We interviewed a waitress about their experience during the lockdown, in a company that has seen strikes in the recent past. For a wider explanation of the interview series check out:


I’ve worked at  an American style restaurant chain for five years. Three years ago a lot of staff around the country went on strike after the company decided to reallocate 40% of our tips to kitchen staff. I was concerned about what was happening at work and got in touch with other people but my place wouldn’t go on strike so I went down to join the solidarity strikes in London. I became active in the union UNITE and became the Equality rep for UNITE in my area.

When covid started I think I was the only person who took it seriously. Two weeks or so before lock down I went to represent UNITE at a conference in Portugal. So I was talking to people from Europe who were going to have to go back into isolation. Spain went into lock down the day I left Portugal so I was much more aware of how seriously we had to take it. At the airport everyone was wearing gloves and masks.

I went back to work saying ‘we’ve got to sanitise all the touch points’ but no-one else was taking it seriously. I was going round with sanitiser everywhere and the others were saying ‘you’re taking it too far’. Actually the manager was trying to keep everyone informed of what was going on but people still didn’t really take things seriously. Obviously because we work in hospitality we’re a bit obsessive on hand cleaning anyway. We had to change the seating plan so people were sitting further apart and we had to deep clean the tables and menus between each set of customers. So we changed our practice a little bit but no-one was wearing PPE or anything. I started wearing gloves but my team mates were telling me to take them off.

Then the lock down came. Even though we’ve disputed issues in the workplace in the past our managers were really good when it started. They let us help ourselves to all the perishable food so we took a lot of it to a homeless shelter . One of the managers went and bought a lot of food from a wholesalers to take round to some of the mums who worked in our place.

When the lock down started the government didn’t immediately issue any guidelines about wages so the company gave us an average from hours worked over the last three months. But I was off work on statutory sick pay in January. So, like other people who were off sick or isolating and didn’t have the hours we all instantly took a massive pay cut plus for all of us about a third of our pay is tips and of course we weren’t getting those so I was on peanuts. The people in London are even worse off because there tips make up about 50% of wages. When the government brought out guidelines the company changed it from the 3 months average to a year’s hours including holidays so then I was on an extra £45 a week. Then after about 3 weeks the furlough pay dropped from 100% down to 80% so I was back where I was before and ever since I’ve really struggled.

My mum has to send me food boxes because I can’t afford to buy food. Even when I was working I lived close to the edge. I’ve always struggled with money, lived week to week and often in the middle of the week I’ve run out and have to pick up extra shifts or work on after the end of a shift. Even when I was working I don’t treat myself to anything, don’t get my nails done or go to the hairdresser or buy clothes. I just buy the essentials so now on the furlough pay I haven’t been able to pay any bills for three months. My standing orders keep bouncing. I’ve paid my rent but nothing else.

The workforce is about one third students, part timers, then one third are mums and the rest of us are career waiters, mostly between the ages of 20 and 30 and living alone in flats. A lot of the students live at home so they’re not so bad but other people are really struggling. One of my mates is pregnant and now the restaurant is opened back up she had to go back to full time work, struggling through shifts, carrying this baby around because she’s so worried about maternity pay being affected. So she’s got to put her health at risk or end up really poor. Quite a few of the people at work have got kids and they’re all really struggling. With the drop to 80% pay and loss of tips people were down to about half their normal wage – we’re all on minimum wage to start with.

Now work has opened back up but I haven’t been called in yet. I’m not sure how they’ve worked out who to call back but those that have gone back are getting 40 hours a week but the rest of us are getting nothing. I think the manager wants to see how busy they are before asking too many people back. I’ve told her I will only go back if they can give me enough hours to make more than I’m making now on furlough. That means getting more than 25 hours a week. We’re furloughed till October and they have told us it will stay at 80%, not drop to 60% like they can.

What they have said is that we’ve all got to sign a new contract. This will drop my guaranteed hours from 30 to 15 a week and they’re saying if even one person in a department doesn’t sign then we’ll all loose our jobs and have to re-apply and then there’s the possibility that some of us will loose our jobs. I know in some stores people are refusing to sign but at mine we’ve all said ok, just to keep our jobs. The new contracts also extend our job roles so now as a waitress I can be asked to do other jobs like deep cleaning for a couple of hours but then I’d be losing my tips for those hours and I can’t survive without tips.

They’ve also got rid of all the assistant managers roles throughout the company. The people have all got to apply for supervisors jobs but that’s at a big pay cut and if they don’t secure these new jobs by the end of this week they’re out. That applies to 197 people across the country.

The people who’ve started back are saying it’s really horrible at work. It’s really busy and they’re understaffed. There’s a whole new one way system and you have to wash your hands every five minutes. No-one is wearing masks and most of the customers don’t follow social distancing. One customer coughed in a staff member’s face and had to be escorted out of the building. The managers are really overworked since they’ve got rid of the assistant managers and the managers have got to do their jobs for no extra pay. So its affected everyone in the place. You don’t really have a them and us mentality with the managers because everyone is suffering but they’re just less inclined to talk about it. And people are stressed. A lot of people in hospitality have poor mental health and now there’s even more anxiety, worrying about getting the virus. People are on anti-depressants. To be honest it looks like a complete shit show. I think if you’re having to put that many measures in place its not safe, it shouldn’t be open.

I think some stores would go on strike if things get worse. Where I work only about 10% of people are in the union and its a bit of a water cooler mentality, ie people will talk and complain but are not willing to do much. I try to get them to join the union but they say they can’t afford £2 a month membership or say they don’t want to get in trouble or say they’re not stopping in the job for long.

The town I live in has a very mixed population of white, asian and black people. I went on the BLM demonstration. I helped steward and gave out PPE. I also spoke at one of the protests. The protests were mostly young people and very mixed, just like our local population. Lots of my friends went and one thing that was good was all the people who came from my work hadn’t been on any kind of protest before. Now they all got excited by it and said to me ‘now we understand why you go on these things’. So perhaps this will encourage them to protest about the things in our company now that they’ve seen how protest works, how it’s organised.