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The Restaurant Industry's New Hero: HR

By Shelby Matsumura


As of this year, there are 15.6 million people employed by the restaurant industry in the United States. Prior to the pandemic, the National Restaurant Association estimated that the restaurant industry’s projected sales in 2020 would have been around $899 billion. The Coronavirus has had an incredibly adverse impact on these bars and restaurants that have had to close due to their non-essential status, thus contributing to our struggling economy. As murmurs ripple across the nation about re-opening these businesses, some states have continued to slowly open up while others have actually stopped, after seeing a spike in Coronavirus cases. Many businesses have even reversed all plans of re-opening until further notice.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the risk of COVID-19 spread increases in a restaurant or bar setting as follows:

  • Lowest Risk: Food service limited to drive-through, delivery, take-out, and curbside pick-up.

  • More Risk: Drive-through, delivery, take-out, and curbside pick-up available and encouraged. On-site dining is limited to outdoor seating, but the seating capacity has been reduced to allow tables to be spaced at least 6 feet apart.

  • Even More Risk: On-site dining with both indoor and outdoor seating. Seating capacity is reduced to allow tables to be spaced at least 6 feet apart.

  • Highest Risk: On-site dining with both indoor and outdoor seating. Seating capacity not reduced, and tables not spaced at least 6 feet apart.

By now, most people are aware that the Coronavirus can be spread between people in close contact with one another, via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. If those droplets land in the mouths or noses of other people or on a common surface that other people touch, then the Coronavirus can quickly spread from person-to-person. Unfortunately, bars and restaurants could be the perfect breeding ground for new cases of COVID-19 due to the multitude of shared surfaces and the close interactions between customers and service staff. As employers within the restaurant industry begin to re-open their businesses, they should implement a few best practices to minimize any potential health risk their physical establishment could pose to customers. Additionally, because restaurant and bar owners often wear many hats, such as employer and human relations (HR) liaison, they must also ensure they are creating a safe and conscientious working environment for their employees who are putting themselves on the frontlines to keep the business afloat.

Beginning with concerns over facility operations, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) released a checklist of how small business owners should approach the re-opening of their service establishments. Here are a few essential measures employers can take, but be sure to read more of the FDA’s recommendations on their website.

Some best practices for re-opening food establishments during the Coronavirus pandemic

· Post signs around the facility on how to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace and that further promote protective measures. Here’s a poster created by the CDC.

· Ensure that all areas of the food establishment, including restrooms and waiting areas, are properly sanitized and stocked with supplies. These areas should be thoroughly and frequently cleaned. Restaurant and bar owners should consider having, if they don’t already, a disinfection schedule or routine plan for sanitization.

· Take proper care of your restaurant’s ventilation systems and increase circulation of outdoor air when possible. Small cough droplets, that could contain virus particles, can float in the air in a room for several minutes if the room is poorly ventilated. High-quality ventilation systems can help lower the risk of your staff and customers contracting COVID-19.

· Every high touch self-service container and/or item should be removed from use or washed, sanitized, and changed after each customer or party is served. Such items may include tablecloths, linen napkins, or bottles of condiments on the table.

· Evaluate the handwashing stations provided to customers and employees. Have employees been trained and reminded on the most effective hand washing method (soap and water for at least 20 seconds)? Are the sinks accessible and fully stocked with soap and paper towels? Are there trash bins available to prop open the doors so they can be opened and closed without touching the handles? Everyone inside the restaurant or bar should wash their hands often. Consider placing hand sanitizers (with a minimum 60% alcohol content) in multiple spots around the establishment to further encourage hand hygiene.

Because health regulations may differ by state, it’s important for retail food establishments to partner with local regulatory/health authorities so they can keep up with the specific requirements for their restaurant or bar prior to re-opening. As reported by Food & Wine, Angela G. Clendenin (an instructional assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics) explained that “[All restaurants] have to be inspected by the local health authority… and if they find out through somebody calling in and saying, ‘Hey, I just had dinner at Restaurant A and they’re not following the guidance that we know they’re supposed to be providing,’ it’s going to result in an inspection and they could get shut down again.”

