When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in late June, ending the federal constitutional right to an abortion, Libby Flood, general manager of Dallas cocktail bar Ruins, was devastated. She had had an abortion while working as a bartender at another establishment years ago, when her career was just beginning. “It just didn’t make sense to have kids when you don’t have health insurance,” she says, adding that, for her, a bartender’s hours made having a child untenable.
The week after the Supreme Court issued its opinion, Flood asked her boss, Peter Novotny, co-owner of Ruins and another Deep Ellum bar, Armoury D.E., if she and her coworkers could take time off to attend an abortion-rights rally. Novotny closed Ruins for lunch that day so the staff could make signs and march together. “It felt great,” Flood says, and she was comforted to receive support from the bar’s male owners, who also attended the rally. Novotny says about 90 percent of his staff members are women, and they’re all feeling the impact of the abortion-rights restrictions put in place by the Texas Legislature.
Women—approximately 4.5 million of them—comprise 52 percent of the food and beverage industry’s labor force. Theirs are physically demanding jobs that often come with odd hours, low pay, and minimal benefits. Only 27 percent of service workers participate in a basic medical-care plan, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and those who have children are faced with childcare costs that can exceed $10,000 per year.
Texas’s “trigger law” will go into effect August 25. It will prohibit abortions unless the pregnant patient’s life is in danger or the patient is at risk of substantial impairment of a major bodily function, and it will make performing an abortion a felony. (Currently, abortion is prohibited in Texas under the state’s pre-Roe statute, enforcement of which is being contested at the Texas Supreme Court.) In the meantime, a few Texas bars and restaurants are jumping into the fight, voicing dissent through fund-raising, rallying, and providing financial assistance to employees.
When Texas restaurateur Sara Mardanbigi heard the news about Roe in June, she wasn’t surprised, but she was enraged. A staff member at her Austin restaurant, Nixta Taqueria, suggested donating money to the Lilith Fund, an organization that provides financial aid to Texans seeking abortions. Mardanbigi’s business partner and spouse, Edgar Rico, backed her up when she decided to donate $1,000 of one day’s proceeds. “It’s not a lot,” she says. “We’re a small restaurant, but the fight is only beginning.”
To help fund basic medical, vision, and dental care for employees, Nixta adds a 3 percent health-services fee to every customer’s bill. Even though comprehensive health insurance is a rarity for service workers, independent restaurants, including Nixta, are now figuring out how best to support their employees’ health needs, including cases when those needs are legally restricted. “We’ll need to make it clear to the team that if they have needs, they can come to us,” Mardanbigi says. From her perspective, if the Texas government doesn’t couple its abortion ban, HB 1280, with paid time off, free childcare, sex education, and health care, then “it’s truly a religious conquest.”
Mary Ellen Angel, owner of Angel Share, a bar in downtown Houston, has found creative ways to fund abortion-rights activism and get customers involved. Each month, the bar’s patrons vote on nonprofits to receive portions of the bar’s profits. This month’s options include the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters, and Planned Parenthood, as well as an animal-rescue charity in case a customer is uncomfortable with the other options. “I don’t want to force anybody to do anything, but I’m mad as hell,” Angel says. “I want people from Texas to know there’s help from people in Texas.”
Angel says she’s seen the end to abortion rights coming since 2015, when what she perceived as voter apathy led to the victory, in 2016, of President Donald Trump, who nominated three Supreme Court justices during his term. Though she thought she was prepared for the ruling, she was not prepared for her physical reaction, which included panic and nausea.
“It’s terrifying,” she says, adding that restaurant workers who already “work their asses off” will be especially hard-hit. “Now they have the added stress of dealing with all this without health insurance or disposable income to get out of state.”
Not only will workers seeking abortions need savings to travel—one trip has already cost a Texas woman $2,200—but they’ll also likely lose income, given that paid time off is uncommon in the food-service industry. Many restaurants and bars don’t offer health insurance because the industry has a high turnover rate and workers skew young, making it difficult to meet the minimum requirements for a group plan. But at San Antonio restaurant Mixtli, chefs Diego Galicia and Rico Torres made offering health care a priority. Four years after they opened the restaurant with $15,000 of their own money, they gave all employees the choice of private health insurance or a direct primary-care plan that covers routine care. The benefits cost them $67,000 a year for their fourteen employees, thirteen of whom are women.
Now that abortion is largely illegal in Texas, Galicia and Torres are going a step further. They’ve decided to provide financial assistance to employees who find themselves in situations “where the law does not protect them,” Galicia says. He explains that will include payments for travel, lodging, and any necessary long-term care.
After announcing the plan on Instagram, the restaurant received some blowback. “I find the political letter you posted . . . very enlightening,” one commenter wrote. “[It] shows your complete lack of humanity . . . as well as [of] business acumen. I’m unfollowing you & never dining with you again.” Other notes have expressed support, like one that commended the restaurant for supporting the health-care rights of its staff. Such notes make Galicia feel like there is “still so much good in this country.” It’s not clear yet whether his and Torres’s public stance has affected Mixtli’s bottom line—sales this month are on par with those from last year at this time, Galicia reports.
Most restaurants and bars in Texas haven’t publicly commented on the end of abortion rights in Texas, even those whose owners are supportive of the Supreme Court’s decision and Texas’s trigger law. After Texas Monthly requested comments from anti-abortion organizations, public-relations specialists who represent dining clients, and nine conservative-leaning restaurant or bar owners, all declined to publicly comment. Those working in the food and beverage industry cited reasons including being male, wanting to avoid controversy, and not wanting to “piss off a segment of the workforce.”
Galicia says he feels that he and Torres are standing alone on the top of a hill by being vocal about their point of view. “Doing the right thing is sometimes the hardest thing,” he says. “But I cannot not protect my team.” When told that Texas may go after companies who aid their employees in obtaining abortions out of state, Galicia responded by saying, “Cool, let’s go to jail. Please write my address in the story, too, so the police will know exactly where to come.”