Most Southern states still don't know how many F&B workers have died of COVID
But GMs in Georgia have not fared well
By OpenTable’s reckoning, more than 6,000 customers visited Rappahannock Oyster Bar’s Charleston location in December 2021. General manager Kyle Anderson is pretty sure he interacted with most of them.
“Your job is anything and everything” as a restaurant manager, says Anderson, who was tightening bolts on dining room chairs when I reached him by phone. “Me personally, I like being in the restaurant, taking care of guests, meeting new people and training servers and bartenders on different ways to do their work.”
Since the start of the pandemic, most press coverage of the restaurant industry’s efforts to right itself has focused on the financial challenges which owners face and the workplace abuses which hourly workers suffer. But general managers, who bear the day-to-day responsibility of making sure both the business and its employees stay healthy, have been the stalwarts at restaurants ranging from fast-food drive-thrus to fine dining spots such as Rappahannock, which has three different kinds of caviar on its menu.
And according to new data obtained by The Food Section through a public records request, at least in Georgia, the job could be killing them.
Food service managers accounted for 102—or 14 percent—of the 711 Covid deaths in Georgia’s food service-and-accommodations sector between March 1, 2020 and Sept. 1, 2021.
Numerically, “cook” is the deadliest food service job in terms of Covid mortality: 173 restaurant, fast food and institutional cooks died of Covid in Georgia during the 18-month span, which works out to 24 percent of deaths in the industry statewide.
But as of May 2020, there were 61,000 cooks working in Georgia, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to 8,440 food service managers.
In other words, if you were a food service manager in Georgia during these 18 months, you were four times more likely to die of Covid than if you were a cook.
It stands to reason that general managers’ constant exposure to customers—which has only increased as restaurant’s hiring situations have worsened—could put them at mortal risk.
“I come in at 9:30 before we open for lunch and leave after dinner service, while a server might come in at 10 and be gone by 3,” Anderson says. “We’re definitely on the front lines.”
Statistics pertaining to Covid deaths in the restaurant industry are frustratingly scant, giving rise to the persistent rumor that restaurants are having trouble hiring because the hospitality industry literally killed off potential job seekers by failing to protect them from Covid.
The CDC doesn’t group Covid deaths by occupational sector, so there’s no way of knowing precisely how many food-and-beverage workers nationwide have lost their lives to the pandemic. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks fatal workplace injuries, but “does not report any illness related information, including Covid-19.”
One of the few studies to take stock of the virus’ toll across industries was published in January 2021 by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, who calculated excess mortality rates using 2020 death records.
They found the overall mortality rate of California residents aged 18-65 went up 22 percent during the first seven months of the pandemic in 2020, but four occupations saw their mortality rates increase by more than 50 percent during the same time: Line cooks, warehouse workers, farm laborers and bakers.
“Our analysis is among the first to identify non-healthcare in-person essential work, such as food and agriculture, as a predictor of pandemic-related mortality,” the researchers wrote in their preprint exploring Covid’s potential consequences.
In hopes of filling out the picture, last October I asked 11 Southern states to list the occupations of all their residents who had died of Covid.
Surprisingly, two years into the pandemic, such data remains largely unavailable.
Seven states—Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia—responded that information about Covid victims’ lines of work doesn’t exist. Meanwhile, Florida and North Carolina are still processing those requests, while Tennessee eventually denied the request after determining I didn’t meet the state’s citizenship requirement for open records access.
By comparison, the tables supplied by Georgia are enormously revealing.
Within food service, cooks, food service managers, chefs and servers had the highest total numbers of Covid deaths.
It’s important to note, though, that the job title represents the victim’s usual occupation. It doesn’t necessarily indicate that the person was working in that capacity just before he or she died. Nor should it be interpreted to mean that the person contracted Covid while at work; it’s entirely possible that managers are at the top of the list just because they tend to be older than the general population of restaurant workers.
“It’s hard to really pinpoint,” says Tim Self, an assistant professor and coordinator of the hospitality administration program at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. “And if states aren’t counting, it’s like, huh, that’s convenient.”
