Frustrated workers walked off their jobs at the Portland Pie Co. in Portland to protest the company’s handling of COVID-19 cases in the restaurant and working conditions overall.

Sunday started poorly at the pizza restaurant and bar on York Street. The kitchen was understaffed, the computer system couldn’t accept gift cards and some other payments, and people were stressed about recent COVID-19 infections among their colleagues, said Ashley McAndrew, a former bartender at the restaurant.

Stories of understaffing and high-stress working conditions have swept across the nation’s hospitality industry. Restaurants and hotels lost jobs at a much higher rate than other industries in the early days of the pandemic. Many workers have quit their jobs since, looking for positions with better pay and conditions.

At 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, about seven Portland Pie workers closed out the orders that were left and walked out the doors. Two people, including the manager, remained behind.

“There was just a perfect storm on top of all the COVID stuff,” said McAndrew, 33. “The tension was really high, people were really upset, feeling overworked and taken for granted, not safe and not appreciated.”

For McAndrew, that feeling had lingered for months. Portland Pie did not enforce a mask requirement for its workers or recommend masking for customers. Workers were not notified when a colleague tested positive, and the restaurant did not announce infections publicly or close temporarily, a practice adopted voluntarily by some other restaurants, McAndrew said.

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“They are notorious for not telling anyone, they are notorious for trying to hide it, (and) they will not tell any of their patrons,” she said.

Maine has no COVID-19 requirements for most businesses, but it recommends certain health and safety measures, such as mask-wearing for unvaccinated employees and customers.

McAndrew said she contacted her bosses and human resources multiple times asking for stronger health standards and more transparency. Her requests were ignored and she finally decided to quit. Sunday was one of her last shifts.

“The stress was too high for me, and I was sick of coming into work knowing a co-worker could have COVID and I wouldn’t know,” McAndrew said. “I think we’re all honestly just burned out and mentally drained. The way we have been treated in the restaurant industry this past year, at Portland Pie at least, has been exhausting.”

Portland Pie did not consent to an interview or respond directly to emailed questions about the walkout and employee concerns. The company owns eight locations in southern Maine and New Hampshire.

“Portland Pie Co. currently follows all Maine (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) and U.S. CDC guidance specific to restaurants,” company CEO Jeff Perkins said in a statement.

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Maine dropped all restaurant-specific COVID-19 health requirements last May. State and federal recommendations include masks for everyone in high-transmission parts of the state, hand hygiene, ventilation, signage, contact tracing and other measures.

Portland Pie reinstated a rule that all staff had to wear a mask in late November, and it conducts contact tracing when an employee tests positive, Perkins said.

COMPANY SAYS IT FOLLOWS GUIDANCE

“Portland Pie will continue to work within the COVID guidelines set by the Maine CDC and U.S. CDC. We welcome and will comply with any new guidance set forth by the cities and towns where we operate,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on workers in the restaurant industry. In November, the labor force for accommodation and food services in Maine had about 12,000 fewer workers than it did in February 2020, immediately before the pandemic, according to the state Department of Labor.

Workers who remained in the industry have felt worn down, especially as Maine’s tourism economy rebounded this summer and many businesses were short-staffed. A glut of open jobs means workers have opportunities to take a better-paying position or one that provides better hours and conditions.

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More than 800,000 American restaurant and hotel workers quit their jobs in October alone, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The industry had a resignation rate of 6 percent, more than double the rate for all workers.

Wage workers started flexing their muscles last year, staging walkouts, organizing workplaces into labor unions, and pushing bosses to provide better pay and working conditions.

Olivia Crowley, 21, worked as a server at Portland Pie for about five months before walking off the job Sunday.

TAKING A STAND

“I wasn’t quitting when I walked out, I was trying to get the attention of corporate because they act like they don’t care about our health and safety and whether we live or die,” Crowley said. “There was a point yesterday that we were talking about it, talking to the staff and said, ‘Let’s leave, this place is ridiculous.’ ”

Workers talked the decision over for about two hours before they finally left, Crowley added. She’d never participated in a job action like that before – it made her anxious but also excited.

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Crowley said management didn’t threaten her job for leaving work, but she probably won’t go back anyway. There are other jobs out there.

“We are not going to be here that long – this is not how people should be treated. It is not worth the money,” Crowley said. “We wanted to let them know we are not afraid to get fired and not afraid to quit, so they should start to value us or care about our safety at the very minimum.”

Lauren Saxon, 24, wasn’t working on Sunday but was happy to hear her co-workers walked off the job to get the company’s attention. She had asked the owners to take COVID-19 precautions more seriously but felt ignored.

Saxon has another job and doesn’t worry if she gets fired. Some co-workers really need the paycheck and don’t have the same ability to speak up to management, Saxon said.

“I’m hopeful that management or corporate will see this and offer change,” she said. “My goal is not to tear the restaurant down, it is to push them to take the steps they need to take for transparency and caution.”

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