Local front-of-house workers reflect on COVID-19, masks and financial stress

Rachel Fisher at South Perry's Meeting House - ERICK DOXEY PHOTO
Erick Doxey photo
Rachel Fisher at South Perry's Meeting House

Here's a secret: the unskilled worker doesn't exist.

My first job was selling elephant ears at the interstate fair. After that, I worked various gigs — the cash register at a greasy pizza restaurant, the cafe in the corner of Barnes and Noble — trying (and failing) to perfect the art of customer service amid sweat, tears and fry oil. All of these endeavors demanded a skill set imparted through the sink-or-swim of lunch rushes and on-the-job training.

Now, nearly everyone in my immediate family works in the service industry in some capacity. My partner, mom and siblings all work at our restaurant, Allie's Vegan Pizzeria and Cafe.

Servers and other front-of-house workers like us have had a particularly challenging battle in 2020. As COVID-19 cases surge across the country, and each new press conference from the governor brings a different list of restrictions on public businesses, servers have had to adapt to rapidly changing workplaces, job descriptions and income precarity.

Rachel Fisher, a barista who works at Meeting House in the South Perry District, says the biggest shift has been in the expectations between customers and servers.

"It's not as easy to just have a seamless, smooth meal with people," she says. "Instead of being a welcoming spot of hospitality, I am the rule keeper. I have to remind them to keep their masks on, and not to talk to people on their way to the bathroom. I am now the police of when people can sit near each other and how many people can be at a table. It feels like a lot of reprimanding people, which is so the opposite of what I got into this industry for."

It's also the opposite of what customers have come to expect from service workers.

"People expect us to break the rules for them because they know my whole job is hospitality: the customer's always right," Fisher continues. "So people expect servers to say, 'You're right, I'll let eight of you sit together.' But I can't. I don't make the rules."

Fisher has worked in the service industry for eight years, all but the last of which she spent in Boston. With the pandemic spiking again, she's less worried about getting sick and more concerned about the financial toll it will take on her and other workers in similar positions.

"For a lot of people in the service industry, this is our skill, so there's not other jobs we could even be qualified for," she explains.

"It's stressful not knowing how long this will last and what the job market will look like on the other side. Also, I know a good chunk of the service industry cannot afford health insurance and is not offered health insurance through their work. So we're at the forefront of having to talk to people all day, in very close proximity to other people, and we can't afford health insurance."

Mikayla Matheson, who has worked at Rüt Bar and Kitchen since its 2019 opening and is the sister of one of its owners, expresses similar concerns regarding the pandemic's long-term effects on the service industry.

"We had a loan when the pandemic first hit and that was a cushion," Matheson says. "But now there are more and more months where we're consistently not making as much as we normally do. Month after month, it does start to affect the business financially."

On a personal level, Matheson has become less worried about the health risks of working as she's become more confident with the safety procedures being taken. She's also been able to take advantage of recent slowdowns to learn a new skill: bartending.

"I moved from being just a server to bartending as well. I had the advantage of learning when it was super slow," she explains. "It's been cool to develop a new skill set while I have this ability to learn at a slower pace, or not feel as much pressure to be super good at it right away. By the time we're back to normal, I'll be totally efficient with it."

Both Matheson and Fisher speak about wearing masks as a surprisingly significant game-changer.

Now, "body language and facial expression are a big part of interacting with customers," Matheson says. "My hand gestures have gotten more dramatic."

"People can't even tell you're smiling at them," Fisher says. "Human interaction is such a huge part of the business, so that's been hard. In general, restaurants have been adapting really well. I worry about all the small businesses and want them to stay open, and it's nice to see them doing what they can."

Atania Gilmore, my mom and the owner of Allie's Vegan Pizzeria and Cafe, has been working increased serving shifts throughout the pandemic, and says that interactions with the community have certainly changed.

"Running a restaurant right now is so very different than running a restaurant 12 months ago," Gilmore says. "I hear over and over, 'Thank you for being open. I'm glad you're staying open.' There's a real concern from the community that we will survive this. They want to know how they can help, what they can do."

While people don't always correlate the work of service industry professionals with other frontline tasks, they're at a significant level of risk of contracting the virus through daily interaction.

"As a person over 60, one of the big fears I have is not knowing exactly how my body is going to react. I hear that fear a lot: the unknown — not knowing how it's going to affect you personally."

This uncharted dimension is where financial questions and the more elusive fears of health and well-being merge. Like many industries, no one can predict what the final toll will be on local restaurants, coffee shops and bars. We do know, however, that the workers who populate these spaces deserve to be treated with grace, patience and generous tips. ♦

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