Disability and Restaurant Life

September 18, 2010 § 12 Comments

I hadn’t planned about talking about this so soon, you know. I was going to lay more of a foundation first, give a better picture of what it’s like in a professional kitchen, before I talked about something this personal.

In my post about what it takes for a woman to have a kitchen of her “own,” all I talked about were the externalities. I didn’t talk about another thing anyone wanting to work in a professional kitchen must have: an able body.

Professional kitchens are never designed to accommodate physical disabilities. The equipment built for pro kitchens isn’t designed for it, either. And it probably never will be until and unless some celebrity chef at the top of his game and with access to huge amounts of money to remodel with becomes disabled. In the mean time, to work in a kitchen, one must be able to spend long periods on her feet, get things down from (sometimes far) over her head, carry and handle heavy things (sometimes one-handed), and perform a variety of other physically demanding tasks.

That’s not the personal bit. That bit is something I stare at and poke and at wish I could do something, anything, about. I can’t. I don’t have the money or the time or the clout.

No, the personal bit of disability and the kitchen I know about first-hand is invisible disabilities and mental illness.

I have bipolar disorder, with social anxiety and more general anxiety attacks. (And ADHD, but that’s rarely a problem in a kitchen.) And as I write this, I am having a particular problem with that.

And if I were still cooking, a day like today could mean losing my job.

I woke up an hour before I was supposed to be at work, and it took me five hours to get out the door. During that time, I had suicidal ideations and paralyzing anxiety attacks. Since one of the foci of my anxiety is phones, I couldn’t even touch mine to find out what was going on at work or let them know what was keeping me. Once I was finally able to put my feet on the floor and start my morning activities, I’d do one step, and have to go back to bed. I took a shower, and crawled back into bed for half an hour. Brushed my teeth and hair, put on deodorant and moisturizer, and back to bed for forty-five minutes. Got dressed and downstairs, and was curled up on the couch for another half-hour. Tried to think of something to eat and was absolutely paralyzed by the problem. I had to leave without eating, knowing that at least I could get food at work.

I finally did make it to work, and things got easier. It’s so much easier to pretend that everything’s ok when there are people around, when there are distractions to keep my mind off the anxiety and the awful thoughts. So it got better. But I wasn’t very effective. I was off my game, wasn’t as effective at handling problems, couldn’t touch the paperwork that was waiting for me (it’s another of the foci for my anxiety).

Now, I can get away with that at my restaurant, because I’m the boss, and as long as it all gets done to deadline, I’ll be fine. No one can fire me. I can not come in and not call, and while people might worry about me, I’m not going to lose my job for that. If I were working for someone else, cooking, I would. I’d lose my job — have lost jobs — by being off my game during a depressive episode.

And let me tell you, even the best-medicated bipolar people still have those episodes.

Kitchens don’t really make accommodations. Oh, if they don’t cost too much and they don’t interfere too much, they’ll do little things like buy nitrile gloves because you’re allergic to latex. But if they decide you can’t do the job, without help, without them going out of their way, you’re out. I’ve worked through migraines, having to run off and puke every so often; I’ve worked through anxiety and paranoia that insisted that everyone else on the staff was talking about me, laughing at me, behind my back; I’ve worked while so depressed that I had to clean all of the sharps out of my home. I worked because they needed me and I needed the money. I couldn’t so much as tell anyone what was going on for some of that, for fear they’d fire me for my disability.

I can try to do better for those who work for me, and I can arrange my business to provide accommodations for myself, but this is not an industry that is kind to the disabled.

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§ 12 Responses to Disability and Restaurant Life

  • Delicious Friend says:

    Immediate firing at the first hint of needing accommodation? Wow. So…here is a naive question. If I woke up with a cold and knew I’d get fired for calling in sick, I’d go to work and spread my germs. But doesn’t the health dept get upset about that kind of thing? How does that make sense for the restaurant? Are there so many desperate people that the average restaurant can just fire people with no problems for their bottom line?

    (hi, I figured I should be semi-anonymous too.)

  • Ginny W says:

    In a really caring restaurant, they won’t fire you at the first sign of needing accommodation, they’ll wait a while, but once it becomes clear that this is something that happens, you become a liability, and out you go.

    Yeah, the health department hates it when cooks and servers work sick, but a lot of employers don’t care. There’s also the problem that a lot of restaurant people are heavy drinkers and use other substances, and calling in sick is likely to be taken as calling in drunk, high, or hung over, so you don’t call in, you go in, prove that you’re truly too sick to work, and then maybe you get sent home, if they can find someone to take your place.

    It’s a high-turnover industry: even in good economic times, there are always people looking for work. It’s easy to replace someone who seems to be malingering or goldbricking.

    Restaurants rarely have more people on staff than they absolutely have to, and it’s hard to get people to come in on their days off, and owners don’t want to pay overtime, so they don’t want to call people in if they’re already close to 40 hours for the week. Someone who’s out sick can cause a lot of disruption and cost the restaurant money.

  • Delicious Friend says:

    Wow, that’s…wow. I wish there were a restaurant equivalent to fair-trade coffee.

  • Ginny W says:

    Oh, not every place is like that. Little family places, where you can get to know the staff and the owners, and you can see that there’s not so much turnover, and some people stay for years, those are less likely to be like that. But it is pretty much what everyone expects of an industry job, and when you find someplace that isn’t like that, it’s like gold.

  • Delicious Friend says:

    So, another reason to stay out of big chains? Which I mostly do anyway because I find their food kind of dull.

  • efnord says:

    DF: No real guarantee there… some big chains are better than others re: sicktime and accomodations. My wife’s worst restaurant employment stories are pretty well split between lousy chains and lousy small business owners…

    • Ginny W says:

      Very true. That’s why you have to get to know the staff there, find out if they’re happy, see if people stay for a long time.

      • efnord says:

        I’d be interested to see what kind of correlation exists between health inspection compliance and employee satisfaction; I expect it would be reasonably strong. The kind of place that’s willing to bend food safety rules when they can get away with it will probably bend the labor laws too…

  • […] post on Disability and Restaurant Life is also highly recommended.  It gives me a new perspective on this Philadelphia Inquirer story […]

  • Coincidentally I ran into this piece on Depression in the workplace from CNN.

    Yes, I deal with depression. No, I haven’t told my coworkers or boss. I don’t think they need to know.

    • Ginny W says:

      I can understand that.

      Personally, I prefer to tell people, since I’m in a position where it’s safe to do so, because I hate to be closeted about anything, and because I feel like speaking out and being open is some of the best activism I can perform. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about bipolar specifically, and if I can correct even a little of that, I want to.

      That’s not, of course, intended to put down anyone else’s choices in the matter, it’s just my choice.

  • Quietmarc says:

    Thanks for posting this. I cope with a moderate degree of social anxiety and have been all over the spectrum with disclosing it. I’ve tried to be open and transparent with the goal of helping educate about mental illness, and that failed miserably the second that I missed work because of it – I was demoted and my pay was cut (there were other issues at that workplace that contributed, but the connection – to me – was clear). So, now I’m on a “need to know” basis – while I privately take steps to deal with the anxiety, very few of my coworkers know the situation.

    Anyway, just stopped by from the Zuska site, but wanted to thank you for being the teaspoon against the ocean on this issue.

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