Six months ago, Vanessa Rao was the general manager at Afterword Tavern & Shelves in Kansas City, Missouri, training new staffers on the wine list, coming up with new dishes, and keeping the cozy bar running. Now, she spends her days going car to car at get-out-the-vote events, making sure people are registered to cast their ballot. This November she’ll be working for the county as a paid volunteer, handing out ballots, and showing people to voting booths.
After seven years working in the service industry, Rao was furloughed from her job when Afterword shuttered due to the pandemic in March. Before the pandemic, she paid attention to the news but hadn’t gotten deeply involved in politics. “I just had my beliefs and voted,” she says. But during her time off, she started paying more attention and found the League of Women Voters, the 100-year-old national civic organization that mobilizes female voters.
“This election is super poignant for the service industry,” she says. “[We] are not unemployed through decisions we have made. We are unemployed [because of] other decision-makers”—politicians who have legislated Americans’ access to health care or how much restaurants will receive in stimulus funding.
She says her experience as a restaurant worker both energized and prepared her to get the vote out. She knows how to keep calm when confronted with angry voters or de-escalate tense phone conversations.
“When I get people signed up to vote and give them the steps and they are like, ‘I know how to do this,’ it is hitting the same part of my brain that enjoys providing service.”
In March, as the pandemic suddenly halted in-person dining, millions of workers were out of a job, at the mercy of GoFundMe donations and gift card purchases for income. As the country has slowly reopened, some have gone back to work—but many of those who still haven’t are using the time off to mobilize politically. They’re writing letters to voters, text banking, phone banking, and signing up to be poll workers. They, like Rao, are emboldened to make change within their industry and to get involved in the election more broadly—and the organizational and people skills they developed working in restaurants are coming in handy.
When Lorraine Nguyen found out that she and her fellow employees at the Cherry Circle Room in Chicago were furloughed until next spring, with no support from ownership and little to no guidance from state and federal governments, she helped to put together fundraisers to pay her colleagues’ groceries, rent, and medical expenses. She realized she had a talent for organizing and signed up to be an election judge at her local polling place.
While working at a restaurant, she says, “it is hard to see outside that bubble.” But now, removed from her job, her perspective is different. “There are gigantic systemic structures that led to the decisions made for this industry. We have to know about them if we want to fight for better conditions.”
“A restaurant is a microcosm of American problems, from racism to sexual harassment,” adds Anna Dunn, who previously worked at Diner in Brooklyn and has signed up to be a poll worker. Throughout her career in the service industry, Dunn has always been interested in advocacy. “For most of the people I know who are politically motivated,” Dunn says, “it does come from working in a restaurant, or [any] structure that has these different layers of inequality.”
The skills acquired from cooking on the line, being behind a bar, or running a host stand are also uniquely translatable to election work.