Fear and loathing in the service industry as metro Detroit restaurants begin reopening

Since finally receiving her unemployment in late April, Simone Green has been collecting $760 a week while not working her job as a training server at Buddy’s Pizza downtown.
Buddy’s reopened for dine-in service June 8 with the state-mandated regulations aimed at controlling the spread of COVID-19 in place, but Green is in no rush to get back to work.
“I would make $760 in two days,” said the 54-year-old lifelong Detroiter and front-of-house restaurant veteran. “So for others who have political power to say that we don’t want to go back to work — that’s a lie. I’m not staying home for my $760. I’m staying home because it’s not safe!”
With Michigan’s dining rooms slowly beginning to reopen across hard-hit metro Detroit after a three-month COVID-induced hibernation, the dawn they’re waking up to is casting fresh light on the issues that have long-plagued the restaurant industry, namely the way it treats front-line staff.
As Michigan’s 350,000 laid-off hospitality workers begin returning to work, some are questioning why they’re being called back so quickly during a health crisis when benefits like quality health care and paid sick leave are rarely made available to them.
And while business owners and lobby groups have had a say in how the state reopens through committees and political might, some service workers feel like their concerns aren’t being heard.
A group of Ann Arbor-based restaurant workers has been circulating a petition asking for Washtenaw County to extend the closure of dine-in service at bars and restaurants in the county.
“As one of the largest groups of employees in the US, restaurant workers have long felt unheard, underappreciated and expendable,” the petition reads. “In these unsettling times of the COVID-19 pandemic, we feel this more than ever. Our industry has not only been annihilated by this tragedy, it has also been changed for the foreseeable future. Now, we are being asked to go back to work when we are not ready. In fact, many workers are being given the ultimatum by their employers to either risk their lives working in potentially dangerous environments or lose their unemployment benefits.”
For Green, it boils down to safety and economics.
“A third of this country is spiking,” she said, referring to the rise in coronavirus cases across states like Arizona and Texas. “That’s enough to keep (me) at home. Especially downtown, you don’t know who’s coming in.”
Green’s niece recently tested positive for the novel coronavirus and the whole family is self-quarantining at least until the end of the month. When Buddy’s hosted a staff meeting ahead of its reopening, Green attended virtually and was surprised to find her name on the work schedule.
“You want me to come back to work, but come back to work for what?” she said. “I’m not going back to a job to be catered to; I’m going back to make money. And if there’s no sports, no concerts, no traffic and 50% capacity — where I could make $300 a day, now it takes five days.”
Those numbers don’t add up, especially when you factor in the roughly $40 a day she pays for the round-trip fare from her home in northwest Detroit to the restaurant downtown. Like a third of Detroiters, Green does not have a car. She doesn’t feel safe riding the bus, especially after a late shift, so she relies mostly on ride-sharing apps for transportation and the occasional lift from her father.
Add in the additional sanitization procedures she says Buddy’s is requiring of servers, and the prospects of returning to her old job become even less appealing.
“If we have these new job descriptions then why isn’t there some new money to go with these new descriptions?” she said. “I don’t think anybody should be sanitizing for $3.67 an hour,” the minimum wage restaurant servers make before tips.
Green said she thinks Buddy’s rushed to reopen so it could meet the staffing requirements mandated by the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) to convert the loan into a grant, putting that above the best interests of its employees.
Upon hearing of Green’s concerns, Burton Heiss, CEO of Buddy’s Pizza, issued the following statement:
“Out of 1,200 employees, Buddy’s Pizza did not furlough any team members, but has given everyone the opportunity to voluntarily choose to not work if they didn’t feel safe doing so. We also offered 14 days of pay to anyone who contracted the virus or had a family member with the virus. The health and safety of our team and community has been our number one goal since the outbreak, and we are investigating this matter further to clear up any miscommunication.”
The PPP terms are at the heart of an ugly spat between the ownership of Adam Merkel Restaurant Group, which has restaurants in Howell and Royal Oak, and some of its former employees. Two former bartenders told the Livingston Daily they were fired for not wanting to return to work when they were called back in late April, while the state was still reporting an average of roughly 1,000 new COVID-19 cases per day. At least two more employees took to social media to air their own grievances, and a few weeks later Adam Merkel sued all four for defaming his company.
On the other end of the spectrum, two employees of Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails in Detroit say that owner Sandy Levine is doing everything he can to listen to his staff’s concerns and reopen with their well-being in mind — but even that isn’t enough to quell the general feelings of anxiety running through the industry.
“I’m nervous to go back to work,” said Chartreuse lead bartender Bin Khulayf, 33, of Detroit. “Scientists agree that staying indoors for a long period of time increases the chances of getting infected, which makes me think whoever is going to dine-in is someone who doesn’t believe in science. … I’m an immigrant who lives alone. If I get sick, I can’t go to my parents in the suburbs. I have no one who can take care of me.”
The pandemic, Khulayf said, has made it crystal clear who we value in our society.
“We’re forced to go back to work in an industry where we do not get benefits or health care in the middle of a pandemic and a worldwide protest against racism in an industry that’s embedded with racism and sexism,” he said. “I feel like on one level I’m betraying the working class. I’m going to work to make fancy cocktails for mostly suburbanites who, for the most part, are white and don’t think this is real and, for the most part, haven’t been affected, because if they were affected they would probably stay home.”
Chartreuse server Chris Calandro shares many of his co-worker’s concerns.
