I was at dinner with friends at Little Star last weekend, and we were splitting the check. "Looks like the health care surcharge here is 50 cents a person," said one of them, fingering the bill, and suddenly my mood flashed from cheese-stuffed and content to angry. It's been almost three years since the Healthy San Francisco initiative started up and these surcharges gradually started appearing. And it's been two years since the sight of that receipt line has soured my feelings about places that print it.
You'd think that after sharp rebukes from local critics, blogger shaming, and three whole years that restaurateurs would suck it up and absorb the charge into their prices. But many are still determined (stamp foot here) to show us how much we're paying to provide their employees with health insurance.
You'd also think that after seeing these fees so many times, I'd have grown resigned to them. The reason I still get mad when I see a surcharge listed separately on the check, though, is that I quit cooking to pay off a medical bill.
In my mid-twenties, I was a sous at a neighborhood bistro in the Richmond, making less than $20,000 a year and working under a talented chef with four-star training who couldn't provide health insurance for himself, let alone his employees. It was the middle of the dot-com boom, and I was lucky enough to share a rent-controlled flat, but everything else in this city was getting expensive and restaurant wages weren't rising to match.
I realized that it had been two years since I'd seen a dentist, and saved up money to visit mine for a cleaning. She found a cluster of cavities: Six hundred dollars to do the work. Shit and double shit! I did the math ― over and over again ― and realized it would take me six months to pay off that bill.
It was time, anyway, for me to move on from my current job, so I started looking for other line cook positions. I didn't want to go into a hotel, which is where a lot of cooks seeking stable jobs and benefits end up. I discovered all the three- and four-star kitchens that would have furthered my training offered low-wage, no-benefit, 60-hour-week jobs. The high-end restaurants offering benefits, not surprisingly, had stable, long-time staffs who were going nowhere.
When I discovered I could make significantly more money temping ― yeah, temping ― I decided to take a break from the kitchen and do office work for a few months. By the time I'd paid off the bill, I had found work (and full benefits) as an editor and stumbled into a freelance gig at the East Bay Express, where I ended up writing for seven years.
I'm not going to pretend I'd still be cooking if it weren't for that big dentist bill ― there were other reasons I quit and never went back, and I've landed in a career I love more. I'm also aware that many restaurant workers have to make harder choices than I ever had to, with more dependents to take care of and fewer career alternatives. But every time I see that niggling, petty-minded health care surcharge, it summons up that excruciating decision from 11 years ago: How do I pay this effing bill?
Yes, the cost of providing health insurance imposes a financial burden on small businesses on top of ridiculous rents, high operating costs, high minimum wage, and other financial burdens this city forces them to shoulder. (Read Daniel Patterson's frank interview with John Birdsall about why he was opening his next restaurant in Oakland.)
However, I wish that the restaurateurs who are so concerned about preventing customers from complaining about rising menu prices would also count up how many of their former colleagues and employees left the business because they didn't have health insurance. How many cooks have had to file for bankruptcy thanks to an accident? How many bussers have endured infections that took much longer to heal because they didn't have the cash for antibiotics?
As a customer, I don't mind paying an extra 50 cents per meal to give your servers the opportunity to treat an illness or a sprained ankle. What I mind is how much it bothers you.