What’s It Like to Work in the Restaurant Industry during the Omicron Surge?

We talked to employees at PaaDee, Navarre, and Bullard for a firsthand look.

By Katherine Chew Hamilton January 14, 2022

Alvarez is the bar manager at PaaDee.

It’s no secret that omicron has upended our lives, even after we’d adjusted to what we thought was the “new normal.” But for people working frontline jobs—restaurant workers included—the variant is striking particularly close, whether they’ve come down with cases themselves or watched coworkers get sick. All over social media, restaurants are announcing temporary closures or reduced hours due to COVID cases and exposures. And while some folks in white-collar jobs have easy access to tests (Google provided its work-from-home employees—though not its contractors—with a home testing device and up to 20 rapid tests a month), restaurant workers rely on group chats to help refer each other to testing sites or share home test kits. And while those of us who are lucky enough to telecommute can simply hunker down, that’s not an option for people working in restaurants, especially if they’re continuing to offer indoor dining.

Hilton (left) plays a bartender in the 2021 film Swan Song with Udo Kier, though he also works in the industry in real life as a host at Bullard.

We reached out to three Portland restaurant workers to hear about their experiences. All of them are working in an environment that involves indoor dining, though all of their workplaces also require guests to be vaccinated to dine in. Adriana Alvarez is a bar manager at PaaDee; she’s worked there since December. Angie Barrios is a host at Navarre, though she’s decided to take time away from work until the omicron wave passes. Thom Hilton (also a Portland Monthly contributor and actor in the 2021 film Swan Song) has worked as a host at Bullard since December.  

When did you really start feeling the stress of omicron?

Thom Hilton: “I felt it probably the weekend before Christmas. There was a big shift. We all had a conversation, and it became a worry and a new point of focus for everybody during service.” 

Have you had any positive cases at your workplace?  

Adriana Alvarez: “We have gotten a few positives, not just in PaaDee, but Eem got one, Hat Yai, Lazy Susan. But what’s great to know is that Earl [Ninsom]’s line of restaurants is very transparent, like, ‘This is what’s going on, and the public should know. We’re not trying to sugarcoat it. We’ll come back when everyone tests negative.’” 

Angie Barrios: “We've had a couple of people that have called out sick, have tested positive.” 

Hilton: “Not yet, which is great. We do temperature checks every day and also every employee has to be vaccinated. So it feels like a very safe environment from our team standpoint, and that is something that I'm super grateful for. But it's also that feeling like you're standing on the edge of a cliff, walking on eggshells or whatever—that feeling where you're just waiting for it to happen.”  

What happens when there’s a positive case at work?

Alvarez: “We all got tested. They all came back negative. But at that point, we decided just to do takeout … because we didn't want to force any of the crew to come back if they didn't feel either safe or well tested, especially with the exposure window.” 

Barrios: “As a precaution, we did close the restaurant for a few days until everyone tested negative or was able to go get tested.” 

What are the financial impacts when your restaurant has to temporarily close or move to takeout only? 

Barrios: “We lose work [when we’re closed], and there's no way to be compensated for that. If you have sick pay, then you can use your sick pay for that. I’ve only been working there since September, so the amount of sick pay I’ve accrued is six hours, whereas if we’re closed three days, I’d lose 18 hours and can only have six of those hours compensated at an hourly wage—not including tips.” 

Alvarez: “[For dine in] there have been many times when we get over 20 percent [in tips]. If we go through DoorDash, there’s an option to tip, but most of the time people don’t do it, because Doordash has its own fees as well. If people are picking up, it’s maybe 10 percent.” 

How do you go about getting tests? Does your workplace provide them? 

Barrios: “We don’t have rapid tests on hand at work. We’re all in a group chat where everyone pitches in and is like, ‘I was able to find a test here.’ We’ve always been trying to chip in and help each other. Resources for that are really hard to find as well. So it's like, even if you do need to go get tested, Curative has like a five-day wait time for an appointment. And then … every CVS is out of a rapid test.” 

