The Mental Health Load is Heavy for Rhode Island’s Public-Facing Restaurant Staff
How front of house servers, bartenders and managers are faring and surviving in COVID-19 times in an ever-evolving restaurant environment.
Trigger warning: This story contains sensitive content about mental health and suicide, which might be difficult for some.
In late January, after a party of guests leaves Julians restaurant in Providence, bar manager and server Kendra Plumley clears dirty dishes and collects a billfold left at one of only five indoor tables the staff still seats. At the end of the shift, when the black plastic credit card sleeve is finally opened, a glaring handwritten message appears in pen on the receipt in the tip section: the word Tip is capitalized and underlined and the words, “Stop making patrons wear masks at the table” are scrawled in the space where guests should normally leave eighteen to twenty percent gratuity. It’s just another day on the job in the restaurant industry, and unfortunately, stories like this are becoming more common as the pandemic rages on.
“As a restaurant, we want to provide an enjoyable experience, but it has to comply within these safety precautions. We are fortunate at Julians. The people we work with are taking it seriously, the owners are taking it seriously, and the majority of the guests are appreciative of the care and effort that’s being put into safety,” Plumley says with a sigh. “But unfortunately, I have had a few interactions with people just being rude. This particular party walked into the restaurant without a mask on. That’s unacceptable. I am just doing my job. I don’t want to have to babysit you. I just want to bring you your food.”
Loren Sloan was working with Plumley during that particular shift at Julians. As a server who already suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder and participates in therapy, it’s stressful to have to remind guests to wear their masks. Putting masks back on when a server approaches a table is part of the Julians policy for safe dining, which is explained to guests before they even sit down. “Some people get a little resentful. Sometimes you’ll interact with a table and it feels like you are a parent, having to nag them to make sure they have their masks on. I will be as polite as possible. I will be happy and charming about it,” Sloan says. “We want you to be able to have an enjoyable experience, and we want to be able to do that while maintaining our safety standards. By doing so, we preserve that experience for everyone else.”
Hospitality folks are being challenged like they never have before even as they receive less in return. Not only are restaurants operating at limited outdoor and reduced 50 percent indoor capacity for dining, which leads to lesser income for both staff and restaurant owners, but they are also being treated poorly for enforcing rules like mask wearing and six-foot social distancing while being potentially exposed to the virus by unmasked patrons. All of this tension has taken a toll on the mental health of hospitality workers, who already had very stressful jobs even before the pandemic, in an industry that is prone to long hours, lower pay, a history of substance abuse disorder and sexual harassment. Now they have to deal with the risk of contracting COVID-19 and rude customers on top of it all.
At this point in the pandemic, nearly one in six restaurants, about 100,000 restaurants, are closed either permanently or long-term in the United States, according to a national survey recently released by the National Restaurant Association (NRA). Locally, the RI Hospitality Association (RIHA) surveyed Rhode Island’s hospitality industry business owners and found that 21 percent of respondents have experienced more than a 70 percent loss in revenue in July 2020 versus July 2019. For those that continue to stay open, every week on social media, we see another temporary restaurant closure due to a staff member testing positive for COVID-19, during which all potentially exposed staff must be tested and receive negative results in order for the restaurant to reopen (that is, if they are honest).
In a new report from One Fair Wage, nearly one-half or 44 percent of hospitality workers who responded reported that at least one or more of their co-workers in their restaurant had contracted COVID-19. Even though the risks for restaurant workers have increased, eighty percent of hospitality folks who responded to the survey report that their tips have plummeted significantly with the pandemic, and that this decline in tips is increased when they attempt to enforce COVID-19 safety protocols on customers.
Dr. Sarah B. Andrea is a social epidemiologist at Rhode Island Hospital, who conducts research to identify workplace and policy-level strategies to improve the health of hospitality and food service workers. “When it comes to folks working in food service jobs, they already had a whole host of chronic stressors related to working in the industry that are just being amplified in this context, if they are lucky enough to still have a job at all,” she says. “Folks are dealing with reduced hours, which means less income coming in. Even before the pandemic happened, it was legal to pay tipped workers $3.89 per hour. There are a lot of employers who will pay them more, but that’s not required, so they are very reliant on tips from customers to pay their bills. This puts them in a very tricky situation because tips are very unpredictable, they are inequitable.”
Some restaurants are opting to avoid offering indoor dining altogether and serve takeout only during cold weather months, but this also poses a challenge for tipped workers. “There’s a connotation with takeout, where people won’t tip on takeout or tip a lot less than they would for in-person dining,” Dr. Andrea says. “The bottom line is, hospitality staff are not getting the tips they need.”
