much with too little resources,” Dobui said.

“(Cong Tu Bot) is, unfortunately, not much different,” he continued. “That’s because, as much as we’ve tried to be better and work against these forces, we are a small group working within a deeply broken system.”

From the restaurant owners operating with limited profits to survive another winter, to managers who field concerns from staff but lack authority to create meaningful change, stakeholders at all levels in the service industry are in a difficult situation.

But it is the workers, who comprise the backbone of the industry, who face the most precarious conditions with regard to financial and physical health, all while largely lacking health insurance. 

As the restaurant industry continues to operate amid the pandemic, workers’ well-being has not been prioritized over the health of Maine’s economy and hospitality industry. With the operational discretion given to business owners and the financial strain they are experiencing, it is difficult to see a future where workers’ needs can be prioritized. 

“I don’t think we should be putting these decisions in the hands of business owners. Business owners are going to do what they can to make their business as successful as possible,” Hanna said. 

To alleviate financial strain on owners and workers, the federal government could issue new and continued federal stimulus funds that give restaurants and their employees the financial freedom to prioritize workplace safety.

“Health and safety is already a really hard thing to address in restaurants,” Hennessey, of the Southern Maine Workers’ Center, said. “This is just taking it to a whole new level, with the specific dynamic of customers being the biggest element of what’s making workers unsafe, let alone coworkers.

“But, if the biggest outside factor is the customers, the customer is already always right,” he said. “So what are you going to do?”

Jenny Ibsen and Robert Lewis-Nash are Portland-based freelance writers and former restaurant employees.

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