Alvarez: “I know that PaaDee, if need be, would reimburse someone for taking a rapid test. And so we're like, ‘Whatever it takes, if you need an Uber ride, you need to be compensated.’ They'll do it. But I wish it didn’t come out of restaurants’ pockets. I wish these tests were just free. I had to do a lot of research. Curative is a great website; other than that, most of the time I was going out to Tigard.” 

Does your workplace provide N95 masks?

Alvarez: “Right now, PaaDee has surgical masks. It’s almost, like, easier to get drugs at this point than masks. Sometimes my husband will sneak me five [N95 masks from his work]. I’ve been wearing an N95 for a very long time, to the point where the back of my right ear is infected. If for some reason I don’t have an N95, I wear the masks that they provide, and put a cloth mask over it. Everyone’s double-masked, even in the kitchen, and I know it gets hot in there.” 

Barrios: “I was able to order some on my own. It's not something that's provided at work. We definitely have the surgical masks. But I think most of us have just had to buy our own [N95s].” 

Hilton: “We were given a 10-pack of KN95s, and there’s an attempt to keep ordering and getting them to us, which definitely makes me feel a lot better. The general sense I get from everybody, from the top down, is that they care a lot.” 

What are customer behaviors like right now? 

Barrios: “When we first went into lockdown, and people lost their jobs, and everyone was kind of maneuvering it at the same time, there was this deep empathy, a sense of understanding, and this willingness to help each other out and be a part of a community. Things feel incredibly divided right now.… It feels a little bit delusional, it feels very dismissive and privileged, and that's a really hard aspect of it. People are really burnt out. It's been two years.” 

Hilton: “Everybody is wearing masks when they come in. They're wearing masks when they get up and go to the restroom. The clientele in general feels very aware and careful. But also that's kind of a built-in thing because we're telling people ‘You will have to show your vaccine card’ when they book a reservation.” 

Has working with the public during this wave affected your ability to see family and friends?

Alvarez: “[My dad died] June 14, 2020, after a month-long battle with COVID. We just don't want to see another person have to go through that.… I haven't seen my mom since Christmas and I don’t plan on seeing her until it's a bit safer, even though she's right here in Portland. I think it's important to still try and protect ourselves as much as we can so that we're able to hug our loved ones. I wish I had my dad here and so I wish the same for everyone else.”

Hilton: “It has changed how I interact with my family because they're older. I just moved back to Portland, it's my hometown, so I loved seeing them a lot. But since omicron has become a new issue, I've seen them a lot less just to be careful. It [also] has cut back on how much I'm interacting with friends. Because I feel like the rest time and kind of mental time that I need is more valuable now.”

What’s your state of mind like right now?

Barrios: “I have really high anxiety around this. And in order to mitigate and maneuver my anxiety as best as I can, I have been getting tested weekly. And it's now to the point where I can't do that because I can't find a rapid test at a store. I can't get an appointment the week of, because it's just so slammed; there's so many people that are getting sick. So it feels like people are just like being cornered into this really awful situation.… I decided to leave the food industry for some time to see if cases go down enough that I feel safe enough to come back to work at some point. Even if tests are available … it doesn't prevent me getting sick.… I love the food service industry. I've been in it for a really long time. But it just doesn't feel like the safe option anymore.” 

Hilton: “No matter how careful and great the place that you're working is, it still feels scary. Because there's so many different possibilities, and when I go to work, I have to kind of emotionally steel myself for this feeling, and then I kind of have to shake it off at the end of the night. And then when I go into the weekend, I would say that the first day of my weekend is pretty much just decompressing from, ‘I'm so grateful that I did not get COVID.’ And that is a lot to feel.… It just feels heavy because I wouldn't work in a restaurant unless I loved the restaurant, and restaurants in general. And part of what I find enjoyable about them is just being able to kind of forget and have a special experience. And I feel like it requires some of my acting to come in and really make stuff special and not let the anxiety leak out onto my customers or my coworkers.”