I look out over the clamoring sea that comprises my usual Friday-night crowd, thankful for the sturdy piece of pine that acts as my only buffer against the chaos. As I feel my anxiety climbing, I’m almost grateful for the itchy piece of fabric covering my face, concealing the grimace underneath. My eyes skim the crowd and I’m confronted by a maskless smirk and, with it, a predicament that exists at the core of the ongoing labor shortage in the food service industry.
I know it’s my job to call out that patron, to request they cover their face like the rest of us. I try to convince myself that in their inebriated state, they simply forgot about the mask mandate. The unfortunate reality, however, is far more sinister. That smirk is an active challenge.
I could simply avert my gaze, pretend I didn’t lock eyes, and risk the health of everyone else in the bar on the slim hope that they express some form of gratitude on the tip line. Or I can call them out, risk escalation and derision, and almost guarantee myself a big fat zero dollars from them at the end of the night.
As I weigh my options, I struggle to trace the thread of how the part-time job I took to make beer money in college had landed me in this dilemma between personal and public well-being.
As restaurants nationwide continue to grapple with the financial hardships that have plagued the industry for the past year and a half, a second impediment has appeared. With business on the rise, many restaurants are now struggling to recruit and retain enough staff to resume their normal operations. According to a 2021 second-quarter survey by Joblist, 1 in 3 workers in hospitality jobs “aren’t even considering returning to the industry” following last year’s shutdowns. I count myself among those thousands of service workers who have arrived at the difficult conclusion to walk away.
My induction into the service industry is not unlike many others’. In 2017, while attending college in Milwaukee, I took a part-time job as a bartender to help me get through school. While it had never been my desire to have a career in this industry, the work was fun, messy and lucrative, and like many, I determined there were worse ways to make a living.
Unfortunately, the job that I walked away from in August 2021 had become almost unrecognizable. My job was one of several that had been included a new class of worker that emerged during the pandemic. Those of us doing work deemed essential, which had somehow come to include bartenders, were now classified as “front line” workers. The advent of this new class precipitated a significant transformation in how we as restaurant employees were treated and expected to function.
I was no longer a just bartender, and we were no longer just some disarranged crew of delinquents simply trying to distribute beers and burgers as efficiently as possible. Now, as “front line” workers, we arrived at work greeted by a slew of new responsibilities, expectations and little else.
Being on the “front line” implied that we were somehow part of the vanguard ― the first line of defense against the encroaching crisis. On top of the pre-pandemic duties of running a restaurant that once constituted our entire job, we had now been saddled with the responsibility of enforcing constantly shifting city and state mandates. To do this, more staff were needed on each shift, which meant each of us was working more frequently and taking home a smaller percentage of the tips each time we showed up. Our newfound “front line” title seemed to insinuate that there was something honorable concealed within the diminishing returns and mounting demands of our job.
The difficult new realities of our front-line jobs were only exacerbated by the increasingly embittered political battle over masks and social distancing mandates. The more lax regulations in outlying conservative counties seemed to enable a feeling among many customers that regulations were frivolous and discretionary. Increasingly irritable patrons often dismissed ― and even actively defied ― my requests to abide by county mandates as if they were merely my personal preference.
While stricter mandates inside the city were well-intentioned and designed to protect those of us working on the front line, they ultimately acted as a double-edged sword. Unforgiving enforcement by the city government seemed intent on targeting our struggling industry, not those actually in violation of the mandate. What authority could I as a bartender wield to enforce mandates if the city itself refused to levy any consequences against individual offenders?
Overnight, my workplace had been transformed into a minefield of cultural conflict. Every aspect of the job became deeply politicized, as if we all had suddenly been conscripted into a culture war we wanted no place in. Every shift became a losing battle against the powerful social currents that surrounded COVID-19.
As desperately as we needed customers, there was a palpable tension every time the front door swung open. Greeting each newcomer felt like attempting to defuse a bomb. I tried to tack on the most recent set of COVID-19 protocols to the rest of my “have a seat wherever you like” spiel as robotically as possible. I hoped it conveyed that I was just as inconvenienced by enforcing the new rules as they were by following them, but it did little to stem the incessant stream of abuse and hostility I received.
In reality, the fight was picked long before the customer walked through that door ― I was just the most accessible face of the opposition. Conflict was certainly something I’d grown accustomed to in the service industry; it just comes with the territory when you’re in the intoxication business. But my experiences placating some kid who flew off the handle because he was in the bathroom for last call did little to prepare me for the vicious, focused animosity I have observed over the past 18 months.
I’ve seen grown men hurtling spittle-flecked abuse at waitresses less than half their age. I’ve seen staff make the most polite and unobtrusive requests only to be met with threats of physical violence. I’ve been held hostage by bourbon-guzzling businessmen who sat at the bar and informed me of all the ways my life and livelihood were acceptable collateral damage. All I could do was dejectedly nod along ― any whiff of contradiction was taken as a challenge to their perceived authority.
“So many of our customers could not conceive of us as anything more than an apparatus of their service. We were seen as mere mechanisms of consumption who didn’t require or deserve empathy, and because of that, every shift was an exercise in dehumanization.”
Every one of those interactions was underscored with a painfully clear message: Those of us on the front line were expendable. So many of our customers could not conceive of us as anything more than an apparatus of their service. We were seen as mere mechanisms of consumption who didn’t require or deserve empathy, and because of that, every shift was an exercise in dehumanization.
We were political, cultural and economic cannon fodder. It was just the new nature of the job, and we were made to believe that if we expected anything different, we were absurd and entitled.
The development of this front-line class was a calculated risk. It was based on the false notion that these jobs were staffed exclusively by people without the skill or capacity to do anything else. It was a gamble that assumed we service industry workers would have no choice but to stay and endure the hardships and demands of this work.
As anyone who has actually worked in the service industry can attest, though, this couldn’t be further from the truth. This resilient, remarkable, underestimated community contains some of the most brilliant and capable human beings I have ever known. One of my fellow bartenders was a Michelin-starred chef in New York. Another, a certified yoga instructor. Many had at least one college diploma gathering dust in a basement somewhere. Like me, they chose this line of work out of love, not out of necessity. But as the lovable aspects of the job were overtaken by the culture of front-line work, sentiment alone was not enough to tip the scales in favor of staying.
I loved being a bartender ― I think I always will. Unfortunately, these brutal conditions and dismal pay make it almost impossible to rationalize putting up with this kind of abuse.
Now, as I work as a content writer from the comfort of my own home, I still get strange pangs of nostalgia for the sweat and hustle of bar life. I miss the community of misfits that took me in as a sheltered, wide-eyed 20-year-old, and I hate to think about the mounting abuse and exploitation I left them to contend with.
If you are one of the millions going out to the bars right now, there’s a thousand things you could do or avoid that might alleviate some of the burden on staff, but there is one that’s paramount. Even if it’s just for a minute, drop the facade that divides customers from workers. Let them, for a moment, talk and act like a human being, and not just as an accessory to your Friday night out. I promise, that single interaction could be the deciding factor between their choice to stick around and fight through one more day, or finally go AWOL.
Max McHone is a freelance writer who graduated form the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee with degrees in history and anthropology. An avid backpacker and former bartender, he is a firm believer in the value of getting your hands dirty. His primary interest is in stories researched through lived experience and told from a boots-on-the-ground perspective.