The service industry is in crisis. After 20 years of making lattes, serving nachos, and pouring beers, I know this firsthand. The pandemic plays a part, but this crisis has been building for years.
It’s rare these days if your favorite restaurant or coffee shop isn’t hiring or hasn’t been forced to shut down one or two days a week due to staffing issues. Once known as an industry that could get away with appallingly low wages, banking on employees to earn money from tips, we’re now seeing job offers for cooks starting at double the minimum wage. I remember my second winter in Montana and the only job I could find was as a part-time barista, paying $7.50 an hour. No benefits, no stability, no opportunity for anything other than a discounted drink. I poured coffee and wiped down tables for many months before I could find another job.
With all the help wanted signs around town, a common quip I hear is: “Well, no one wants to work anymore.” That’s not the full story. Many people don’t want to work in this particular industry anymore, and there are legitimate reasons why. The pandemic has highlighted the systemic problems and added new ones, pushing the entire industry to the brink.
Between unpredictable shifts to the physical demands of the job, working in the service industry is often stressful. While it can be fun to race around for eight hours on your feet, meeting new guests and sharing a good joke or two, it’s also daunting when the restaurant isn’t busy and you are asked to go home early. One winter I waited tables at a slope side restaurant and it was a late snow year. The restaurant couldn’t open until there was a snow, and then it couldn’t offer many shifts until the crowds picked up. I went weeks without working one shift.
Another aspect of the industry that can cause problems is the dynamic between customers and employees. Most times, it’s fine and can even be life changing. Over the years, I’ve met some incredible people from all over the world who’ve help me think in new ways or end up becoming close friends. However, when there’s a problem from a minor order mistake to something bigger like a spilled tray of food, it can be really intense. To see how these dynamics may have changed due to COVID, I asked a veteran employee at Kalispell Brewing for her perspective.
She told me that for the most part, people, especially the regulars and locals, are very kind and respectful, but attitudes have shifted. Observing what she calls tourists “aggressively on vacation,” she saw a lot of disgruntled customers. Trying to make up for trips lost last summer, many of these customers were demanding and impatient. When there was a mask mandate in place, she was actually spit on by a man who didn’t want to comply. As the mother of two young children, she continues to worry about the potential consequences of the pandemic, like will the taproom have to shut down again? She also doesn’t need the additional stress of spitting and yelling customers.
Employees like mine are far too valuable, smart, and dedicated to allow this crisis to continue. Businesses and communities can’t afford the loss of the service industry. There is much to be done within the industry as a whole to fix many of the problems. Yet those of us who order our lattes or get pizza delivered also need to understand our own impact on the lives of these workers. A kind word will go a long way, even if you’re on revenge vacation.
Maggie Doherty is the owner of Kalispell Brewing Company on Main Street.
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