COVID-19 infections continue to climb in the U.S. and since virus symptoms can take up to two weeks to emerge, it’s probable that at some point in the coming months, one of your team members will contract the virus or be exposed to others who have. Operators should have a clear plan of action to follow when this happens, to include sending the sick employee home, closing down any areas used by the employee, informing other staff of the infection, and then cleaning and sanitizing the affected areas in your restaurant. In the meantime, consider what support you would need to operate if and when one or more employees cannot come to work. Ensure there are multiple people cross-trained in daily tasks so you can avoid training someone on the fly. Also consider how you could adjust your seating or traffic flow if you had to temporarily close off any areas of your restaurant for cleaning and disinfection.
To be sure, it’s not an easy time to work in restaurants. Your staff may be feeling anxious about becoming ill or facing guests who don’t follow the restaurant’s guidelines for mask wearing and social distancing. Before the added challenge of flu season hits, make sure your policies about employee health and safety are clear – and that your staff are well aware of their own responsibilities when it comes to monitoring and reporting their symptoms, as well as how and where to get tested for the coronavirus if and when the need arises. As much as possible, prepare a backup plan for when you cannot be fully staffed. This report from the Washington Post (https://wapo.st/353BFT1) provides some precautionary accounts of the employee relations challenges some operators are facing right now.
It's more important than ever that restaurant operators convey new health and safety trainings clearly to their team. But what if team members speak English as a second language and miss some of the nuances of language that native speakers understand? Rachael Nemeth, a cofounder of ESL Works, which provides mobile-based English-as-a-second-language training, addressed this challenge in a recent Fast Casual podcast. She estimates that of the 14 million workers in the restaurant industry, one-third don’t speak English as a first language. If you employ team members who aren’t fluent English speakers, what tools or protocols do you have in place to ensure your training is achieving the desired results and no messages are missed?
On July 4th weekend, a San Francisco wedding celebration reportedly became a breeding ground for COVID-19. Following a rehearsal dinner gathering of 40 guests at the Harborview Restaurant and Bar, the wedding couple and at least eight of their guests from across the country tested positive for the virus. But according to an Eater report that addressed reviews of the restaurant’s policies for managing groups, as well as information relayed by a restaurant spokesperson, Harborview seems to have done everything right: They took such steps as spacing tables six feet apart, separating guests by household or family unit, plating food that they had previously served family style, and reminding guests to wear face coverings. After the outbreak, employees were tested and results came back negative. So what is a restaurant to do when it follows guidelines and takes the right precautions but must bear the brunt of bad publicity after an outbreak? Start by going on the PR offensive, collecting facts to demonstrate your commitment to safety, and sharing them with the media and on your social platforms. Partner with your health officials and describe what precautions you have taken, from new employee training procedures and protocols to virus testing to signage advising guests how to maintain safety – and publicize their findings in the news media, on your website and on your social networks. Take photos and video of your facility, introduce staff and talk about how your policies have changed since COVID-19. Finally, for the moment, rethink catering to weddings – and other gatherings where people set out to socialize and celebrate with friends and family, consume alcohol, and perhaps let down their guard and ignore precautions. They may be best left to large outdoor settings or until after a vaccine is readily available.
In all likelihood, COVID-19 has made both your customers and employees more anxious about safety – and your customers may not fully appreciate all of the measures you and your staff have always taken to protect their health. A report from Modern Restaurant Management about the unforeseen challenges of the pandemic advises having a plan for managing both staff and customer responses to new stresses. Ensure your employees are clear on your new procedures and have been trained on how to respond to the range of new concerns they may hear from customers. Empower them to politely set boundaries with guests who demand precautions beyond the requirements of regulatory authorities. Make your expectations clear to your team about not only your service but their own health – they should know they should not ever risk coming to work while showing symptoms of illness. #foodsafety
Amid the spread of COVID-19, it’s only natural to be more concerned about the health of other people and whether you or your team could inadvertently be spreading infection. Just make sure that when hiring new staff and monitoring your team’s health, you comply with regulations and understand where existing and new regulations overlap. The National Restaurant Association reports that, for example, while the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act rules continue to apply in the current pandemic, they do not prevent you from following the COVID-19 guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention or state and local public health authorities. So during a pandemic, you can ask staff about disabilities or require medical exams of employees who don’t have symptoms, since it is a means of identifying people at higher risk for complications. You may also take a person’s temperature and ask about potential exposure during a person’s travels. Just remember privacy and confidentiality requirements under the ADA and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
The spread of COVID-19 – and the reality that employees in the U.S. may become ill or need to self-isolate in the coming weeks and months – has cast a spotlight on companies’ paid sick leave policies (as well as those that lack them). A New York Times report said despite long-time concerns from restaurant owners, retailers and other employers, studies have found these policies to be effective: one study found that policies requiring paid sick leave reduced cases of flu by 11 percent in their first year and another found that the policies cost employers 2.7 cents per hour of paid work. The report said there has been no demonstrable decline in hiring or a reduction in wages or other benefits as a result of the policies. Granted, times are different as we operate during a pandemic and operators are being required to accommodate updated health and safety standards. However, your willingness to enforce policies to keep your staff and customers safe in the long term will also help protect your business as you manage the added challenge of flu season in the coming months.
Even in the midst of mass unemployment and deep uncertainty, restaurants that have found a way to remain open are somehow continuing to make their customers and communities feel cared for. But what about caring for the restaurant employees who are taking the risk of coming to work and serving the public right now? Or the millions of others who are currently out of work? Challenges to employees’ physical, mental and financial health abound right now. There are ventures springing up throughout the country to help. Efforts like Furlough Kitchen and HospitALLity House are helping to address hunger by providing free meals to laid-off hospitality workers. A charity organization called No Us Without You launched in Los Angeles to help undocumented restaurant workers in the city. Restaurant Careers and Hospitality Relief Dashboard are offering leads on grants, interim work and other assistance. Finally, a list of resources, https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2020/health/coronavirus-how-to-help/#restaurants-and-food-workers, from CNN includes links to other sources of support for restaurants and food workers, as well as suggestions for communities looking to help the industry right now.
As restaurants reopen their dining rooms, there has been much focus on maintaining distance between tables. But don’t neglect your kitchen. While a few months ago, it might have been workable to have your back-of-house team working side by side and shouting across the room in a space with passable ventilation, that won’t work now. If your staff prepared each dish in a line, can you adjust your procedures so one person is responsible for preparing and plating each dish – or better stagger staff to allow greater distance between them? In the interest of limiting the spread of the virus should one of your staff be infected, can you create teams of employees that rotate on and off shifts together? While the National Restaurant Association and your local authorities have offered reopening guidelines, you know your kitchen best – and what safety precautions are most likely to fall by the wayside during a rush. What weak points can you address to protect your employees and business?
Many restaurant operators managing the stress of rebuilding business are encountering an extra challenge: how to ease their employees’ anxiety about everything from wearing face masks during service to handling guests who aren’t respecting your new safety procedures. People who are comfortable in their work environment are more effective employees – and are more likely to stay employed with you too. A Restaurant Business report (https://bit.ly/2XgBuQd) highlights efforts a number of operators are taking to ensure employees get the emotional support they need, as well as the training required to handle current stresses. When in doubt, communicate with your team – by regularly surveying them about what’s working and what isn’t, giving them a point of contact and other resources to turn to at any time with concerns, and using tech-based communication platforms to help keep them informed about what’s happening with your business each day.