Fast-Food Restaurant Workers Discuss Health Concerns and Wage Gaps Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

Even though pandemic restrictions are lifting, restauranters and employees are still struggling with issues in staffing.

Diamonique Robinson, general manager at a Mod Pizza in Austin, got promoted in 2020 during the beginning of COVID-19 and has had a difficult time learning how to handle curbside pickup, mask policies, and increased sales.

“Sometimes it makes it feel like it’s not worth it as much as it used to be. We essentially had to be the middle person, having to enforce (mask policies) and having customers yelling like you see in all those videos. Yeah, that’s what really happens,” Robinson said.

Robinson thinks the mass exodus of fast-food workers is in part due to the flexibility and health safety of being able to work delivery jobs and work from home.

The Texas Restaurant Association (TRA) survey in April 2021 found that 91% of Texas restaurant operators say they had job openings. TRA has served as an advocate for the food industry since 1937 with the mission to protect, advance, and educate the growing industry.

Freddy Ramirez, a former Via313 employee, feels like his experience working during the pandemic has given him perspective on why people are leaving the restaurant industry.

“I think our generation (Gen Z) has gotten fed up with the way we’re being treated for how low the pay is and now more companies have raised their starting wage to $15 an hour, so it makes sense why no one wants to work in food service anymore,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez left the restaurant industry in 2021 and has been working as a store lead at a Target in Austin.

Due to the increase in job openings, employers have tried to remedy the issue by increasing wages to fill in these openings. The national average for fast-food and restaurant workers increased from $10 in 2016 to $15 in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

President Joe Biden has released a statement in January, announcing that federal workers and contractors will be $15 an hour starting wage and urges Congress to increase the national minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The Raise the Wage Act of 2021 bill, which would raise the national minimum wage to $15 an hour failed to pass in the Senate by a vote of 42-58.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Tristan Rehrig enjoyed his job at MOD Pizza for the most part, though his opinion shifted after witnessing how poorly his coworkers and employees were being treated by customers and the lack of compassion from upper management.

Rehrig, a former shift lead at MOD Pizza, said the challenges of being a frontline worker included dealing with verbal abuse from customers and working in dangerous conditions.

“I felt like we weren’t being properly compensated for the work we were doing. This experience made me realize that the work was almost seen as undignified in society and we were asked to put ourselves at risk for the capital of some bigshot owner,” Rehrig said.

“My mental health was at an all-time low between 2020-2021. I was dragging my feet getting ready for work because I never knew whether I was gonna be yelled at by a customer or if there was gonna be another (COVID-19) case within the store,” said Rehrig.

Rehrig left the restaurant industry in 2022 and is doing contract work installing security cameras for commercial buildings.

Since March 2020, 9,000 restaurants in Texas have shut down, according to TRA.

The Essential Workers for Economic Advancement (EWEA) program, created by the Essential Workers for Economic Advancement Act introduced in the House in March, “creates a pathway for workers to come to the U.S. on market-driven, non-immigrant, three-year visas,” TRA sa

EWEA is intended to help restaurant owners and managers tackle the current workforce shortage and will be available for up to 65,000 workers in the first year, and the number of workers that qualify will be determined based on the market need.

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