Tiago de Souza Jensen, the newly unemployed general manager and sommelier of Vancouver’s Burdock & Co. restaurant, has a message for British Columbia Premier John Horgan: “We’re not your scapegoats.”
Incensed by Premier Horgan’s criticism of young people while simultaneously introducing new pandemic restrictions that threaten to put thousands of them out of work, the province’s food and beverage workers are dishing back the blame – with invoices attached.
“The implication that we’re all just partying undermines the enormous role we’ve played in supporting the economy, educating the public and preventing the spread of COVID-19,” Mr. de Souza Jensen said.
On Monday, while introducing new pandemic measures that include a three-week halt to indoor dining, Premier Horgan asked those in the 20-to-39-year-old age not to “blow this for the rest of us.”
“Do not blow this for your parents and your neighbours and others who have been working really, really hard making significant sacrifices so we can get good outcomes for everybody.”
Mr. de Souza Jensen, who is 25, has launched a letter-writing campaign and is encouraging other hospitality workers to invoice their NDP MLAs for the “mountain” of work they put in this week to reschedule reservations, prepare takeout systems and shut down dining rooms for the three-week closure.
“Your demonization of the 20-29 age group is galling,” reads his letter template, which has been distributed to hundreds of people.
“This age group includes some of the most hardworking, pandemic-aware, and patient people in the business, who work every day to ensure people can eat and drink in safety. We do not accept your claim that we are ‘not paying attention,’ and instead direct your attention to the anti-mask rallies and lack of mask use your party has done so little to prevent. We will remember this. We will vote accordingly.”
Adding fuel to the fire, a video surfaced later in the week of a crowded indoor gathering at Big White ski resort with young people drinking and dancing on tables. The restaurant’s lease was subsequently terminated.
At the Whistler Blackcomb ski resort, which was also closed for the season, 1,220 cases were recorded between Jan. 1 and March 28, with 83 per cent of infections among those aged 20 to 39.
As the Globe and Mail reported on Friday, an alarming number of Whistler cases – 218 of them last week alone – were driven by the P.1 variant most commonly associated with Brazil, which is sending more young people to hospital.
Clusters of cases in both resorts were traced to dorm-style staff housing and social gatherings.
“It’s undeniable that what the Premier is saying is backed up by truth,” says Jeff Guignard, executive director at Alliance of Beverage Licensees (ABLE BC). “There are people working in the hospitality industry who, in their personal lives, are not following the rules.
“But there are thousands more who are working their butts off every day to adhere to the most stringent practices and trying to do the right thing. When they hear this type of blame and finger-wagging, there’s bound to be a backlash. The stern-dad dress-down isn’t going to work.”
Mr. Guignard, along with the BC Restaurant Foodservices Association, has been lobbying the government for the prioritization of vaccinations for hospitality workers and additional financial assistance to deal with this new industry crisis.
According to ABLE BC’s survey of 800 business operators across the province this week, more than 120,000 workers were either laid off on Monday or had their hours reduced. More layoffs are expected over the weekend. And most of those workers are in the 20-to-39-year-old age group.
The financial struggles of young people in the hospitality industry are real and are being overlooked, says Shiva Reddy, who started cooking up big batches of curry for fellow unemployed workers this week.
“If you’re out of work and need a hand, please let me know. I’m happy to share,” she posted to Instagram. About 20 people reached out for a free meal.
“Restaurant workers were already working reduced hours, maybe two or three days a week, for reduced wages. Now they’re out of work and scrambling to pay their rent,” says the 30-year-old sommelier, who has received donations to help turn her curries into a larger relief effort.
Ms. Reddy is in a precarious position herself, having been out of work for most of the year. In August, she left her full-time position as wine director for the Savio Volpe group to care for her mother, who suffers from dementia and kidney disease.
“The restaurant was doing everything on its part to stay safe, but the people coming through the doors were not respectful. After a few drinks, people would come up and try to hug me. These were regulars. You’re supposed to be nice to them. But they had no boundaries and I couldn’t take those chances with my mother. I’m her primary caregiver and she’s in and out of hospital all the time.”
On Monday morning, she started a new job as general manager at Barbara Restaurant. By the afternoon, she was unemployed and back home with her mom, whom she also supports financially.
“I have a tiny bit of savings left, enough to last maybe two weeks.”
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