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The Livelihoods of Food-Service Workers Are Completely Uncertain

Whether restaurant-industry workers are still showing up to work or have been laid off, no one knows what could happen next

Chef passing tray with french fries and burger to waitress in the commercial kitchen Shutterstock
Jaya Saxena is a Correspondent at, and the series editor of Best American Food and Travel Writing. She explores wide ranging topics like labor, identity, and food culture.

As states and cities increasingly limit restaurant services to combat the spread of COVID-19, the livelihoods of food-service workers are all but disappearing. Without measures like stimulus checks for small businesses, unsalaried servers, bartenders, line cooks, and dishwashers could go without pay or be laid off entirely — some already have been — without a clue as to when they’ll come into gainful employment again. The uncertainty leads to unfathomable stress for workers — and risks to public health, as those with the option to work will continue to do so, even if they might not feel well, because they can’t afford not to.

Brittany (all last names withheld at sources’ request), a bartender at a large craft beer bar in Midtown Manhattan, says her employers had planned on “keeping the bar open at all costs” before the city mandated its closure, seeing COVID-19 as a “business opportunity.” Brittany and a coworker, Anna, said they both felt worried about contracting the virus at work because their employers had a history of not granting sick leave to anyone. But now that the bar is shut down and everyone was let go, Anna’s main concern is unemployment, as the bar won’t be paying severance. “I can get by for a month, but after that I don’t know.”

Some restaurants and bars are laying off employees so they may be eligible for unemployment, though it’s unlikely even the most generous unemployment check would cover most workers’ bills. For example, in California, a person on unemployment insurance can get up to $450 in weekly benefits, or $1,800 a month; the average monthly income for a server in California is $2,578. In New York, unemployment benefits are capped at $504 per week, and as Eater NY’s Ryan Sutton calculates, the average city cook and server would actually take home much less.

Government labor sites have been slammed. “The unemployment application website for California has been overwhelmed already,” says Jenny Eagleton, a bartender at the Punchdown in Oakland, where Mayor London Breed has asked residents to shelter in place until April 7, limiting any restaurants remaining open to just delivery. “It’s hard to imagine three weeks without wages for the many, many service workers in the Bay Area.”

And while some have the privilege of being eligible for unemployment, many of the restaurant industry’s undocumented workers do not have that option. A 2008 study by Pew Hispanic found that at least 20 percent of all cooks and 28 percent of all dishwashers are undocumented; Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2019 reports that foreign-born workers are far more likely to be employed in service occupations, including food service, than native-born workers (23.3 percent versus 15.9 percent). Those undocumented employees, despite often getting taxes withheld like authorized workers, will be unable to collect unemployment insurance, and they number in the thousands.

Food-industry workers in areas where restaurant dining rooms remain open face not only declining tips, but risks to their own health and the health of others as they weigh the risks against not having income. Aiofe, who works at a Ted’s Montana Grill in Georgia, says business plummeted over the weekend, and “the entire staff has had their hours cut for the next couple weeks.” Aiofe says her employers don’t know yet how they may deal with a potential shutdown, or what they’d be able to offer employees, “which just leaves a lot of us in a hellish limbo of not knowing how long we’re going to have an income.” With a larger shutdown possible — two days ago President Donald Trump offered guidance to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, and implored diners to avoid restaurants and bars — the need to show up and make as much money as possible is almost more urgent.

Though restaurants are closing, grocery stores largely remain open and are often vital resources. Holly, a cook in prepared foods at Whole Foods in Massachusetts, said Saturday was slammed, but by Tuesday work hours had been cut and the hot bar was shutting down; every day, she’s bombarded with new information. But as long as the demand is there, she’s working. “Our store management has been encouraging us to not work if we are sick or feel unsafe, but most of us don’t have the luxury of skipping paychecks,” she said. “We all worry about being carriers. We don’t know if going to work is the right choice, but we show up anyway.”

It’s mostly the public-facing nature of food-industry jobs that put employees at risk during a time when public interaction is becoming taboo. But one area of the food industry that may remain stable is personal cooking. Chris, a personal chef in Maryland, says he hasn’t had any cancellations yet, and while his customers have asked a few more questions about cleanliness, March is shaping up to be a successful month for the chef, who charges $100 a person for an in-home dining experience; he says he “just had a customer reach out about a dinner as a quarantine monotony-breaker.” Chris, who also runs the organization Chefs Without Restaurants, hopes personal dining can be a lifeline for food workers looking to pick up gigs. But as advice to limit social interactions continues, even small, at-home gatherings may be at risk.

The main problem seen across industries and sectors of life is that no one really knows what’s going to happen in the coming days, weeks, and months, making it nearly impossible to plan for the future. While unions, worker advocacy groups, and politicians are calling for federal aid packages and social safety nets, legislation won’t happen fast enough to get people their next paychecks. The restaurant industry has responded with ad-hoc relief funds and support systems, but it’s becoming more and more apparent that the industry is going to need a massive influx of assistance. “All these government programs are about to be assaulted by out-of-work restaurant workers,” says John deBary, co-founder of the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, adding that the RWCF is trying to be flexible in its support, whether it’s by setting up a relief fund, raising money for other grassroots organizations, or having a hand in crafting legislation.

This pandemic is revealing is the cracks that have existed in the restaurant and food industries for a very long time.”There needs to be an awareness that it can’t go back to the way things were,” says deBary. “This is a very vulnerable industry, but it’s also a very vital industry… If we had a functional social safety net, we wouldn’t be in this situation. That’s going to be the test of any financial model for restarting restaurants. I think it’s going to be a long time before we’re back to 100 percent.”