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Offering Mental Health Insurance Should be No-brainer

Sarah Webster Norton saw a need and formed a 501 c3 to solve it. “We can do better (when it comes to mental health for employees), the bar is set really low,” she says.

The check at Parlour came to $39.37 with tax and the $1.07 HW surcharge. Not every customer is willing to pay that extra $1.07, even when they hear that it’s been added to the check to cover mental health insurance for employees. 

“Restaurants are a low-margin, high-labor industry,” says Brent Frederick, owner of Jester Concepts. “We knew we had to go outside to raise funds.” But they also knew that mental health insurance was something they couldn’t afford not to offer employees. 

“(Anthony) Bourdain shined a light on it,” he says about the high-profile, globe-trotting celebrity chef who committed suicide last year. “Bourdain hit everyone hard. He shone a light in the dark corners of our industry that we didn’t want to talk about.”

So what do they do when the occasional customer complains about paying for the employees’ insurance? “We take it off the bill,” Fredrick says, with no fanfare and no animosity. “Some people think it’s political, but it’s not.”

Mental health insurance is somewhat of a luxury, because hourly hospitality workers don’t always get medical insurance, and emotional health care is still fairly new to the industry.

The idea, which has grown into Serving Those Serving, was Sarah Webster Norton’s, a 24-year hospitality veteran at 42. She’s held most of the FOH positions, but most often bartending. “I’ve been married for 22 years which means I had access to benefits,” she says. “I didn’t think it was fair. It’s bothered me for awhile and this is how I addressed it.” When she started researching, she was surprised to find that no one else was offering insurance to the industry. 

Norton approached Sand Creek Workplace Wellness, a woman-owned small business that provides face-to-face counseling, as well as phone and online services, and convinced them of the need for small restaurant chains to have this type of insurance. 

Jester was one of the first to sign up for the group insurance. “When Sarah sat down with me and went through it, I knew right away this was something we needed to do,” Frederick says. 

While Jester owns multiple restaurants, such as Monello, PS Steak and Borough, Norton’s smallest client is a brewery with 13 employees.

She is in the process of making her company a nonprofit, and already has a board and a mission statement.

Mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression, affects one in 25 Minnesotans a year, according the Minnesota Department of Human Services. One in 10 young people in Minnesota experiences a period of major depression, the statistics say. 

Brent Frederick, owner of Jester Concepts, was one of the first to sign up with Serving Those Serving.

There were 45,000 suicides in the U.S. in 20016, twice the number of homicides, making it the 10th leading cause of death, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control.  Among 15- to 34-year-olds, suicide is the second leading cause of death. 

Restaurant work tends to be long hours on your feet, doing physical work. “Emotional labor is not something we talk about—the toll it takes on us,” Norton said about hospitality workers.  For instance, if a customer gets abusive or even rude, the server or host has to deal with it professionally, she or he can’t react the way a “civilian” could.  Bartenders are subjected to customers’ confessions and problems, Norton said. While the back-of-the-house workers don’t usually deal with customers, it’s still a “pressure cooker,” Frederick said, because they have to execute at a high level day in and day out. Both front of the house and back have to cope with too many butts in seats (rushed orders) and too few (lower tips).

“We don’t allow the screaming chef mentality,” he said. “We have zero-tolerance.”

Money worries and having to string several jobs together to equal full-time pay are other stressers. And living with physical pain—from standing all day and moving heavy supplies around—also takes a toll on one’s sunny outlook as a chef ages, Seth Bixby Daugherty told us when he was working at Seven. Like sports, it’s a young person’s job, but too many people can’t give it up because they either need the money or the restaurant is their family.

When we talked in late June, Norton had 1,000 employees in 27 restaurants covered. “I had to work for those, they don’t come to me,” she said. Early reports are showing that the breakdown in use is 45 percent men and 55 percent women. Problems don’t have to be work-related to use the service. The primary reasons for the sessions are mental health issues with the secondary use, drugs and alcohol. 

Alcohol abuse is a bit of a slippery slope in the hospitality industry, because drinking is built into the culture. “If they can’t have a beer after a shift, they’ll go work somewhere else,” Frederick said. Norton chimes in that one workplace she’s heard of offers two complimentary post-shift drinks and 50 percent off all subsequent drinks. 

 And yet, if we lead with sobriety, the message will never be heard, she says.

Shift drinks are starting to be reevaluated by restaurant owners. “When I did shifts, I drank on my shift,” Frederick said. “Now looking back, I think that probably wasn’t too smart. Consuming alcohol on your shift impairs your ability.” 

Jester’s policy is no alcohol during your shift and one beer after the kitchen shift. “We track it,” he said. “And if there’s a problem, that’s taken away.”

Norton attributes her mother’s connections through working with Hazelden and Betty Ford Center with helping her plead her case with Sand Creek. While Norton is new to the nonprofit world, she’s not new to the political process. She’s been fighting city hall to get better working family provisions passed by the state legislation for years before starting this new crusade. In order to fund her program, she “cashed in stocks to make it work.”

While offering insurance is the right thing to do, she says, she understands the dilemma for restaurants who are worried about getting pinched even more by minimum wage increases. But there is an economic reason for offering the benefit. “It’s $3,500 every time you turn over” an employee, she pointed out. The insurance will cost around $4 a month, which she says is about the cost of a shift drink. And Frederick added that their benefit package attracts and keeps employees. 

Remembrance on Bourdain Day

Another nonprofit working to help workers with mental health problems is NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Health. A group of six chefs recently got together on “Bourdain Day” to host a charity dinner to benefit NAMI, at Cook St. Paul.

Cooks St Paul was the site for the Bourdain Day dinner that raised $2,200 for NAMI.

Each chef prepared a dish and then explained why this tribute to call attention to mental health was so important to them. “No one should be ashamed to talk about it,” Joshua Walbolt of UniTea Café and Catering, said. “Within two weeks we decided to do this. It’s the chefs day off and they’re here cooking.”

Chef Ernest Robledo of Grand Catch in St. Paul shared that “this industry has taught me we struggle; this industry has saved my life.”

For Monty Luthongxay, a chef at Lat 14, it should be called “emotional health,” because it’s all about the way we control our emotions. “I was affected,” he says. “My father took his life and everywhere I go, I try to bring positivity to everyone I work with. I try to help people in pain. There’s a lot of people out there in pain.”

The last person to tell his story was Jonathan Janssen, a manager at Lat 14, who first explained, “to be perfectly honest with you I didn’t taste any of these dishes before I chose this wine.”

That got a laugh, but his story didn’t, even though he told the full house that it was OK to laugh. 

One year he worked from January to July without a day off. “I wanted to kill myself,” he said. He wandered up north into the forest with the thought, “I’ll meet some animals and one of them will eat me.”  Fortunately, that didn’t happen and with a change he was able to right-size his work. But the memory is fresh: “We need to take care of ourselves,” he told the group. 

The small event put on by those six chefs raised $2,200 for NAMI and placed Bourdain’s spotlight on the need for mental health services in the Twin Cities. 

Norton of Serving Those Serving has seen first hand what the programs mean to employees. As she dined at Parlour, the server came over with the check, and spotted her. “You’re Sarah Norton,” he said, and when she nodded, he continued. “You gave us that presentation, I just want to thank you.”

Is that not worth $1.07 surcharge? 

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