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Uncertainty, anxiety, and stress among Calgary’s COVID-19 service industry

Some food and beverage industry workers in Alberta are dealing with mounting mental health concerns as they work through COVID-19.

Public-facing every day as the economy continues to move ahead, workers are faced with the prospect of not making ends meet and putting their health in jeopardy.

According to the Alberta government, Stage 2 allowed additional businesses and services to resume operations starting June 12. It comes with physical distancing requirements and other public health guidelines in place.

Case counts remain steady. Health officials say COVID-19 will be with us for months more.

Some workers are still at home unemployed, unsure of when they’re going to get the call to go back to work. Others are wondering how long income aid like CERB is going to last.

And then some are going to work every day.

“Take the already stressful and intense restaurant or kitchen environments and add in the fear of, ‘am I going to get sick’, ‘is somebody around me going to get sick’, ‘could there be a breakout at our restaurant and the business closes,’” said Paul Shufelt, a top Alberta chef and owner of The Workshop Eatery in Edmonton.

“There is a great deal of uncertainty, anxiety, and stress, I think for all involved, whether you’re an employee or a restaurant manager or restaurant owner.” 

Shufelt is also a member of an initiative called In The Weeds.

It’s led by a dedicated group of hospitality workers.

“It’s been difficult for us and I don’t feel like we’ve been able to do enough,” said Shufelt.

“We’ve offered our network of resources. The challenge that we’re facing is that most of us that run this organization are small business owners ourselves. We’re in survival mode right now.”

Workers feeling the pressure heading back to the job

Many jobs have changed, though by title it’s the same position. That’s put added strain on employees.

“I feel frustrated because now there is a lot of extra work to do and so many customers and other employees don’t take the safety guidelines seriously,” said Katheren Varga, a barista at a Calgary Starbucks. 

This has also disrupted the work culture, according to Varga. A company like Starbucks encourages its employees to make small talk and connect with every customer, she said. That’s become more difficult due to coronavirus. 

“I’m less open with people. I’m less friendly because there’s always this sense of being socially distanced and that has somehow changed my attitude with people,” Varga said.

Shufelt stressed the importance of being mindful of those that are disrespecting the social distancing rules. 

“That’s more daunting and you know you have to walk that line between being hospitable and taking care of people, which is what we love to do, but also being smart and safe,” he said.

“And you know, you’ve lost that ability to be warm and genuine while you’re wearing a mask and maintaining distance and simply taking an order versus socializing with your guests and trying to create a relaxed and welcoming environment for them.”

Varga is also a server at an Inglewood restaurant. She took up a second job to make enough money to pay bills.

“I’m afraid because even though I went to get a second job, I’m still not even close to 40 hours a week,” she said. 

Employees adjusting to so-called new normal

For Amanda Minju Kim, another Calgary barista, it’s all about adjusting to the changes to make it the new normal. 

“Everybody’s stressed and, on the edge, but it’s just about being cautious around people because you don’t know who a worrier versus who is more comfortable,” she said.

Kim also mentioned that she’s happy with the mental support her manager has been providing to all employees.

The Alberta government has laid out plans to provide grants and funding for COVID-19 related mental health. Still, some feel the issue has been overlooked.

“I think the government at all levels have done a pretty amazing job, providing financial support and doing everything they possibly can at this point,” said Shufelt.

“But there’s not a lot of focus on the cost to mental health at a time like this. There hasn’t been a lot of focus on how we take care of those people that are struggling with coping with the stress and anxiety, the fear that comes with crazy unemployment and the risk of being very sick.”