Being a woman in the restaurant industry has its challenges ― from sexual harassment, to unfair compensation to inadequate access to health insurance. Being a woman in the restaurant industry in Texas presents a whole additional set of obstacles.
Just 14 percent of restaurant employees across the country receive health insurance benefits from their employers, meaning many rely on publicly funded resources for health care. But that’s not so simple in Texas: These types of health centers in the state meet only 10 percent of the need, according to a 2014 report from the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Texas is also one of the worst states for reproductive health. In 2011, for example, the state cut its family planning budget by two-thirds, which led to an increase in teen abortions and births. That same year, it also rejected federal funding for a Medicaid women’s health program, the Texas Tribune reported.
Women’s health care became a huge concern for Erin Smith, owner of Feges BBQ in Houston. Her outrage grew when Donald Trump became president. “At each step in the political process over the past two years, everything’s so uncertain, and we need to take a stand and let people know the threat women are facing in health care, especially in Texas,” Smith told HuffPost.
In 2017, the chef helped form I’ll Have What She’s Having, an organization fronted by chefs, bartenders and servers that’s raising money and awareness to combat the assault on women’s health care in Texas. The group’s footprint is small, but it offers resources to women in an area where the need is great.
IHWSH has helped its nearly 200 members, all of whom are women in the restaurant industry, access free gynecological exams. “[Exams] are typically not covered under insurance,” Smith said, adding, “a lot of the women are not provided insurance through employment, and most don’t have insurance on their own.”
In 2018, the group raised and donated more than $210,000 to local organizations that prioritize women’s health, including Planned Parenthood and The Rose, which provides breast cancer detection and treatment services to reduce deaths by the disease.
“From the moment we become sexually active, we have very few healthcare paths as women. We are either actively preventing pregnancy, not actively preventing pregnancy, actively trying to conceive, or pregnant,” Smith wrote in an essay for Food and Wine. “Because of this reality, more women are driven away from fields that do not provide easier and more affordable access to healthcare and other valuable resources.”
Smith gained a new level of understanding for her cause in 2018, when she learned she was pregnant. She’s fortunate to be the owner of her restaurant, she said, because it allowed her to come up with a viable maternity leave plan for herself.
“I’ve had a very healthy pregnancy, but that’s not the norm for everybody,” said Smith. “If there’d been something that went wrong where the doctor put me on bedrest, I really don’t know what we would have done.”
“I’m in my eighth month,” she told HuffPost in December. “I’m going to the doctor all the time now. I can’t imagine that’s something a lot of restaurants are able and willing to accommodate. The restaurant industry in general is made up of mom-and-pop small businesses. You can’t put all the onus on the employer — there needs to be some help from the government so small businesses can accommodate.”
Feges BBQ does not provide its employees with an insurance policy, but Smith said that if one of her employees becomes pregnant, she would do everything she could to be supportive, including offering paid leave.
“We would try to work something out to offer some paid time off but would need to guarantee they’d come back,” she said, adding that she would offer both maternity and paternity leave. “If any of the guys in our business have a baby, we would want to give them some time off, too, because they’re a critical part of the parenting process.”
Still, Smith said that the lack of women’s resources puts them at a severe disadvantage, including in their ability to climb the corporate ladder. Without a proper system in which women can be both parents and professionals, this won’t change, she said.
“We won’t see women in leadership positions in this business or other industries — unless women make the decision not to have families. And that’s not fair.”
HuffPost’s “Her Stories” newsletter brings you even more reporting from around the world on the important issues affecting women. Sign up for it here.