As someone who works in the restaurant industry, I can’t help but feel pretty irate after reading this Seattle Met article on the reaction amongst local restaurateurs to the Affordable Care Act’s upcoming requirement that all businesses with 50 or more full-time employees offer health benefits. It’s hard to hear these restaurant owners play the victim when, for the most part, they’re doing just fine. Restaurant employees, however, are not.
In the midst of the recent outpouring of support for MurrayAid, the fundraising effort to pay for beloved local bartender Murray Stenson’s expensive heart operation, it seems that everyone forgot to ask why he didn’t have health coverage in the first place. As heartwarming as it is that people came through for him the way they did, it’s still pretty fucked up that someone as legendary as Murray—the godfather of all the craft cocktail hullaballoo—should have to worry about finding $55,000 to pay for an urgently necessary heart surgery. I suppose it’s a lot easier to focus on how generous his regulars and colleagues in the industry were to come out to fundraisers (and donate their tips from those fundraisers) than it is to focus on how wrong it is that restaurant employees can’t expect assistance from their employers in paying for health benefits.
I've got type 1 diabetes and I pay $308 per month in premiums before the cost of insulin. I can't really throw a fundraiser every month to cover these costs...
...so I just have to pay. I like the work I do, but it does rankle me that I'm usually serving people who have 100 percent employer-paid health coverage, and I'm spending nearly two weeks' worth of tips just for my premium. I understand that covering 50-plus employees is expensive, and restaurant owners will certainly need to generate extra revenue to do this, but I doubt that raising prices by 3 to 5 percent will cause the mass exodus among their loyal fan base.
The restaurateurs quoted in the article all have successful brands with a steady following. They’re not hurting. And they’re also not serving $14 burgers to people who couldn’t afford $14.50 burgers. If they need to tack this 50 cents on as a “health benefits fee” on every bill, so be it. I certainly hope that in this city of hyper-ethical locavores who insist on organic, grass-fed beef, people are willing to pay an extra 50 cents to provide healthcare benefits to the guy washing bits of that organic, grass-fed beef off their plates. What really gets me is when someone like Scott Staples, the owner of the Restaurant Zoe/Quinn’s/Uneeda Burger empire, has the audacity to suggest that customers subtract this fee from their tip. His justification? “We’re just trying to find a way in a low-margin business to afford to take care of our employees.” It sounds more like he’s trying to find a way to shunt the cost of health benefits off on his employees.
If he really cared about covering his employees, he’d just do it and raise prices. Maybe it would hurt business at first, but I’m betting the dining public in Seattle will reward forward-thinking owners who offer health benefits to their employees, rather than punishing them. I am certainly much more inclined to patronize Tom Douglas’ restaurants now that I know he offers his many, many minions employer-paid health benefits. He did it years before it was a requirement because it was the right thing to do. And guess what? It’s still the right thing to do, and he's still wildly successful.