When Ieshia Townsend worked at a McDonald’s restaurant in Chicago, she became an outspoken supporter of raising wages while also advocating for safer conditions in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.
“McDonald’s, if you really care about your Black and Brown workers, come out here and strike with us,” she shouted during a downtown rally in July 2020.
But by last April, the chest pains and panic attacks she believes stemmed from work-related stress got so bad that she walked away from her job after five years at the fast food chain. She now delivers food, and her workdays typically start at 8 a.m., as she sometimes juggles orders from as many as 10 delivery apps.
But the change was worth it. She earns a bit more money, and the new gig allows her to spend more time with her children.
“I haven’t had any chest pains; no stress, no anxiety,” Townsend said. “I get to cash out my money at the end of the shift, and I could do whatever I want to do with it.”
Nearly two years into the coronavirus pandemic, many restaurants are struggling to stay afloat. Steep financial losses and changing COVID-19 protocols for in-person dining — including requiring customers to show proof of vaccination — have strained employers’ ability to retain reliable workers, many of whom complain they are overworked, underpaid and afraid of catching the coronavirus.
Some Chicago restaurant employees are pivoting to different food-service jobs, hoping to rebound from the pandemic’s economic losses and to survive in an industry struggling to shore up its workforce.
In November, the number of workers quitting jobs in food and hospitality services increased to 920,000, according to data from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released in January. Across all industries, an estimated 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs in November.
In a statement, Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, said the restaurant and hospitality workforce is still rebuilding.
“Restaurants are taking necessary steps to increase wages, benefits and employee supports to attract workers in this tight labor market,” he said. “We are an industry of unlimited opportunity.”
Many hospitality workers have opted for other jobs — possibly at places like Amazon or UPS — or remained unemployed until a better opportunity comes up, said Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
While some businesses have increased wages to entice workers, other benefits like paid sick time or paid family leave are still lagging, he said.
“They were bad jobs then, and they’re only maybe moderately better jobs now,” he said.
‘I couldn’t just go back to that job without full benefits’
Townsend, 35, had worked at McDonald’s since 2014. She’s seen the wanted signs trying to lure potential workers with added benefits, but Townsend said she also wants labor protections.
“I would go back, but it would have to be with a union to back it,” she said. “I would have to get full medical benefits to get back to that job. I couldn’t just go back to that job without full benefits.”
Before leaving her job, she worked about two six-hour shifts per week at $14 an hour, she said. In her last months there, she was told to train younger workers but wasn’t paid more for the extra work. She also found it stressful working with teenagers.
In contrast, in one recent day delivering food, she worked five hours and made $71, she said. At times, she’s made slightly more than she used to — and she can get the money that same day.
‘I’m just kind of afloat right now’
After more than a year and a half without work, Michael Frantz was called back in November to work once a week as a bartender at a downtown restaurant.
He jumped at the opportunity because it meant returning to a union job, represented through UNITE HERE Local 1, with medical benefits. Frantz, who previously had cancer, spent most of the pandemic paying $530 a month for medical insurance.
Frantz, 61, has worked for decades in the service industry and doesn’t think his job will return to how it was before 2020; people have to adjust, he said.
“We will never have that ‘busy’ again that we used to have where you’d be praying to God that somebody was coming in [to work] behind you so that you could leave,” he said. “That’s not how it is these days.”
He now rents a car weekly so he can drive for Uber during the day to make ends meet. He’d always liked driving, and the job gives him a sense of being his own boss.
During the year and a half he was out of work, he received unemployment benefits and at one point tried to pivot to a career in sales. But that didn’t work out.
Frantz prioritized paying for health insurance and medications, falling behind on other bills.
The Southern Smoke Foundation’s Chicago Restaurant Workers Relief Fund granted $15,800 to Frantz to pay off his overdue rent and outstanding medical bills, according to the organization. He also received financial assistance from another program to pay off his electricity bill, and he received food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Even with the two jobs, he’s still not economically at the same level as before.
“I’m just kind of afloat right now,” he said.
‘When it’s slow, you don’t make any money’
The tips at the downtown restaurant where Sencia Sanon was a server were so generous, Sanon sometimes walked away with $75,000 a year. But then the pandemic left her unemployed.
For nearly a year, the 33-year-old relied on unemployment benefits to support herself, her 7-year-old son and her newborn, who was born in 2020. After her unemployment benefits ended in February, she worked part-time at a neighborhood restaurant for $6 an hour plus tips.
She left that job and this summer, she started a training program to become a chef, which she thinks will provide more financial stability.
“When it’s slow, you don’t make any money,” she said. “The pandemic made me realize people aren’t going to go out dining as they used to anymore. So I took a chance to change my career around to do something different.”
Like Frantz, she received funds from the Southern Smoke’s Chicago Restaurant Workers Relief Fund to pay her mortgage after she fell behind on payments for about five months.
As part of the job training program, she now makes $19 an hour and hopes her pay will increase as she gains more experience. Still, she sometimes pays only half her mortgage.
“It’s been a rough year — it’s almost been two years, now,” she said. “I was going through credit cards so whenever I could not afford to pay bills, buying groceries with credit cards. So you could only imagine the debt that I am in with my credit cards.”
Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.