Hospitality workers reveal health care struggles in new survey

PUBLIC HEALTH ISSUE: A survey of hospitality workers by Just Economics and the UNC Asheville-UNC Gillings Master of Public Health Program found more than half of respondents have gone to work while sick at least twice in the previous year. Screengrab courtesy of Just Economics

Less than one-fourth of Asheville hospitality workers in a recent survey have paid sick leave, and 85% have gone to work sick.

The UNC Asheville-UNC Gillings Master of Public Health Program prepared the report “High Stakes, Low Reward” for Just Economics of Western North Carolina, a nonprofit economic development agency in Asheville. In an online presentation May 13, UNC professor Ameena Batada explained that the research addressed hospitality workers’ experiences with wages, scheduling and impacts on their health.

“We right now feel like we’re just living — there’s no thriving,” said participant Miranda Escalante, a member of the Asheville Food and Beverage United collective, during the presentation. She also participated in a focus group for the study, which she said “felt like a therapy session” for many respondents because they were able to discuss the hardships of the food and beverage industry. She has worked in the Asheville service industry for 17 years.

The study received 188 responses in September-December 2023, and eight people, who each had 11-22 years of experience in the hospitality industry, contributed to small focus groups in February. The most common workplaces for participants were independent restaurants, followed by bars and coffee shops. The most common job was bartender, barista or server, followed by front-of-house worker or cook. Batada noted that the survey probably wasn’t a representative sample of people who work in the hospitality industry: It was only completed in English, despite also being offered in Spanish, and individuals who took the survey were predominantly white.

Just Economics Executive Director Vicki Meath said in the presentation that leisure and hospitality workers compose about 15% of the local workforce, which is the second-highest number of workers by industry.

A living wage

Much of the study focused on a living wage, which Just Economics puts at $22.10 per hour. The wage is calculated by what would enable a single person working full time to afford a fair-market-rate, one-bedroom apartment in Buncombe County. It is a $2 increase over last year’s local living wage.

Asheville has the largest optional participation of certified living wage employers in the country, according to Meath.

Seventy percent of survey respondents, among the 54 who described themselves as earning a living wage, said it had “a very positive impact” on their health. During the discussion groups, many respondents discussed the high cost of living in Buncombe County. “Living wage helps them survive,” Batada said.

One theme that arose throughout the discussion groups was how workers need to not only earn a living wage but also be scheduled for enough hours to see the benefits of those wages. The survey found that over one-third of respondents work two or more jobs. The researchers posited that those with multiple jobs might not be working enough shifts, or enough hours, at one job, so they need to take on another. The survey found that only one-third of respondents work 40 hours per week, and most work 20-29 hours.

‘A precarious place’

The presentation also addressed paid sick leave, which 24% of respondents receive. Among all the respondents, 10% said their workplace does offer paid sick leave but they are unable to access it because they don’t work the required number of hours. More than half (56%) of 100 respondents to a question about paid sick leave said no one at their workplace has it.

Many respondents expressed feelings of guilt when calling out of work — even if they wouldn’t be paid — and felt pressured to work while sick. During the presentation, Meath shared that she worked in the hospitality industry before joining the nonprofit, and she did not have paid time off for illnesses. Meath said she is a single mother and described going to work while sick several times, including once when she had strep throat.

For the respondents who needed sick leave but were unable to take it, chronic illnesses, COVID-19, car wrecks and emergency care for families were the top reasons named.

Seventy-three percent reported that lack of paid family leave had a negative impact on their lives. One respondent described being docked pay when his or her wife had a miscarriage; the individual missed work to be with her in the hospital.

Another respondent described being out of work for three weeks due to COVID-19. “Missing that work [messed] up my finances for months,” the respondent said. “I was in a really precarious place.”

Paid time off policies

The final portion of the presentation addressed local, state and federal policies that advocates say could improve the lives of hospitality workers.

Meath noted how the City of Asheville and Buncombe County have both passed policies to offer paid time off for the birth or adoption of a child or to care for a sick loved one. “This is good news, but we still have a lot of work to do in the local policy arena,” she said, pointing out how despite having paid time off, not all city and county workers earn the Just Economics living wage.

Transportation and affordable housing are two other areas of public policy work that would address the needs of hospitality workers, Meath added.

During the presentation, Ana Pardo from the N.C. Justice Center, a progressive advocacy nonprofit, described several efforts — some in motion for more than a decade now — to improve benefits for all employers. She said a paid family leave bill has been introduced in the General Assembly for the past 16 years and “goes nowhere.” She asked why, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, such a bill does not gain traction. (Thirteen states and Washington, D.C., provide paid family leave, according to the nonprofit Bipartisan Policy Center.)

There have also been efforts to raise North Carolina’s state minimum wage of $7.25, as well as bills to increase the federal minimum wage, Pardo said.

“We love what we do,” explained Just Economics housing and wages organizer Jen Hampton, who worked in the service industry for 30 years, including the previous 16 in Asheville. “But we also want to be able to live in a dignified way.”

Said Escalante: “I feel like we carry this tourism industry and hospitality industry on our backs” in Asheville.


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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