Since August, I have been an “essential” employee. This label is supposed to be a badge of honor, a testament to the necessity of my work, and an acknowledgement of the risks I take in public each day. What it really means is that I ride on a crowded bus to a café where I interact with countless strangers. It means that I work in fear, and constantly worry about exposure and risk, since I do not have the luxury of deciding who walks through our doors.
Some of my co-workers and many of my peers have held this title even longer, since March, unable to apply for the unemployment benefits that kept so many people safe at home, and instead forced to overwork, and expected to volunteer their safety for the sake of economic and cultural survival.
There was an implied promise made when we were first called “essential,” which is that, as restaurant workers, we were understood to be vital to the overall welfare of the public. But now that the vaccine is here, we have once again been shrugged off, left to navigate bureaucratic opacity, and to wonder if anyone will finally help us.
Frustration with the vaccine rollout in New York is not unique to hospitality workers, with dangerously low supplies, booked appointments, and inconsistent messaging testing everyone’s patience. This is also not a way of arguing that we deserve priority over health-care workers and other vulnerable populations. Instead, my colleagues and I think that, after almost a year of risking our own health in the name of some greater good, we simply deserve an answer to the question: When will we be able to receive the vaccine? After days of sifting through government announcements, Twitter feeds, and online applications, the answer is that no one really knows.
A long-awaited update came on January 11, but it only created further confusion as new groups of “essential frontline workers” became eligible, part of the “1b” phase. According to the vast majority of government announcements, this includes grocery, education, and public-transit workers. “Other essential workers” are slated for later phases, without any specified timeline. Meanwhile, fluctuating, subjective terms like “public-facing,” “frontline,” and “essential” continue to circulate, though it remains largely unclear who actually creates these collective definitions and assignments of worth.
While statewide guidance specifies that this current phase will only include grocery workers, one city website lists “food and grocery-store workers” as eligible. What this means is unclear, and the inconsistencies do not stop here. Another city appointment portal merely requires that its users be “public-facing essential employees,” and it is unclear whether this is a way of expanding the definition, or merely offers an unintentional loophole.
Taken together, the information seems to indicate that “grocery workers” can try to sign up for an appointment, while “restaurant workers” must wait. But even then, the definitions are hazy. Is a cashier at a bakery, say, a restaurant worker, or a grocery worker? Furthermore, as restaurants have increasingly been forced to adopt market models, with so many businesses shifting to sell pantry items, prepared foods, or CSA subscriptions, the line between what qualifies as “restaurant” work versus “grocery” work is practically nonexistent. For example, wine stores qualify under the “grocery” umbrella, but that definition fails to incorporate the countless restaurants that have converted into wine shops to avoid going out of business during the pandemic.
Instead of clear guidelines, food-service workers are caught in a troubling limbo, again. Yet the only thing that’s changed since dining curfews went into effect and restaurants first began converting to takeout-only menus is that the number of cases, and the risk of dealing with the public, has continued to increase. It has never been more dangerous to work in restaurants than it is right now — and we’re still being given no assurance that anyone will prioritize our safety.
We did not choose to be “essential,” and in fact many of us would prefer not to be labeled as such. This assignment of value comes from other people, the same groups who flip-flop between keeping restaurants opened, or closed, or something in-between where we must pay rent but cannot actually serve customers inside.
The reality is that we never should have been “essential” in the first place. We should not have been expected to go out in the streets in the earliest weeks of the pandemic, or when hospitalizations steadily increased this fall. We should not have been sacrificed for the greater cause of perceived normalcy and stability. We should have instead been enabled both financially and politically to close our doors, clear out our walk-ins, and stay home.
This is nothing new, of course. Restaurant work has never truly been valued by the government or the general public. We are constantly viewed as unskilled and inferior, expected to tolerate society’s lowest while acting like our most gracious selves. A larger shift in this mentality will take much longer. But for now, I don’t want to be labeled as “essential” if I’m going to be treated as disposable.