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On March 16, 2020, Kat Dyke, a waitress at the Earle Restaurant in Ann Arbor, was told she would not be allowed to return to work for the time being — not because of her or anyone else’s wrongdoing, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dyke said she was thrown into a swirl of confusion when she received her boss’s text saying the Earle would be shut down for the near future. Her boss was required to close the restaurant due to a COVID-19 emergency order issued by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, which shut down restaurants and entertainment venues across Michigan temporarily. She said she worried about the future of her and her friends’ jobs in the service industry. 

“I was really nervous,” Dyke said. “Just in general. My boss texted everybody and was like, ‘Hey, you know, we’re done, we’ll let you know when we need you.’ It was scary.”

Though Dyke said she was able to return to work after about three days to assist with takeout deliveries, which were still allowed under Whitmer’s order, the lack of work for some service workers lasted for weeks to months. In fact, in April 2020, the leisure and hospitality industry unemployment rate skyrocketed to 39.3%, but has reduced to 6.2% as of March 2021.

Dyke said her colleagues and friends within the service industry who’ve faced layoffs have struggled to keep up with the economic strain resulting from the pandemic. 

“I talked to a couple of different people that I worked with and they’re like, ‘I either have to buy food or pay my bills,’” Dyke said. “(For the) people close to me, it was really rough.”

In addition to high levels of unemployment among service workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, those who have continued to work in-person faced new struggles maintaining their own safety while serving customers. 

Another service industry worker and a student at the University of Michigan spoke to The Daily about their work in the service industry. They asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation at their place of employment and will be referred to as Sam throughout the article. 

Sam discussed struggles to serve customers who specifically don’t want to abide by the statewide mask mandate and said it is hard to manage different priorities like her own safety versus customer service. 

“I remember one specific instance where (a customer) didn’t want to wear masks and they were very upset that we asked them to,” Sam said. “And they were really, really rude. We were treating them the same way as we would treat any other guests. And we were just doing our best.” 

Sam also spoke about the difficulties restaurant and bar staff have in trying to simultaneously remain efficient and follow increased protocols. They said the restaurant they work at has not properly kept up with COVID-19 cleanliness requirements, such as incorrectly sanitizing tables or not changing gloves after one use, and speculated that other businesses were likely similar. 

“There’s this expectation of just being ‘back to normal,’ or this desire to have that,” Sam said. “And I think that it not only sets up an unrealistic expectation of what this worker’s going to be able to do for you, but it also creates an incentive for people to cut corners. You do have to take little shortcuts just to be efficient. There (are) competing incentives between how you want service to go and how you work and maintaining COVID-19 safety (protocols).” 

Many service industry workers have turned to Service Industry Workers of the Ann Arbor Area for help with their situations. SIWA3 is an organization dedicated to mutual aid, workplace organization and service worker advocacy and has helped ensure service workers in Ann Arbor can stay afloat and are being treated fairly by employers. Recently, SIWA3 raised more than $10,000 from the Ann Arbor community through a GoFundMe campaign during the holiday season, funding that helped over one hundred service workers in Washtenaw County. 

Gabrielle Bussell, an organizer for SIWA3, spoke to The Daily about the organization’s mission of helping workers who have faced various difficulties within the industry as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Bussell specifically said the organization has looked to help workers facing wage-theft PPE shortages or workplace discrimination. She said she also thinks the state should put service workers higher on the priority list to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Currently, they are included as essential workers in phase 1C who are eligible earlier than the general population, but later than healthcare or education staff. 

“We’re hoping we can get sort of a stronger response from the organizations that are responsible for dealing with these workplace complaints and everything that’s been going on,” Bussell said. “That’s what we’re all about.” 

Dyke commended SIWA3 for bringing service industry workers together throughout this difficult time and the support they have given her and other service workers across Washtenaw County. 

“Industry workers need that level of solidarity that I feel like we’re getting with SIWA3,” Dyke said. “They’re definitely bringing industry workers together to look out for each other. It was already a difficult industry to begin with, and people now understand a little bit more the effects that our industry has on the greater world.”

Dyke also said she thinks the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the importance of the service industry that will hopefully translate into better treatment for workers beyond the pandemic, especially as it pertains to their health being considered when decisions are made.  

“This service industry has such a huge effect on people; they want to go out, they want to have a nice time, but the people who are being a part of your experience need to be up to standard and need to feel comfortable giving you their best self,” Dyke said. “And they can’t do that if they can’t come to work (and) not (get) sick or if they can’t go to the doctor when they’re sick. So COVID definitely changed that perspective, and it was just very nice to see.” 

Daily Staff Reporter Julia Forrest can be reached at juforres@umich.edu.

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