Resource Groups for Restaurant Industry Workers Can Be a Lifeline

In 2018, chef Zia Sheikh was struggling with burnout and addiction. He wound up getting fired from his job, another victim of the restaurant industry’s pressure and churn, and he says he sought out therapy as a result. Finding free counseling directly led to someone helping him get Medicaid, he says, and now, he sees losing his restaurant job as a blessing in disguise. “I started pulling all these different resources to help people in my position, because now I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have any insurance,” he said. “And I realized, not only can I help myself, but I can use this information to help so many others. Because anybody that’s worked in this industry knows that these issues are rampant.”

Even after high-profile reckonings, restaurant workers still report that the industry allows abuses to thrive. Tipped wages make fertile ground for exploitation, strict hierarchical kitchens easily lead to harassment and assault, and across the industry there is still a culture that insists if you complain, it just means you aren’t “tough enough.” “For folks across the entire gender spectrum, there’s sexual abuse and harassment from coworkers, from guests, and from superiors,” says Sara Nahshon, who has worked in restaurants and catering for nearly two decades. “And I could say for myself that, having experienced all those, there’s such a sense of powerlessness.”

For Sheikh, that collection of resources he compiled — dozens of crisis hotlines and support groups — has morphed into Restaurant After Hours, a non-profit organization focused on providing mental health resources for those who work in the restaurant and food-service industry. The group organizes virtual support groups, and helps direct people to various hotlines and resources for everything from offering free legal counsel, helping someone find housing or pay bills, or connecting someone with rehab. There are more resources than ever for restaurant workers — and it is absolutely worth reaching out. “You are not powerless, you have choices and that’s enough: to seek support,” says Nahshon, who now serves on the board of the RAH.

But finding services can be intimidating, especially if you’re not quite sure what you’re looking for. Stephanie Holt of the Victim Rights Law Center, a group that provides free legal services for sexual assault victims in Massachusetts and Oregon, recommends Googling what’s in your state — for instance, “Rape Crisis Center + your location” — to see what’s out there. And resources in other states might be able to point you in the right direction of something more local. No matter what, though, there are options for everyone besides enduring harassment or a toxic work environment in silence, and reaching out can result in material change. “I do think it’s so worth it to come forward,” says Holt. “Because everyone deserves to be in a workplace that’s free of violence.”

Mental Health Resources

One of the main issues with restaurant work is that, despite still being in a global pandemic that impacted food-service workers more than just about anyone else, most restaurant jobs still do not provide health insurance. And even if they do, taking advantage of insurance-provided mental health care is still an uphill battle. “Typically therapists work more standard work hours, and we know that folks in the restaurant industry have very non-standard hours,” says Erin Reifsnyder, a mental health advocate on the board of Restaurant After Hours.

This is why RAH started hosting virtual support groups, as well as a comprehensive database of mental health hotlines and support groups like Trans Lifeline, the National Eating Disorders Association, Chefs With Issues (a Facebook support group for restaurant industry professionals with mental health issues), and the Pin Project (where restaurant workers wear a pin to show their sobriety). And there are state-specific restaurant industry mental health resources, like Southern Smoke, which provides free mental health care to workers and their children in Texas, and Elevate in New York City. The hotlines provide conversations with trained therapists and mental health counselors, who can also set you up with resources like emergency shelter and financial counseling, and help finding in-person services and clothing.

Many of those hotlines are specifically sexual assault hotlines, like RAINN, RISE, and Resilience, as more people recognize what they experienced in the restaurant industry as incidents of sexual harassment or abuse. These organizations provide free and confidential one-time and long-term trauma therapy, medical and legal advocacy (including information on how to access medical care without visiting a hospital), and referrals to more specialized support.

Legal Resources

For anyone who is facing a legal issue in the workplace, the first thing to do is inform someone at work, even just another coworker, and document it. “Most people, when they report, they say it to someone first,” says Holt of the Victim Rights Law Center. “But follow up with that… it can be a text message just saying, ‘As you know I reported that X person did this to me while I was on my shift on X date, please let me know next steps.’ Just anything to show that you’ve informed that workplace and let them know exactly what’s going on.”

By reaching out to an organization like VRLC, restaurant workers can get counsel on what a legal case for their particular issue may look like, and make an informed decision on whether they’d like to proceed. Holt says the process can be difficult, and depending on the situation (like those involving assault), triggering. But “the best-case scenario is you go to an attorney, they file suit against that restaurant, and maybe the restaurant settles or maybe it goes to trial and you’re successful. You could get money from that and hopefully that financial penalty will convince that restaurant to either change, or if paying a financial penalty, they may not stay in existence.”

Sarah Leberstein, a supervising attorney at Make The Road New York, says that food-service and restaurant workers “make up one of the largest groups of workers that we see in our practice.” The community-based organization, which works with working class immigrant Latinx communities in New York, provides direct legal services to clients experiencing wage theft, discrimination, and sexual harassment. They also regularly provide Know Your Rights workshops and assist immigrants with paperwork and deportation defense.

The restaurant industry often relies on undocumented workers, and unfortunately, managers and owners use their status to threaten workers with deportation or arrest. “By and large, undocumented workers are protected by the core workplace labor and employment laws with some exceptions,” says Leberstein. “If their employer is trying to convince them that they don’t have the right to the minimum wage or that they’re not allowed to bring a complaint because they don’t have work authorization, that’s simply false.” By reaching out for legal support, undocumented workers have a better chance at recouping lost wages, or being compensated for workplace safety violations.

On top of organizations like VLRC that provide state-specific legal consultation, many cities also have walk-in legal clinics. Seeking legal counsel may sound intimidating, but holding a restaurant or other food-service workplace accountable for wage theft or harassment has great power to change the rest of the industry. “I would say don’t hesitate to reach out for legal services sooner rather than later,” says Holt. “Sometimes legal action is the only way to get these systems and these things to change.”

Funds for Bills and Rent

While there are pro-bono lawyers and free mental health hotlines at everyone’s disposal, there are situations in which workers just need money — they were injured or sick and lost work, or needed to reduce hours, or are just trying to leave the industry and need some help. There are a number of relief funds targeted specifically to food-service workers, many borne out of the pandemic. The One Fair Wage Emergency Fund was created in 2020 to help service workers “struggling with rent, bills, and feeding their families even as the restaurant industry reopens, and can no longer afford to remain in the service sector,” including funds for workers who are protesting their working conditions. The Southern Smoke Foundation was founded in 2015, and in 2017 shifted its focus to helping those in the restaurant industry affected by Hurricane Harvey. Since 2020, it has provided all kinds of food-service workers, from bartenders to farmers, with funds to pay for things like medical bills, mental health needs, and rent. ​​

“People are saying this [fund] is changing their lives when they didn’t have any hope,” said chef Sarah Grueneberg of Southern Smoke. However, for a while workers were not applying, which Southern Smoke founder Chris Shepherd chalked up to pride. It’s that attitude that many people in the industry hope is changing. “If you need help, take advantage of it,” said Grueneberg. “Don’t feel bad you’re applying for support. Part of the awareness is to fight any guilt or stigma.”

Victor Bizar Gómez is Mexican-American illustrator currently vibing in Portland, Oregon.