The restaurant industry has been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent economic downturn. Across both Canada and the U.S., bars and restaurants have been relegated to “takeout only” status. Restaurant workers, meanwhile, have seen mass layoffs and shift cuts, leaving many wondering how they’ll pay their rent this month, not to mention what their next career move is.
To get a better idea of what those workers need and how we can help, we talked to a server at a popular NYC restaurant, who was recently laid off when it was forced to temporarily close its doors. She’s filing for unemployment, finding emotional support within her network of colleagues, and is ultimately hoping to return to work at the same restaurant when this is all over.
What’s your employment status right now?
So, as of now, everyone who works at [redacted] is being temporarily laid off. The owners are planning on reopening, and if and when that happens, they are going to offer all of us our jobs back. It is pretty scary because we don't know when that's going to happen. It could be in two weeks, three weeks, three months. [The owners have] been pretty good about the situation, the way that they've handled it, being able to make sure that they will be able to open up again, unlike a lot of other places.
How long had you been working there?
I have been with them for a little over a year and a half.
Is the restaurant able to do food delivery or takeout during this time?
They're completely shut down. Just the way that our restaurant functions, we’re not set up for any type of takeout, and a lot of our inventory is not set up for that as well. It's not really applicable to us to be able to do that. It's great that they're giving that option of selling off wine and beer to restaurants. But if we were to start doing that, we would have to be doing something completely different than what we normally do.
Was the closure something that you had seen coming based on everything happening, or was it still a surprise?
Everyone at my restaurant knew that it was coming. Also because the management, specifically our manager, was very open and honest and transparent with us, and we were all talking to each other about the reality of the situation. Probably three weeks before we actually shut down, we were seeing some decline in people coming in due to the coronavirus news. Then they put out the cover cap (diner who eats or a meal that is served), so we could only have 50% of our covers come into the restaurant about a week before [the shutdown]. That really hurt us. And so we knew that it was inevitable, that there was going to be a shutdown of all restaurants. We're all very aware of all health and safety standards being in an industry that is dealing with those things on a day to day basis, even outside of coronavirus.
Have you been able to get severance pay?
Nope. They were just like, hey, everybody, we're so sorry this is happening. They were able to do the normal payroll for the hours that we worked. I know some other restaurants weren't actually even able to do that. That's actually really common. And it's not any restaurant's fault. It's just so many restaurants are going week-to-week to just survive, which is common for a small business. So, no, we didn't get any severance. I don't know of any restaurants, personally, that can have the financial capabilities of giving severance pay. It was just my last hours worked, and the tips I made were all I got paid. I had to apply for unemployment this week. That was really hard.
Is filing for unemployment harder when part of your income is tipped?
To be honest, I don't know how it really works, and I feel really silly saying that, but I went online and it took me over a week of trying to get on to even get my application to go through because the website kept crashing. All I know is that I've submitted my unemployment on the website and I have no idea when that's going to come in, if it's going to come in, if it's going to be approved. I don't really have much information. I'm just kind of sitting at home every day hoping that this ends and that maybe I can pay rent.
Have you had any conversations with your landlord about that?
As of now, I won’t be able to pay it. I know that there's at least one or two other people in my building that are in the same boat as I am in the restaurant industry, and they said very honestly that they weren't going to be able to pay rent as well. That did make me feel a bit better, to know that there are other people in my exact building — so hopefully, when I do contact my landlord, it won’t be a surprise to them. And also, I've kind of been hoping that maybe something's going to go through on a government level, of them saying, hey, don’t worry about rent. I don’t want to jump the gun and send something if it’s going to resolve itself.
What do you think the government, locally or nationally, should be doing to help restaurant workers right now?
I think that they need to be a lot more aware of those small businesses and how this is affecting them in general, and I don't think that they fully grasp how much this has changed the restaurant industry forever. They need to have a bailout or some sort of financial package that's going to include these restaurants and small businesses. You know, McDonald's isn't going to go out of business. These big places are gonna be fine. But it's all of your neighbourhood restaurants, it’s your favourite restaurants that aren't going to be able to survive. People don't understand how important restaurants are until they're gone, and you realize you've lost a sense of community.
