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‘There’s Nothing I Wouldn’t Do at This Point’

Grocery, delivery, and other businesses in demand during the coronavirus pandemic are on hiring sprees, but for laid-off restaurant workers, making the switch isn’t so simple

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A woman stocks grocery store shelves
Grocery stores have announced hiring sprees in response to increased demand due to concerns around novel coronavirus.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Angel de la Torre-Miranda has thrived on a career in restaurants. For almost 13 years, he has worked the line as a cook and a sous chef across the San Diego metro area, most recently preparing cheeseburgers and huli huli chicken at the Boardwalk Beach Club in Coronado. He loved the work, and it put food on the table for himself, his girlfriend, and his almost-2-year-old child.

But with the spread of COVID-19, the Boardwalk Beach Club temporarily shuttered in mid-March, and de la Torre-Miranda lost his job. To support his family, this past week he found himself on the other side of the service industry: driving around town for Postmates, delivering bags full of Carl’s Jr. and 7-Eleven orders. “If I don’t work, we don’t eat,” de la Torre-Miranda says, noting that he earned $40 in two and a half hours. “It’s not rent money but it’s the most money I’ve seen in the last two weeks.”

In the middle of what some economists have predicted to be the eve of a recession, restaurants across the country have closed or limited their dining rooms, upsetting the livelihoods of possibly millions of workers. A number of employees are hobbling along with schedule cuts or reduced salaries, but thousands of others are without jobs.

Unemployment benefits and restaurant relief funds will help keep eligible workers financially afloat in the near future, as will the recently passed $2 trillion stimulus package, which will give unemployed restaurant workers an additional cushion of $600 a week plus one-time stimulus checks of up to $1,200. But with fallout from the coronavirus almost certainly enduring for several months, and retailers hiring en masse to keep up with the spike in customers’ panic-stricken purchases, hospitality veterans are looking beyond bars and restaurants for their next paychecks.

“There’s nothing I wouldn’t do at this point,” says de la Torre-Miranda, who’s applied for positions at grocery stores and medical equipment facilities. “It’s incredibly stressful, because I know what I’m capable of doing in the kitchen.”

The shockwaves from COVID-19 have rippled across the restaurant industry. At least 26 states have banned or restricted dine-in service, and on March 26, the total number of hourly employees going into work at local food-and-drink businesses had dropped by 64 percent compared to the median attendance on the same weekdays in January, according to data from scheduling and time tracking tool Homebase.

But for retail and delivery, business is soaring: Shelves where milk, eggs, and seltzer are regularly stocked feature gaping holes; lines at grocery stores sometimes stretch out the door, with customers attempting to maintain the recommended six feet of separation; Instacart app downloads grew by more than 200 percent between February 14 and March 15.

To meet the sudden influx of customer demand, a slew of grocery stores and retailers like Trader Joe’s and Amazon have announced hiring sprees, with some companies making direct efforts to aid restaurant workers. CVS Health, which plans to add over 50,000 workers, is working with the hospitality group Estefan Enterprises in Florida to match up to 300 of its employees with temporary jobs until its hotels and restaurants reopen, a deal facilitated by personal connections between the organizations. Kroger, which has hired more than 23,500 new employees and plans to bring on an additional 20,000, has partnered with the Thunderdome Restaurant Group and Frisch’s to place restaurant workers with jobs in its plants, warehouses, and grocery stores.

Kimberly Yorio, a spokesperson for the grocery chains Kings Food Markets and Balducci’s, says that with daily demand surging exponentially, the companies began a hiring campaign to onboard over 100 full-time and part-time workers, some temporary, at their locations throughout the Northeast. The jobs range from retrieving grocery carts and working the cash registers, to slicing cold cuts at the deli counter. “The largest number of hospitality workers are being displaced right now,” Yorio says. “The grocery industry, on the flip side, has an urgent need to employ people quickly who have skills that are absolutely relevant, and the knowledge of food for all hospitality works is super helpful.”

