Advice for Marginalized Folks Working Behind the Bar on Election Day

We share reflections from working shifts during the 2016 election and offer four tips to get you through this one.


Cover photo by Markus Winkler for Unsplash

Four years ago, I had the unique opportunity of working behind the bar on the afternoon of the last presidential election of the United States, and I worked the day after as well—a “clopen,” as we call them. The café I worked at was in the “gay” part of Seattle, and at that time had an all-queer and transgender staff. This population gained strong equality under the former administration, especially since LGBTQ+ protections were extended to Medicare providers. In our admittedly progressive bubble, we predicted the election result would be favorable for our community, but it wasn’t long before the opposite happened. As the afternoon crowd dwindled and the sky grew dark, my co-worker and I went through our closing tasks distractedly, mostly discussing the election-in-progress and obsessively checking our phones for up-to-date results.

The usually bustling part of town, filled with bars, restaurants, and venues, grew eerily quiet. People who had gone out to watch the election results expecting to celebrate were slowly leaving the bars. We watched them walking silently from the windows of our café. I think my co-worker and I were at a loss for words as we locked up for the night. Maybe the results would somehow be different by the morning. 

Being in a front-facing customer service role can be challenging during major events in history—in this case, a presidential election. Photo by Jonathan Simcoe.

When I arrived for my opening shift the next day, the café opener and I discussed the election results, still reeling in disbelief and a general sense of doom. It was nice to have someone to process my feelings with, but as we unlocked the doors, we were soon met with a steady stream of customers who wanted to process their feelings with us, too. Some people came in crying. Some were angry, upset, or speaking in hushed tones about “go bags” and what to do next. Others were preparing for a march that night. 

Anyone who’s worked at a café knows that a front-facing customer service job is an emotional one. Part of that day four years ago was for me not only making coffee but witnessing the formation of collective trauma. Being a captive audience on that day was exhausting. In case you have to work on Election Day or the day after and are dreading it, here are a few insights from someone who did just that the last round. Stay strong, friends.

1. Do you have to work that day? Maybe there’s someone on your team who really likes talking about politics, and just maybe they’ll be fine with fielding everyone’s unsolicited op-eds that day. Perfect. Ask them if they’d rather swap shifts and work on Election Day, or the day after. White workers, if a BIPOC or LGBTQ+ co-worker asks you to cover their shift on those days, take the shift if you can. Alternately, do you know of any freelance baristas or a freelance-barista service that could help out on that day? Don’t hesitate to ask around. If you do end up working, see if you can close earlier, which may be the case already due to COVID-19, for some extra self-care time after your shift. 

2. “I’d rather not talk about it, thanks.” If you’re working around Election Day, go ahead and practice your boundary-setting or deflecting statements right now. You obviously won’t be able to control what customers say, but you can always say something like “yeah, wild times,” and then turn and stock the milk fridge. It’s a great time to excuse yourself to cross something off the never-ending list of side tasks. Also, switch up who gets to work the register and who gets to be on bar depending on who gets burned out faster. 

3. Communicate with your co-workers. Find yourself, or your co-worker, getting really quiet, or irritable? Maybe it’s time to swap positions, change the playlist, do something in the back, or take a break. If you’re a manager or owner, understand that regardless of the election outcome, politically charged times can be flat-out exhausting, especially for marginalized communities. Make yourself available on that day and ask if there’s anything your team needs for extra support. Be open to swapping out shifts for BIPOC or LGBTQ+ workers who request that day off. 

4. Make a plan and use your tools. How do you feel most supported? If you go to therapy, see if you can move it that week, either before or after the election, whichever you think will help the most. Bring food with you to your shift, and take your meds. Watch Netflix (or queue up some guided meditations, play games, or leave the building) on your break. Is there someone you can text or call on your breaks? Ask one of your housemates/friends/partner to come visit you on that day. Sometimes seeing a friendly face in a line of customers makes all the difference. I highly recommend making a plan to treat yourself to something afterward like takeout, streaming a movie, or a low-pressure socially distanced hangout. 

Take good care of yourself during this time. If you find yourself in a crisis and need to reach out, check out these numbers: 

Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860. A hotline for trans folks by trans folks with peer support services, and so many other resources. They also give out microgrants for name changes.

The Trevor Project: 866-488-7386. The Trevor Lifeline has trained counselors to support LGBTQ+ young people through text, chat, and over the phone.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255. The national hotline is a network of local crisis centers. They also have support for Spanish-speaking people. 

For Black mental health resources: Check out Black Men Heal, Ebony’s list of mental health resources by state, and Ourselves Black, an online platform, magazine, and podcast that promotes positive coping skills and resources for mental health strategies.

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Mark Van Streefkerk
is Barista Magazine’s social media content developer and a frequent contributor. He is also a freelance writer, social media manager, and novelist based out of Seattle. If Mark isn’t writing, he’s probably biking to his favorite vegan restaurant. Find out more on his website.