Are you hoping to return to work in the restaurant industry after this?
There's a lot of people who are doing this because it's their passion and something that they love. And also there are people who are doing it just to pay rent, and I'm also in that position. But I still have come to really love this industry. It's something like my chosen family. That being said, I personally am not looking to stay in the restaurant industry long-term. It's not something I can sustain as a lifestyle forever; I have some chronic health issues. So for me, it's not really a long term thing. But who knows? Maybe I literally won’t be able to return to this, because there might not be a restaurant there for me to return to. Even after my restaurant opens back up, who’s to say business is gonna be thriving? So that would mean I might not have enough shifts, or there might not be enough job positions. Restaurants have always been something I’ve thought that I can always do, no matter what hard times are, but now I’m not sure that’s viable.
What are you the most concerned about right now when it comes to your career and your personal finances?
It’s a simple answer — it’s just finances in general, getting paid. There just might not be any work. This whole thing might clear up and the industry might have tanked and there’s going to be all these people searching for jobs. The whole economy just got hit so hard, people might not be going out to eat. I personally really enjoy working in casual fine dining, but people might not be able to go out or they won’t tip 20%. So I just don't know if I'm going to be able to pay my rent, my student loans, my credit card bills, my phone bill. I’m honestly really scared about just living.
How have you been dealing with the stress of all that? Has there been a support system within the food community?
That has probably been one of the most inspiring parts of it, is seeing the way that restaurants have banded together and started creating so much awareness on social media platforms. My manager has been the lifeblood of it. I personally think she has been so amazing. She created this group text thread and has been sending through anything she can find — relief funds for service workers, resources, petitions to sign, anything she can. Her leadership skills have really shone through.
If people want to help support restaurant staff, what’s the best thing for them to do right now?
If you’re in a spot where you’re able to help out financially, that’s really important. I know there's a lot of individual GoFundMe’s, a lot of restaurants are starting them for their staff. And that money is going directly to the staff members to help pay for food and rent and bills. So that's really helpful. And share people’s fundraisers. I put on social media asking if people would share the GoFundMe for my restaurant in their Story, but no one’s done it. Not a single person has shared my GoFundMe to their Story. That takes ten seconds and is no skin off your teeth. What’s also helpful is signing petitions. I don’t know if they really do anything, those Change.org petitions, but you just write your name and sign. Showing that we can mobilize I think is probably the only way that the government and the state government are going to actually hear and see that people care about this.
Is there anything you wish people knew or understood about your situation and the situations of others in the food world right now?
It’s not that I wasn’t prepared for this. It's a really hard thing to answer, for me, because sometimes I almost feel crappy that I work at a restaurant. But I'm also so proud of it because I’ve worked so hard. And it's really emotional, honestly. Because I want to pay my bills and I don't want to be in a situation where I have to ask for help. It’s not like I was unprepared, or I didn’t have savings. I just happen to have a different job where I don’t get to work from home. Our job is so important for — and I said it before, but I'll say it again — community and creating bonds, with people breaking bread together. And I'm so proud of that, and I just don't want this industry to go down. I don't want my chosen family that I've made through this industry to suffer.
Is there anything else you want to add?
Yeah, I don’t think people who aren't taking this seriously understand that every day they're going out, they could potentially be extending this longer and longer, and that’s time I don't have a job. Stay home! Be an adult and wash your hands and we can get this all done with a lot quicker.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
The coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic downturn have disproportionately affected some professions — doctors, nurses, teachers, small business owners, cashiers, and food industry workers are just some of the folks on the front lines of the new normal. So, we’re passing them the microphone to tell us what they think we should know about their hopes, fears, and needs right now. Click here if you want to participate
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the Public Health Agency of Canada website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.