Who's a Professional?

What makes a bartender professional?

Is it that bar skills are better respected now than in the recent past? Is it the enormous amount of time and energy that goes into achieving a national level of success? Is it the number of awards, or the loyalty of one’s following, or the level of accolades shared in the media?

Watching bartenders get their due from customers, media and the industry itself has been interesting to watch. The respect bestowed on those who hung in there through the dark days must be edifying, but even though the restaurant and bar industry has embraced the changes wrought by the recent revolutionaries, most bartenders would have a hard time passing any reasonable test generally agreed upon by society for professional status.

Why? Medical insurance. I thought about this when I heard last week of Murray Stenson’s situation. Pacific Northwest bar legend Stenson, recipient of the “Tales of the Cocktail” best bartender award two years ago, has a heart ailment that prevents him from working in his profession, according to the website MurrayAid.

Friends and fans have taken up the effort to help Stenson through what must be a difficult time, and already the donations are flowing as word spreads. And nothing I write here should be considered anything like commentary about him or his situation – I don’t know him personally, nor anything about his plight beyond what I read at the site.

Instead, finding out about his condition made me realize, not for the first time, that much of the talk about the elevation of the bartender’s status and reputation in the restaurant and bar business is just that; talk. I have no idea what percentage of bartenders are covered by medical insurance, either through employers or on their own, but chances are it’s very, very low.

On the night of my last bar fight, when the angel-dusted former employee who’d started the brawl by tossing stools decided as I hauled him out the door to make his last stand by latching onto my thigh with his teeth, I was the hit of the emergency room - “Human bites are the worst,” the nursing and medical students all were told as they filed past in the dozens for a peak at my wound. But that didn’t mean there’d be no bill.

However, my employer had offered a reasonable policy, one I could afford and paid for, though I frequently wondered why I, as a 34 year old in good health, was bothering. That night, I knew.

There are too many cases of bartenders falling off bikes or being mugged or hit by cars who haven’t bothered, because the costs are so high, because their employers don’t offer anything reasonable, or because, like most people my age the night of that tussle, I thought I was invulnerable.

Blame for the situation must be laid at many doors, not only of the bar and restaurant industry in which an ever-shifting employee base makes the case that the cost and paperwork involved in supplying health care can be ruinous. Bartenders themselves must begin to decide what “professional” really means.

Just one example: working two nights at one bar, a third at another and then picking up some brand ambassador, catering or consulting work, might keep a bartender’s interest level high and expand his knowledge of the business, but that migrant laborer work pattern makes it difficult to be part of an insurance pool. Being self-employed without having access to a partner’s or a family medical plan is a tight rope walk, one in which the only reward is not falling off.

It seems the Affordable Health Care Act is unlikely to resolve the problem for many food service professionals, especially those who don’t establish a regular gig. Even those with a reliable job will still have problems paying for insurance, as will small employers in keeping up with the paperwork and increased costs. But being able to raise a family secure in the knowledge that your career affords you the income and the opportunity to pay for their medical insurance seems to me to be something a professional takes for granted.

Perhaps this is an issue for the United States Bartender’s Guild or their local chapters – perhaps they’ve even addressed this. But I can't remember seeing this often addressed at any conference, so maybe bartenders don’t really care about it. Here's my take - Bartenders have already revolutionized the beverage alcohol and restaurant industries in the past ten years, through their curiosity, diligence and dedication, and for that they deserve more than praise – for that, and for the daily grind they put in to keep the bar and restaurant business an engine of the American economy, they deserve to be treated one way or another like, well, professionals.


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