Frustrated workers quit their jobs at the Portland Pie Co. in Portland to protest the company’s handling of COVID-19 cases in the restaurant and working conditions in general.
Sunday started badly at the pizzeria and bar on York Street. The kitchen was understaffed, the computer system couldn’t accept gift cards and some other payments, and people were stressed by recent COVID-19 infections among their colleagues, said Ashley McAndrew, a former bartender at the restaurant.
Stories of understaffing and very stressful working conditions have swept through the country’s hospitality industry. Restaurants and hotels lost jobs at a much higher rate than other industries at the start of the pandemic. Many workers have since quit their jobs in search of positions with better wages and conditions.
At 1:30 p.m. Sunday, about seven Portland Pie employees closed the remaining orders and went out. Two people, including the manager, remained on site.
“There was just a perfect storm above all of the COVID stuff,” said McAndrew, 33. “The tension was really high, people were really upset, feeling overworked and taken for granted, unsafe and unappreciated.”
For McAndrew, that feeling had lingered on for months. Portland Pie has not imposed a mask requirement for its employees or recommended masking for customers. Workers were not notified when a colleague tested positive and the restaurant did not publicly announce infections or temporarily shut down, a practice adopted voluntarily by some other restaurants, McAndrew said.
“They’re notorious for not telling anyone, they’re known to try to hide it, (and) they won’t tell any of their clients,” she said.
Maine does not have COVID-19 requirements for most businesses, but it recommends certain health and safety measures, such as wearing masks for unvaccinated employees and customers.
McAndrew said she has contacted her bosses and human resources on several occasions to ask for stricter health standards and more transparency. Her requests were ignored and she ultimately decided to quit. Sunday was one of her last shifts.
“The stress was too high for me, and I was fed up coming into work knowing that a coworker might have COVID and I wouldn’t know it,” McAndrew said. “I think we’re all honestly exhausted and mentally exhausted. The way we were treated in the restaurant industry last year, at least in Portland Pie, has been grueling.
Portland Pie did not consent to an interview or directly respond to emailed questions about the walkout and employee concerns. The company has eight sites in southern Maine and New Hampshire.
“Portland Pie Co. currently follows all restaurant-specific Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Maine) and US CDC guidelines,” Company CEO Jeff Perkins said in a statement.
Maine dropped all restaurant-specific COVID-19 health requirements last May. State and federal recommendations include masks for everyone in parts of the state with high transmission, hand hygiene, ventilation, signage, contact tracing and other measures.
Portland Pie has reinstated a rule that all staff must wear a mask in late November, and it conducts contact tracing when an employee tests positive, Perkins said.
THE COMPANY SAYS IT FOLLOWS THE ORIENTATIONS
“Portland Pie will continue to work within the COVID guidelines set by the Maine CDC and the US CDC. We welcome and will respect any new guidelines established by the towns and villages where we operate, ”he said.
The coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll on restaurant workers. In November, the labor for accommodation and food services in Maine, there were about 12,000 fewer workers than in February 2020, just before the pandemic, according to the State Department of Labor.
Workers who remained in the industry felt exhausted, especially since the the tourism economy rebounded this summer and many companies were understaffed. A glut of open jobs means that workers have the opportunity to work in a position that pays better or offers better hours and better conditions.
Over 800,000 U.S. restaurant and hotel workers quit their job in October only, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The industry had a 6 percent quit rate, more than double the rate of all workers.
Salaried workers began to show their muscles last year, organizing walkouts, organizing workplaces into unions and pushing bosses to offer better wages and working conditions.
Olivia Crowley, 21, worked as a waiter at Portland Pie for about five months before quitting her job on Sunday.
TO TAKE A POSITION
“I just kept going when I got out trying to get the attention of companies because they act like they don’t care about our health and safety and our life or death.” , Crowley said. “There was a point yesterday where we would talk about it, chat with the staff and say, ‘Let’s go, this place is ridiculous. “”
Workers discussed the decision for about two hours before finally leaving, Crowley added. She had never been in a professional action like this before – it made her anxious but also excited.
Crowley said management didn’t threaten her job for quitting, but she likely won’t be coming back anyway. There are other jobs.
“We’re not going to stay here that long – that’s not the way people should be treated. It’s not worth the money, ”Crowley said. “We wanted to let them know that we weren’t afraid of being fired and that we weren’t afraid to quit, so they should start valuing us or caring at a minimum for our safety.”
Lauren Saxon, 24, did not work Sunday, but was happy to hear her colleagues leave work to attract the attention of the company. She had asked owners to take COVID-19 precautions more seriously but felt ignored.
Saxon has another job and doesn’t care if she gets fired. Some colleagues really need the paycheck and don’t have the same ability to talk to management, Saxon said.
“I hope management or the company will see this and suggest changes,” she said. “My goal is not to demolish the restaurant, it is to push them to take the necessary steps to be transparent and prudent.”
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