Reopening RI’s COVID-19 guidelines currently mandate that indoor dining be reduced to 50 percent capacity with two households per table indoors and three households for outdoor dining. Guests are required to wear masks when not seated at a table and maintain six feet of distance between other patrons. Yet servers, who are always masked, approach tables where unmasked patrons are dining, handle their dirty dishes and cups, and then they also must enforce regulations for guests while in the restaurant. Most of these servers make only a mandated hourly wage, and they depend on tips to supplement their livelihood.
The whole situation has pushed Rhody Roots co-owner Cassandra Brimmer over the edge. She’s constantly worried about how her staff is going to be able to pay rent and take care of their families with lesser income coming in from halved restaurant capacity and reduced customer enthusiasm for dining out in the first place. She’s concerned about constantly having to enforce rules and the reaction from customers isn’t always compliant.
“Not only have we made the changes that have been mandated inside the restaurant, but we’re also in charge of enforcing things and we’re not getting paid for that; we’re not policemen,” Brimmer says. “We have had to police people. Being in this industry is already difficult because people already view you as subservient, so when you have to add something on top of that and tell them what to do, even though it’s not your idea, all while trying to save your business, it’s really difficult.”
Brimmer hit rock bottom last May after adapting to the constantly evolving Rhode Island Department of Health restaurant regulations. She and her family suffered financial difficulties due to turning to takeout only, and this, coupled with her diagnosed Bipolar II Disorder and preexisting trauma from suffering from two miscarriages, finally took its toll on her. Her husband, Lou Cruz, took over all restaurant operations with the restaurant’s manager, Jamie Rego, while she sought mental health treatment through Butler Hospital. They kept the place running without skipping a beat, so Brimmer could get the help she desperately needed.
“I couldn’t go into the restaurant. I literally can’t handle any stress. If anyone were to call and complain, I don’t know what I would do…cry,” she says. Covid was the final straw for her. She had already been experiencing grief from the miscarriages and she had channeled all of her energy into the restaurant to avoid acknowledging her issues. “I worked for sixteen hours a day, every day, until the restaurant was built. We’d do the food truck, then go to the restaurant and vice versa, and sleep wasn’t really a thing,” she says. She worked herself to the bone getting Rhody Roots up and running for opening in May 2019. After suffering one miscarriage, she eventually became pregnant again, then lost that second pregnancy in January 2020. Covid hit soon after in March 2020.
“I was like that’s okay, I got this, this is just going to be temporary and we’re going to be fine. I put a big bandaid over it instead of dealing with the real stuff. Eventually, it just caught up to me,” she says. “I was forced to deal with reality because Governor Gina Raimondo made us shut down temporarily. She made us not able to work that crazy schedule we had. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or bad thing, because it’s made a lot of us have to look our demons in the face and deal with them because we were stuck with ourselves.”
It was last spring, after the pandemic hit, and while she was turning the business into a takeout-only and curbside pickup operation, that Brimmer began plotting to end her life. She thought she was going to lose everything she had put into the restaurant. “We are this culture of work till you die, and I couldn’t do that anymore, so my only way out was suicide. I was like I can’t cover this up; medicine isn’t working; therapy isn’t working. I was very sure I’d never be happy again,” she says. “I built this new restaurant. I put every ounce of everything emotionally and fiscally into this and it’s now getting ripped away from me and I haven’t even done anything. You look at yourself and say, ‘What could I have done differently? Well nothing.”
Brimmer sent her nine-year-old son to school that day and planned to follow through with suicide, but in a desperate, hysterical moment, she texted her therapist in an effort to stop herself. “I was like, I can’t be the mom who kills herself and leaves this kid with no one,” she says. Her therapist and mother helped get her checked into a hospital, and later, she enrolled in Butler’s virtual program for women with group therapy over Zoom. Along with being prescribed the right medication, she says the virtual therapy has helped her immensely. “That program was the best thing I have ever done. I think everyone should do it,” Brimmer says. “It should be a high school course on how to cope with life. We are not taught that.”
Over and over during this pandemic, people hear and read messages like “it’s okay to not be okay,” but the next step is to admit help is needed, and actually get the help. The Rhode Island Hospitality Association saw the writing on the wall when the restaurant shutdown first went into effect last spring, and they’ve been doing everything possible to continue to help local hospitality workers through this challenging time.
“I am not trained, but I do listen and I could cry right now. I could ball my eyes out because many people just need someone to talk to,” says Rhode Island Hospitality Association President Dale Venturini. “There’s a helplessness from people. This is an industry of people who are resilient. They are just hardcore. But they are now being challenged in a way they have never been challenged before without the tools to handle it.”