On top of health concerns regarding the establishment itself, employers must also pay attention to employee conduct with coworkers and customers alike. Within any industry, HR has become a critical role in further ensuring businesses are taking the appropriate precautions and implementing best practices during this pandemic. HR helps employers protect employee rights and maintain a productive, healthy working environment. However, since most restaurants and bars do not usually have their own HR department or representative, these responsibilities often fall upon upper management or the owners of the establishment. To improve their HR game in the face of COVID-19, restaurant and bar owners should be aware of governing structures, such as the CDC, The World Health Organization (WHO), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and state or local health departments.

As employees return to work at service establishments, restaurants and bar owners should get comfortable with the standards created under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, this Act makes employers responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees while OSHA promotes these conditions for America's working men and women by setting and enforcing standards, providing training, education, and assistance. If an employee believes there’s a serious hazard or they think you, as the employer, are not following OSHA guidelines, then the employee could file a complaint against your business that could lead to an inspection of your workplace. Further, employees are protected against any retaliation resulting from their complaint under the whistleblower protection laws enforced by OSHA. To ensure that employers provide a safe working environment for their employees while continuing to serve their customers, restaurant and bar owners should put HR at the forefront of their re-opening plans. Here are a few ways employers within the service industry can reduce risk through HR leadership, as provided by the go-to resource for restaurant-industry professionals, Modern Restaurant Management.

· Review existing policies and the business continuity plan (BCP) – Examine any policies that will affect employee safety, loss of sales, and economic uncertainty during this pandemic. The BCP should also address how HR, the employer, and upper management will handle issues related to employees and patrons. It’s important to make sure everyone is on the same page. BCP’s can be created by your own HR representative or provided by a payroll partner. These plans share important, verified information on workplace health and business continuity best practices, in addition to market research for how businesses similar to yours are responding to the pandemic.

· Flexibility is crucial – The demands of this pandemic are unpredictable. From changing hours of operation, staggering shifts, or transitioning to take out and delivery options, be flexible with your business model to maintain employee health and a safe work environment.

· Share guidance – Review, summarize, and distribute updates and advisories from governmental organizations, such as the CDC, the WHO, and OSHA. Each of these agencies create multilingual posters and fliers for the purpose of employers to print and hang them around the workplace to increase awareness around symptom identification and the importance of good hygiene. Educating employees about transmission, risks of infection, and how to protect themselves will not only empower them to implement these best practices, but will also give them the ability to alert you to any weak areas that could potentially pose a health risk in the future. For more information, check out this guidance for restaurants and beverage vendors released by OSHA.

· Communicate and collaborate on HR goals – Whether your business has an HR department, or you, as the employer, act as the HR representative alone, everyone from upper management to employees should be included in determining and achieving HR goals. HR should work closely with other positions within the business to assist any potentially weak areas, build camaraderie and provide peace of mind. New roles in the restaurant industry may even be elected by HR, such as “head of sanitation,” that would empower employees to hold themselves and the business accountable.

· Be transparent – HR leaders and the policies they create should be transparent. Every situation that’s brought to the table should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis while maintaining consistency in how each problem is addressed and resolved. If the application of HR policies lack uniformity, it could bring a potential claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Therefore, in implementing some of these best practices, be careful to administer them equitably. Finally, always try your best to understand each employee’s unique situation. Being sincere and authentic with your staff will show that you care about their well-being and will not only improve morale, but will also help them feel comfortable with expressing any concerns they may have about the workplace.

As some states slowly re-open and others pull back, small business owners are reeling with every unpredictable change. These changes impact workers within the restaurant industry especially hard as they are experiencing some of the greatest upheavals in the status quo of what their job used to look like. Some establishments require masks and mandatory handwashing. Others take their employees’ temperatures and have their staff complete a daily health waiver that asks if they have traveled to any hotspots or if they have been in contact with anyone who is sick. Although these measures are unfamiliar and may seem difficult to implement, having solid HR leadership within each bar or restaurant will help these businesses succeed even during a pandemic.

The bottom line is not to panic. Your team will be looking to you on how to respond to this situation. If you can show your employees that you have an HR plan ready to account for keeping customers and employees safe while battling the uncertainty COVID-19 throws our way, you’ll keep the restaurant operating smoothly with a team who is more committed than ever before.

--- Are you interested in launching or sustaining a pandemic proof small business? Spot issues, take action, stay safe, and thrive in a post Covid-19 world with Legalucy. Learn more at

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