“Man, it’s going to be hard to serve people who come from a place of privilege when there’s people fighting in the streets for human rights,” said Calandro, 34, of Highland Park.
Beyond that, it goes back to those basic concerns of safety and economics.
“What happens if we get sick?” Calandro said. “I would be screwed. I can’t afford to go to the hospital. If I have to miss work for two or three weeks, it’s a pretty unimaginable situation from a financial perspective. And a lot of us are uninsured, too. We sort of make too much money to get any sort of assistance but not enough to afford health insurance that is worth it. If it’s a situation where I have to go to the hospital, the economic ramifications of that terrify me just as much as the disease itself.”
Calandro and Khulayf both say these fears are rampant among the peers they’ve spoken with.
And then there’s the issue of enforcing the state-mandated guidelines for social distancing and face masks. While on-premise diners are allowed to remove their face coverings when seated at a table or at the bar, they are required  by law to wear masks at all other times. Reports of tensions between customers and businesses have proliferated in recent days, adding to an already hyper-politicized climate.
“I think people are nervous right now,” Calandro said. “In terms of trying to enforce things, too, like PPE and social distancing, when you’ve seen security guards get murdered over this stuff. Asking a host to do that — at Chartreuse they’re college kids and they’re all younger and get the worst treatment from guests as it is. When your dining room is half empty, telling people they can’t sit down is going to be a tough position to be in.”
That has one assistant manager who works in a casual Oakland County restaurant worried, too. The employee agreed to speak candidly with the Free Press anonymously.
“I’m hoping for a lot of patience and respect,” the manager said, noting that the restaurant will be reopening its dining room imminently. “That’s not usually something you experience in this industry, though, especially as a manager. You’re the one that has to all of a sudden be an enforcer. And that ‘customer is always right’ mentality is glaringly not true, especially now when people choose their own personal beliefs over science. It makes it a lot harder to even reason with people, especially when there’s alcohol present. How do we deal with that? Especially in this age, I don’t want to call the police on someone.
“You’re going from welcoming everyone to work to being a physician and giving them a health screening before they can even come into the restaurant. You have to take temperatures and you essentially have to be a contact tracer, asking your employees if they’ve been around anyone that had symptoms,” the manager said. “And then you also have to be able to discern if they’re telling you the truth or not, so you’re also psychoanalyzing these people, too.”
Anxiety remains high for those still in limbo preparing for their imminent reopening. But getting back to work hasn’t helped calm the nerves of Kiesling bartender Kaytee Querro, a longtime fixture in Detroit’s craft cocktail scene.
“I kinda feel like a guinea pig in a sense,” said Querro, 36, of Oak Park.
The Kiesling, an industry favorite hangout in Detroit’s Milwaukee Junction neighborhood, reopened a week after it was allowed by the state, but even that felt like it was too soon for Querro.
“I’m walking people through the menu and going over the standard behavior, and I felt like I was playing this role in this big lie,” she said of her first shift back. “Everyone was really nice and wanted to support us, which is kind in theory, but I don’t know if it’s the correct support.”
Querro said the new guidelines slow everything down — even polishing glasses while wearing gloves becomes an onerous task. And yet the same expectations for speed and service from the pre-COVID era remain, putting additional strain on an already strenuous situation.
“We got a few 10% tips last night,” she said. “I was really surprised. You can’t get upset over that sort of thing but at the same time I felt like I’m the only person that realizes something different is happening in the world and everyone is in the situation where they’re trying to suspend their reality. Which I know is sort of our job, but I feel like it’s at the cost of our possible health. I’m not going to be able to see my family. My mom has an upper respiratory condition and I’m going to have to quarantine myself now. It feels like too much to ask for something that feels like a luxury.
“I know it’s peoples livelihoods, bar owners and restaurant owners. But it’s ours too.”
Querro, Calandro and Khulayf all went out of their way to say they don’t blame their employers for opening, because they understand the economic necessity. The situation is a classic catch-22.
“I don’t want it to seem like I’m disparaging any owners,” Querro said. “I understand they want to get their businesses back up and running. It’s a no-win for everyone. I don’t think they’re doing anything to hurt us, but if they were the ones assuming the risk, it might be a little different.”
These are concerns coming from employees whose bosses are following the guidelines. But with enforcement ranging from lax to nonexistent, others are skirting the rules completely.
One longtime bartender who agreed to speak with the Free Press on condition of anonymity because she didn’t want to lose her job, said the Royal Oak bar she works at hasn’t been strict enough about face-mask enforcement, putting her in an untenable position.
“I have to sit here and take all these precautions and try to talk to people while I can barely breathe in my mask and then I have people walking through the door without masks,” the bartender said. “I also have a boss who is too relaxed on the precautions that need to be taken. So I have other co-workers walking around without a mask on and I’m just standing there like why am I doing this?”
Like the others, the worker feels powerless.
“What do I do?” the bartender said. “Do I quit? I can’t go back on unemployment if I quit my job. I have a house and student loans to pay for. It’s a tricky situation. I want to be supportive of the place I work at, but it’s also hard when they aren’t being supportive of me and the decisions I’m making to try to keep myself safe and comfortable.”
Send your dining tips to Free Press Restaurant Critic Mark Kurlyandchik at 313-222-5026 or mkurlyandc@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @MKurlyandchik and Instagram @curlyhandshake. Read more restaurant news and reviews and sign up for our Food and Dining newsletter.
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