Starting last spring and continuing presently, Venturini and team began sending out weekly email blasts with mental health resources for hospitality folks to get free mental health and substance abuse help. They encouraged restaurant owners to share mental health resources with their entire team, regardless of the number of hours worked, including furloughed, seasonal, part-time and full-time employees. No health insurance is required. The resources include the free mental health hub called Active Minds; the Sanvello app for stress, anxiety and depression with guided meditation, community discussion and tips; Ben’s Friends, a free hospitality-focused substance abuse support network; a Crisis Text Line; and Optum’s Substance Use Disorder and Emotional Support Helplines.
The RI Hospitality Association also helped create an entire website dedicated to supporting Rhode Island hospitality workers, hospitalitysupportri.org, as well as a Facebook page for the local community to interact with each other. RIHA continues to make resources available for anyone who needs assistance navigating everything from financial resources to mental health help, and it leads virtual group discussions on mental health so that people know they are not alone.
“A lot of times, people don’t want to talk to their family or friends, because they don’t want to burden them with it,” Venturini says. “Sometimes having a resource that is anonymous, professional and trained to help makes it a lot easier for people to express some of things they are going through. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get a little help because everyone is experiencing some trauma.”
If the stress is coming from financial instability due to job loss, pending eviction or reduced hours, there are resources out there to help with that too. Dr. Andrea is currently conducting interviews with food workers to learn more about their experiences during the pandemic and to identify workplace and policy-level strategies. “A lot of these stressors are rooted in the financial impact, so if they are experiencing housing or food insecurity, locally, we have the Rhode Island Community Food Bank,” she says. “If they’ve got housing issues, we’ve got RI Housing which might connect them with resources for dealing with eviction.”
To deal with stress, many hospitality professionals turn to exercise, yoga, meditation, unplugging from social media and reading. Brimmer at Rhody Roots has initiated staff hikes on local trails and she encourages employees to take mental health days if they need them. “Even before this happened, I was open about my stuff because I always want everyone to feel they are not alone, and they can talk to people,” Brimmer says. “It’s important that we normalize mental health and we talk about that with the staff. It doesn’t make you bad, it just makes you different. Now they are very vocal about their stuff. I am like if you need time off, your mental health is just as important as your physical health.”
For Andrew Kientz, taking mental health breaks out in nature is also essential. He’s a bartender, staff member and jack of all trades at Industrious Spirits Company in Providence and Bywater restaurant in Warren. “It’s getting out of the city, away from everything. Finding open spaces,” Kientz says, who also started running, too. “It’s my own refuge. I go myself a fair bit, and sometimes with my partner. It’s restorative and relaxing.”
Kientz had to take temporary leave from both of his jobs in mid-December after receiving a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. He can’t pinpoint how he got it as he had been extremely careful about avoiding exposure. He quarantined himself inside his apartment, apart from his partner, who took residence upstairs while he remained downstairs, unless one of them needed the upstairs bathroom, or downstairs kitchen, then they switched places.
When he received the positive diagnosis, both of the two businesses where he worked also had to shut down. They both closed to be fully sanitized and while waiting for other staff members’ tests to come back, ruling out exposure. It was a heavy mental load to carry for Kientz. “When I first got the diagnosis, it was around ten or eleven in the evening. I got it in an email from a PCR test that I had taken at the beginning of the day. It was a rush of a lot of different emotions,” he says. “I felt a little disbelief and fear on a number of levels. I live with my partner and she has some medical history that made this a little bit more nerve-wracking were I to expose her to it. I immediately thought of how the businesses where I work were going to have to shutter their doors for some amount of time and I just hoped that I hadn’t passed it on to anyone.”
His partner was diagnosed with non-hodgkins lymphoma in her early twenties, and her lungs are weakened from going through the radiation treatments. Contracting COVID-19 would have put her at severe risk, Kientz says.
In the end, he avoided spreading coronavirus to his partner by separating themselves within their living space. And by immediately sharing his diagnosis with his workplaces, which in turn both took immediate action, he also avoided exposing his coworkers and guests. “For me, there was an element of guilt as to how I got it, but I also recognized I had done everything I possibly could to avoid it, so you have to arrive at a place of forgiving yourself and accepting that with the rates as high as they were, that it’s practically inevitable for a lot of people.”
Kientz didn’t have any lasting symptoms from COVID-19, besides being temporarily fatigued, and he was able to return to work. Unfortunately, he struggled to get unemployment while he was out of work due to getting COVID-19. “It took me literally hundreds of attempts to get through to the RI Department of Labor and Training to make a claim,” he says. He filed a claim the day after his positive diagnosis, and received an email that he would get a confirmation email with steps to certify for payment within seven to ten business days. Unfortunately, they had an old address on file, which kept his claim status in limbo as pending. He kept calling trying to get through to RI DLT to correct the problem.