Self has written about restaurant manager retention, a topic that has earned little scrutiny in academia. Most researchers interested in restaurant operations focus on hourly workers because, Self says, “You go for the low-hanging fruit.”
“It’s harder to get to managers because, honestly, there are less managers than employees,” he says.
As a result, there is very little verifiable information about restaurant managers and the work they do. On average, food service managers in Georgia earn $58,610 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to Self, the profession’s gender split “is pretty close to 50/50,” with most managers “probably somewhere in their late 30s.”
Beyond that, though, the best Self can say with certainty is it’s a demanding job.
At Rappahannock Oyster Bar in Charleston, Anderson says he decided to mandate Covid vaccinations for employees after the restaurant repeatedly had several staff cases at the same time. “It’s really difficult to operate without two cooks, three waitresses, and the oyster shucker,” he says. But once he put the mandate in place, workers quit, an episode which loomed at the front of his mind when he considered requiring employees to mask up in the dining room for the duration of the Omicron surge.
“You’re trying to protect the public, the business, and the employees,” he says. “It becomes a very fine line. There’s blowback to everything.”
A longtime manager of a Papa John’s in Colorado last month inadvertently became an illustration of the squeeze put on GMs when he closed his store three hours early because he couldn’t find anyone to staff it. According to Business Insider, the pizza chain fired Chris Jackson after 13 years of service even though “he had been working long stretches of back-to-back open-to-close shifts.”
Salaried managers are expected to keep overtime costs down by washing dishes, prepping ingredients, and mopping floors: After every other employee had left the restaurant on New Year’s Eve, Anderson was still there, breaking down boxes and thinking, “We got through today. How do we get through tomorrow?”
Since the job is thankless in the best of times, it’s emerged as one of the hardest roles for restaurants to fill.
“Absolutely I’m shorthanded on managers,” says Navid Ahsan, vice president of operations for King Claw, a Viet-Cajun seafood chain headquartered in Georgia. “It’s always a cry out [for help]. But it’s really hard on people because you can’t have a day off.”
Stress and the unhealthy behaviors it breeds could put food service managers at greater risk for a severe Covid case, along with their age. But anecdotal evidence suggests that what’s really compounded restaurant managers’ vulnerability to the virus is how much they love their jobs.
“If Hugh would have understood he was susceptible, maybe he would have sat out a bit,” the co-owner of Cantina 76 told me in July 2020 when Hugh O’Neill, manager of the chain’s Mount Pleasant, South Carolina location, was in critical condition with a Covid diagnosis.
O’Neill’s wife disputed the theory, saying her husband couldn’t wait to get back to work when closure orders were lifted. She predicted he’d go straight back to the restaurant as soon as he was off the ventilator.
O’Neill, 53, died on July 19, 2020.
Just over a year later, Debbie Watson, a general manager at a Chick-fil-A in Gadsden, Alabama, died of Covid. “She loved her job,” says her mother, Kathy Maxwell.
Watson’s husband, who died of Covid two weeks before she did, and their two children also worked at the restaurant.
“I told her one time, ‘Debbie, I don’t know if you’re going to be able to keep doing that,’ because she had some underlying conditions like being a diabetic, but she didn’t even think about quitting her job,” Maxwell says. “No way. She would not, not even if she got a higher degree in her education.”
Watson dreamed of owning a Chick-fil-A, Maxwell says, but a bankruptcy in her husband’s past kept the couple from qualifying for a franchise. So she focused instead on solving problems for customers and counseling the teenagers who worked for her.
“She called me pretty often and it was all about Chick-fil-A,” Maxwell recalls. “Debbie’s whole life revolved around church and Chick-fil-A. They were so good to her. They were good to the whole family. Even at the funeral, they told us we could come by and get food if we wanted it.”
Maxwell’s Christian faith teaches that she’ll see her daughter and son-in-law again. But her grandchildren are 18 and 21, and she worries about how long they’ll have to wait for a heavenly reunion. Right now, they’re coping with insurance paperwork while trying to figure out how to make a $500 monthly payment on the Watsons’ home.
They’re still working at Chick-fil-A.
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