U.S. Restaurant Owners Get Creative to Try to Keep Workers Safe

U.S. restaurant owners, lacking clear federal guidance on how to keep their workers safe, are funding creative in-house solutions themselves -- and crossing their fingers.

At Michelin-star restaurant Fiola in Washington D.C., there’s now a doctor on call who’s developed a pre-shift screening routine and a contract tracing system for workers. Northeast pizza chain &pizza has subsidized Lyft trips to and from work to keep staff off public transportation. Upscale eatery Fellow in Los Angeles has bought every employee a $30 wearable fitness tracker that detects significant changes in respiratory rates in hopes of catching any cases of the virus early.

U.S. Restaurant Owners Get Creative to Try to Keep Workers Safe

“We are learning as we go,” said Fiola owner Fabio Trabocchi. “At the end of the day, there’s no doubt about it, they are coming to work at a great risk. And I wanted to make sure they have the peace of mind.”

Restaurant owners’ inventive responses to the virus come amid a lack of clear federal regulations. There’s no nationwide mask mandate, even for servers, meaning the staff preparing food, delivering meals to tables and clearing dishes could be putting themselves and others at risk, especially in indoor restaurants. New York City will be stopping all indoor service on Monday, but it continues in many other cities and states.

According to a report released this month by the U.C. Berkeley Food Labor Research Center and the advocacy group One Fair Wage, 44% of restaurant employees report one or more staff has contracted the virus, and more than four in five say they’re within six feet of an unmasked person at least once during their shifts.

So far, some of the novel approaches appear to be helping. At Fellow, where staff wear the respiratory trackers, there have not been any infections among its employees, owner Philip Camino said in a late November interview.

“We’re encouraging our employees to look at that specific metric every single day and if they see an irregularity, then they have to let us know, certainly not come in, and go get tested immediately,” he said. “With this as a pre-warning system, hopefully we can catch some of these infections before they even make it to the building.”

He plans to keep the system going even after the pandemic ends. So does Michael Lastoria, co-founder of &pizza, who’s been subsidizing the ride-hailing apps for staff.

“Out of the gate, you’re going to see higher expenses but, over time, when you give people a reason to show up because they feel appreciated and supported, they in turn give that back to you as an organization,” Lastoria said. “We have found that costs come down as retention improves. We’ve actually seen increased labor productivity across the board.”

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