“I can’t tell you how maddening it was to wake up early to try and be the first to call. Dialing over and over and over on days off and before work. To no avail. I finally got through about a week ago after being put on hold for fifty-five minutes,” he says. “I wasn’t able to receive unemployment for two months. I can’t imagine how bad that would be for a lot of people. Thankfully, I had some safety money set aside.”
Kientz has resumed a full-time schedule between both jobs at ISCO and Bywater, but it can still be tough financially, he says. While he makes a very generous hourly wage by most restaurant and bar standards, he still depends on tips. With service being different at ISCO and Bywater being mostly takeout with minimal weather-dependent outdoor dining, some guests have a different perception of value in service, he says. “Like [at ISCO], ‘should I still tip this person if I have to walk up and order and sit down and bus my own glass?’ All of these steps are purely for guest and staff safety,” Kientz says. “At some point, there needs to be a reckoning with the systems of the service industry, in general. The whole model feels like it’s up for examination.”
The mental health load is not easy to carry, even for managers. Natasha Nichols is leading the teams at Chow Fun Food Group’s restaurants, including Harry’s Bar and Burger’s four locations, Ten Prime Steak and Sushi and Xaco Taco. These restaurants all shut down completely during the beginning of the pandemic and did not reopen for takeout until mid-May, 2020. Nichols was the one who had to deliver layoffs to more than 200 employees.
“March 15 was the last day the restaurants were fully open and we closed on March 16 for lunch after Governor Raimondo’s call. March 17 was my birthday, and that was the day I had to lay everybody off,” Nichols says, her voice beginning to crack. She chokes up, pauses, then starts again, “and it was literally the hardest day of my whole entire life.”
Before she had to break the news, she got out of bed before the sun rose to go grocery shopping for her family. She says that was the only thing she could control at that moment. She paced the grocery store aisles making sure her family would have everything they needed at home during the plaguing uncertainty and ended up breaking down in tears in front of a store clerk.
“The poor guy stocking the apples asked me how my day was, and I broke into tears and I was like, ‘It’s horrible. It’s my birthday. I’m about to lay everyone off,’ and he looked at me like I was nuts,” Nichols says. “Those first few days were really hard and I felt guilty from having to lay everyone off, but I couldn’t control it. It was worried about what the future was going to hold, and how are we going to come out of this?”
In the end, Chow Fun’s employees were able to get unemployment assistance while the restaurant group figured out how to get back up and running for takeout again. And now that all the restaurants have reopened, except for the Newport location of Harry’s Bar and Burger which will reopen in March, Nichols is more confident in how her team has been able to handle the crisis.
“Through all of the tough moments, came positive ones too,” Nichols says. “My team worked so hard and put everything they had into reopening and sustaining our restaurants, which in the end made us stronger than ever. I could not be more proud to call them my team.”
Nichols says she and other managers are constantly checking in with staff and seeing how they are doing, making sure they are okay and that they know there are options for recouping some of their lost income. “Everyone has had their moments of being worried and concerned, but I think having people to lean on whether it’s myself or other managers has been helpful. I tell management their job right now aside from the normal duties is really just being there for their staff, checking in with them and making sure that they’re okay and listening to their worries,” Nichols says. “When people feel that you really do care about them, it changes the dynamic. It brings a sense of loyalty and you feel at home; you feel like it’s a career and that’s where you want to be.”
In the end, it’s up to restaurant ownership and management to support their staff and keep strict safety precautions in place. There’s been a lot of guidance from state leadership, but Dr. Andrea feels that a lot of this guidance erases the workers from the equation. “The workers are in these establishments for their entire shift with folks with their masks off, and not necessarily having the support they need to protect themselves from that potential exposure,” Dr. Andrea says.
“It’s my professional opinion that at the moment we shouldn’t have indoor dining open. When it comes to COVID-19, socializing maskless indoors is one of the riskiest things you can do. Studies have found that not only are folks who have tested positive for SARS-COV-2 twice as likely to have dined out in the previous weeks but that workers in food service jobs are experiencing a greater burden of COVID-19 related deaths. In the absence of vaccine prioritization for these workers, the onus is completely on individual businesses to have measures in place to support and protect their workers.”
Many places are standing behind their workers and being proactive. “They take a firm stance with customers, like ‘No mask, No service,’ or there are rules like put your mask on when the server comes up to the table,” Dr. Andrea says. “I want to applaud those business owners because they are doing the right thing. It’s awesome they are doing the right thing, but we need it to happen more broadly.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis or thoughts of suicide, call the 24/7 BH Link hotline at 401-414-LINK. Or you can use the Crisis Text Line and connect with a Crisis Coordinator within 25 seconds on average. Communicate until you feel safe. Text HELLO to 741741.