So, you’ve spent the better part of the last 18 months locked in your houses and apartments. That’s an introvert’s dream life- having food delivered straight to your face, finally catching up on your favorite shows, and discovering that your post-apocalypse streetwear is less Mad Max BDSM and more pajama pants and a large blanket swathed around your shoulders like a cloak.
But, at least here in the USA, the vaccine rollout has been widely regarded as pretty successful. The nation is opening up again and people who haven’t had the opportunity to work in their offices are slowly migrating back to corporate life (or, you know, quitting. Pajama pants are comfy).
That’s what the headlines would have you believe.
Some people never had the real chance to live that life- setting up a laptop on their kitchen table after scooting over the Froot Loops to make room, get their business meetings live on Zoom and tick off items on their to-do lists (acquire this business! Liquidate these assets! Sell! Buy! Cancel my appointments!)
For bartenders, servers, cooks and chefs everywhere it was very clear that nothing really slowed down for them. Yes, indoor dining was shut down for some time, and businesses had to pivot to make ends meet, but by any measure the vast majority of the service industry did not get a break, but in fact had to work even more during the first lockdowns of 2020.
That was my life.
Up until very recently I spent my waking hours as a manager at a local brewery. It’s a wonderful brewery and the owners are saints that moved Heaven and Earth to make sure their staff would get paid- especially during the great uncertainty that was 2020. They pay a fair wage and have always been willing to bend over backwards to make sure their employees have what it takes to succeed.
Despite all their efforts though, they are suffering from the same struggles that every other bar, brewery, and restaurant is going through right now.
Nobody wants to work for them.
Hold on to that thought, we’ll circle around.
The Government doesn’t care about service industry.
Let me clarify: there aren’t a lot of safeguards to make sure that service professionals are adequately compensated (thank God for honest business owners, if you’re lucky to work with them).
The US Federal minimum wage for an employee that makes tips is… $2.13/hour.
So, let’s be clear.
As a restaurant owner, you would only have to pay your employees $2.13 per hour so long as their tips exceed $7.25 an hour. If they are lower, you would have to make up the difference to make that minimum wage.
However, state minimum wages vary, you still only need to match that much to make Federal requirements.
That being said, such low pay doesn’t exactly make for an attractive career path. Why would you, in a world that was ravaged by a virus nobody understood, want to put themselves in harm’s way to bring beer and margaritas to people that should probably be staying home?
In my experience, the people with the lowest regard for COVID safety also had the lowest regard for tipping their servers.
Breweries need to make money. To do that they need to sell their beer. People need to buy their beer. People need to work there to sell that beer. Not that complicated.
Except when you can’t sell it.
COVID restrictions and thin margins
For over a year bars and breweries had to shut their doors and roll with the punches to get by. Outdoor patios, delivery, to-go cups of beer and cocktails. Food trucks, catering, cook-at-home meal boxes, you name it. The businesses that have survived did so because they were willing to adapt and wanted it more than anyone else.
Anecdotally speaking, the breweries that succeeded also treated their employees with respect and care during the whole thing.
As food prices skyrocket, as the supply chain for meat and vegetables and basic utilities struggle to get back on their feet, restaurants and bars are going to struggle with them. And they’ll pay the price of inflation and scarcity because they NEED these things to get you in the door.
Good, reputable breweries are working hard to make sure their employees ARE paid a fair wage and are praying to every god, spirit, and deity to get a few more applicants in so they can survive the summer without have to close right after dinner time or shutter their doors because they had to let their staff actually sleep for once.
So, what’s on tap for now?
Don’t blame unemployment because “nobody wants to work anymore.” Those payments are to keep people who would’ve been in high-contact jobs home to reduce the spread of disease. And as bars and breweries are offering upwards of $20 an hour before tips to get people in the door, it’s not about the money.
Don’t blame people for being lazy. On busy nights servers and bartenders can make upwards of $40 an hour on tips, but also add 35,000 steps in a shift. With today’s tip-based income on slow nights may as well stay home.
Blame the fact that it’s a broken system without a sustainable wage.
Blame the fact that giant franchises will fleece their staff to make a quick buck.
Blame the fact that after being home for over a year, it seems that people have forgotten how to act in public.
When given to opportunity to have a work-life balance or be given the fleeting opportunity to make some cash people will choose the safe option time and time again.
It’s up to us to save our favorite breweries
As restrictions are relaxed and we try to get back out there be sure that you do a few things:
Have a good time. You are going out because it’s fun and an experience- not because it’s easier than having a beer at home (if you like drinking at home, you could’ve used that galaxy brain of yours and started your own beer blog).
Remember the human. People working in bars and breweries are doing it because they love where they are and who they work for. They are short-staffed and are working far more than they signed up for.
Tip appropriately. The system is broken, and hopefully some day it can change. The staff at your local brewery have bills to pay, too, and if you can afford $7 for your IPA made with hops that grew exclusively on a deserted island consisting only of rare vegetation and a borderline extinct marsupial and was fed gumdrops and siren song, you can throw an extra couple of bucks to the staff that live and breath this environment and want to make sure you love it as much as they do.
So get your vaccine, go out, grab a beer with your friends. Support your local bar and brewery. But remember that this is an unprecedented time in hospitality and we are all trying to get back on our feet. Tip your bartender, be patient, and most importantly…
Be excellent to each other.Bill S. Preston, Esq.
2020 has been a very long year. The majority of my life was making ends meet and buying a house with my wonderful wife. As things have settled down and revenue streams start to pick up, I’ll be here drinking beer with my friends and family and telling all you weirdos and nerds all about it. Thank you for being here.
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