In a series of studies from last year, economists documented the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and its financial fallout on women, particularly in service professions.
As they inventoried the damage, they adopted the term “She-Cession” to describe the devastating, long-term impacts on women in the restaurant industry — financial and otherwise.
“We’ve seen long-term analysis that shows that women occupy certain jobs at a higher rate than men do," says Belinda Román, an economics professor at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, mentioning hospitality, education and nursing, in addition to the fact that women are frequently primary caregivers.
“Sadly, the pandemic has made it bubble to the forefront,” she says. “Because this economic change has been different than the change we saw, let’s say, during the (2007-2009) financial crisis, which hit men more than it did women.”
A May report from advocacy group One Fair Wage and the UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center posits that the restaurant industry, which is one of the largest employers of women and sub-minimum wage workers nationwide, plays a pivotal role in perpetuating inequality among women, particularly women of color and working mothers.
The One Fair Wage report surveyed more than 4,800 foodservice workers from October 20, 2020 to May 1, 2021 and found that more than 75% were considering leaving their job due to “low wages and tips.”
“COVID health risks” was second most common.
Reflective of the demographics of tipped service workers, the majority (74%) of survey respondents were women. However, conditions are more severe for working mothers, according to the study. Nationwide, working moms reported contracting COVID-19 at higher rates than all other workers — 26% versus 19%.
What’s more, 70% of working moms reported that they’d experienced or witnessed hostile behavior from guests as a direct response to their enforcement of COVID-19 safety protocols.
Indeed, since Ohio restaurants were largely allowed to reopen, workers have been forced to become de facto health marshals, trying to enforce mask and social distancing protocols in what the Centers for Disease Control called one of the pandemic’s most dangerous environments.
Over the course of the state’s COVID-19 lockdown, Ohio Investigative Unit agents issued 613 citations related to pandemic health order rules to 345 different businesses across the state.
And a 2020 One Fair Wage study reported food service workers had to endure “maskual harassment,” a phenomenon in which restaurant-goers requested a server remove their mask to gauge how much they should be tipped — which, if they complied, put them at an increased risk of contracting the virus.
Experts say those conditions have exacerbated pre-existing issues such as low hourly pay, sexual harassment, lack of health insurance and long hours. Workers themselves say it’s not difficult to see why so many choose to leave.
“If you have access to a phone, and you’re on social media, there’s no excuse for not knowing how bad it can be,” says Alexandra Davalos, a server-turned-county employee interviewed by CityBeat sister paper the San Antonio Current. “But people who have never worked in the industry are sort of ignorant to emotional, physical toll it can take on a person. The hospitality life is historically not one that’s sustainable for everyone, and people have had enough of the way things used to be.”
A June 2021 report by the Ohio Restaurant Association (ORA) revealed 65% of restaurateurs said staffing is a critical issue for them and another 26% said finding workers is in their top three "most-pressing" concerns.
"This problem continues to force restaurants to limit hours, close on certain days and limit guest capacity," says the ORA.
And, per the report, many restaurant owners felt the weekly $300 federal unemployment supplement was at the root of the shortage.
Which falls in line with what Román believes is one factor that employers weren’t counting on as they struggle to emerge from the pandemic slump: female workers’ realization of their own worth.
“They’ve never before had time to stop and say, ‘Wait a minute. $7.50 an hour? I’m worth much more than that, and my family needs more than that,’” she says. “By now, most have had the chance to step back and reevaluate. Just imagine if we equalized pay for women, and everyone was a full-fledged partner in this economy. Imagine what that could do for our community. It’s just very hard to sell that idea because people tend to think, ‘Your gain is my loss.’ And it doesn’t have to be that way.”
A version of this story was originally published by CityBeat sister paper the San Antonio Current.
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