Two Women Jumped In To Help An Understaffed Denny's But Their Act Of 'Goodwill' Is Being Questioned—'This Is Not A Feel-Good Story'

Where some saw a feel-good story, others saw another example of how restaurant workers are routinely mistreated.

Restaurant workers who helped out at Denny's Sylvia Arredondo / Facebook, Manuela Durson / Shutterstock

If you've been to a restaurant since the pandemic began, you've likely noticed it again and again—many seem to be falling apart as they lack adequate staff. Understaffed restaurants appear at all levels, from fast-food places to upscale chains, and even those in the restaurant industry expect the problem to persist indefinitely.

When a pair of women faced this situation on a night out, they decided to take things into their own hands and do what they could to help. But some have criticized the move, saying they're only making a bad situation worse.


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Two women went to work in the kitchen for free at an understaffed Denny's restaurant.

When Sylvia Arredondo and her mom Idalia Merkel went to a Texas Denny's restaurant after a concert, they found the place staffed by just two young college students doing all the work themselves—and the restaurant in a shambles because of it. 

"We just looked at each other and it wasn't even a question," Arredondo said of the incident. "We both knew what we had to do."

The women called their free work a 'beautiful act of American unity.'

They weren't the only ones who threw in some free labor to help the situation, as Arredondo revealed in a Facebook post about the situation.


After they walked into the Denny's, a man greeted them by saying, "I hope y’all aren’t in a hurry, there is only one waitress and one cook." He then went on to say that his wife, who used to work at Denny's, had "jumped in and started seating people."

Arredondo and Merkel quickly followed suit. Arredondo described how the restaurant's two staff members were so overwhelmed and overworked, they took turns crying and comforting each other amid all the stress. And when she and her mom saw that, there was no question as to what they should do.

"The strength, courage and integrity [shown] by these two workers was beyond admirable," Arredondo said. "My mom and I have never been so proud and happy to help. After all, we have all been there." But that, some say, is precisely the problem. 


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Understaffed restaurants have been plagued by problems since the pandemic because they cannot attract new workers.

A recent survey of restaurant owners and managers revealed that 60% of restaurants are still understaffed and operating well below their pre-pandemic levels, part of nearly two million jobs in the hospitality and leisure industries that have yet to be filled. 

And chief among the reason for the shortage—restaurant workers have found better jobs that offer perks nearly no restaurant does, from much-needed benefits like health insurance and paid time off, to the most basic of things like a stable and predictable schedule, reasonable hours and, of course, more livable pay.

Most restaurant workers make well below the minimum wage of course, with some making just $2.00 per hour—meaning if the tips are bad, you go home nearly empty-handed. And with understaffed restaurants the order of the day, frustrations have led to poor tips for many servers—and as many employees have reported, it has also led to abusive behavior from customers.




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Some were angered by Arredondo and Merkel's free work at Denny's, saying it makes the problem of understaffed restaurants even worse.

The restaurant industry, as well as many politicians, has mostly responded to the issue of understaffed restaurants by blaming workers themselves, saying it's because they "don't want to work.

And as has been widely reported, rather than improve working conditions in restaurants, many restaurant owners and corporations have responded by simply replacing workers with robots in a move that strikes many as dystopian.


Given the context, some found Arredondo and Merkel's "can do" attitude to be missing the point. And some found it outright offensive. "Right let me go work for freeeee," one Redditor sarcastically wrote.

Another angrily referred to people like Arredondo and Merkel as traitorous and on the side of the employers who refuse to make things better for employees. "There are always rats that love to lick the soles of the bosses and say stuff like 'Oh, i don't mind not getting paid... I just have this amazing work ethic."

Others compared their "can do" attitude to an abusive relationship. "[To be frank], capitalism is like an abusive spouse," one Reddit user wrote. "Sometimes you want to prove (even while being abused) you deserve the abuse and also want to excel to not be abused."


And several pointed out the multiple legal issues inherent to Arredondo and Merkel jumping into action at the Denny's kitchen, from health code violations to potential injuries and liabilities, as emblematic of how little many understaffed restaurants' leadership care about employees.

"I'm sure the health inspector will love to hear about this one," one Redditor cracked, while another wrote, "all I could think about is everything that could have gone wrong and caused huge legal issues.. what if one of them would have been injured?"

In the end, Arredondo and Merkel were motivated to help by seeing their fellow human beings breaking under the pressure of their jobs—and what they did was an extraordinary act of giving and kindness. Pinning the dystopian abuses of the restaurant industry on an act of goodwill is a bit too cynical by half.


But so, in the end, is casting this story as a sunny narrative about good ol' fashioned American values. After all, the whole thing began because the Denny's workers were trapped in a situation nobody should have to be in. As one Redditor summed it up, "this is not a feel good story."

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John Sundholm is a news and entertainment writer who covers pop culture, social justice and human interest topics.