Echoing other retailers who are recruiting short-term help for the pandemic, job postings on Kings Food Markets and Balducci’s suggest the duration of temporary COVID-19 hires could last a couple of months. However, Yorio notes the possibility for extensions and long-term employment opportunities based on the needs of customers and workers.

But despite the hiring sprees, work isn’t guaranteed for new jobseekers. These days, recently laid-off restaurant workers looking to get a toe in as a grocery bagger or in a warehouse position are potentially competing with millions of newly unemployed. Mariah R.*, a former server-bartender at a Stoney River steakhouse and grill location in Atlanta, Georgia says that after being let go from the restaurant due to the pandemic and applying for several retail positions, she has already been rejected for four different positions at Target. De la Torre-Miranda, who has prior warehouse experience, says that after hearing about companies’ hirings waves, he applied to Walmart, Costco, Target, and Amazon, along with several grocery stores, with few leads as of last week.

But some restaurant workers don’t consider switching to retail a viable option at all. Tim Oliver, who is currently working around eight hours a week as a cook at the taco bar Garage in Binghamton, New York — down from the usual 45 — is holding out for as long as he can before applying for a position at Walmart. His skills and personality, embraced in restaurants, he says, might not be so welcomed in retail. “Everybody’s drawn there for one reason — to make some food for people and they’re happy about it,” he says about working in a kitchen. “To go from the high-pressure job of cooking to stocking shelves, I’m gonna go nuts.”

Jobs like delivering meals or ringing up groceries also put workers on the front lines of the pandemic, sometimes with little protection. George F.*, a career server who lives in Honolulu’s Waikiki neighborhood, says that after being hired for an overnight stocker position at a grocery store, he learned on his first day that several of his new coworkers weren’t sharing his precautionary health measures like wearing a handkerchief or mask and gloves, and that the company wasn’t spraying down the store with cleaning products.

“Offices and break rooms are extremely small with multiple people close together,” he says of his new workplace, adding that it’s a problem “for people to not be using gloves or face masks in those situations.” Still, the former server considers himself lucky to have the job: He now has unionized healthcare and secured employment in an industry vital during the pandemic.

With the sudden jump in the labor market supply, some hospitality workers have been exiting the food and retail worlds altogether, at least temporarily. For over two years, Shawn Ryder poured beer at the beloved local hockey bar Lord Stanley’s and the Annex in DeKalb, Illinois. But when Governor J.B. Pritzker mandated that bars and restaurants across the state shutter to dampen the spread of COVID-19, a Lord Stanley’s regular threw Ryder a lifeline and messaged him about a job opportunity at the plant where he worked.

Instead of chatting with regulars about Blackhawks scores, this past week, the former bartender was learning how to operate heavy machinery to drill holes into plastics and metals as a computer numerically controlled operator. “It was kind of like when I left Ohio and went to California,” Ryder says. “The culture shock — it’s a totally different type of work, a different pace, different way of thinking.”

The total take home pay is roughly $200 less at Ryder’s new job (an amount he used to make in tips), and he hasn’t fully adjusted to the early-hour schedule. But he considers himself lucky to be gainfully employed, unlike many of his former colleagues. “There are definitely worse jobs out there,” he says.

De la Torre-Miranda, the San Diego chef, is hoping for similar fortunes. With another child on the way, the chef estimates that he’s applied to over 50 jobs online, often without reading the job descriptions. Two retail or warehouse jobs plus Postmates delivery work would be ideal for sustaining his family financially, he says.

Like other former restaurant workers, de la Torre-Miranda knows the pandemic will eventually subside, and people will leave their homes to eat out again. But whether he will be back in the kitchen to fire up their entrees when that day comes is a question he doesn’t have an answer to. “I love working with food,” de la Torre-Miranda says. “But it’s so unstable as it is, so when we have something like this happening, and this is the fallout — I don’t know.”

*To safeguard their livelihoods, Eater guaranteed anonymity to any source who requested it.
Matthew Sedacca is a writer living in Brooklyn.