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Dispatches From Food Service Workers Across the U.S.: ‘I’m Trying Not to Panic’

Restaurant employees from Kentucky, North Dakota, New York, Oregon, and Minnesota share their stories

A chrome restaurant kitchen range empty and shut down for service. Shutterstock/Kondor83

Last week, President Trump formed the Economic Revival Industry Group, a collection of 200 experts and industry leaders to inform the (possibly ill-advised) campaign to re-open the economy. The group, focused on restaurants, included numerous chain CEOs and celebrity chef-owners like Wolfgang Puck and Thomas Keller. And though the latter could hardly be expected to advocate for the needs of restaurant owners whose restaurants don’t have Michelin stars, there is another group notably absent from the committee: restaurant workers.

Independent restaurant owners are struggling with the realities and uncertainties of life in a pandemic, whether it’s having to lay off employees or trying to keep people paid as the business pivots to take-out only. But for your average food service worker — servers, bartenders, line cooks, and baristas — there is even less support. Restaurant employees made up 60 percent of the jobs lost in March. Twenty-two million people filed for unemployment in the past four weeks, leaving unemployment websites overwhelmed. The Paycheck Protection Program, which offers federal loans in exchange for keeping employees on payroll, is out of money. All this adds up to millions of food service workers being left without a paycheck.

Despite Trump’s plans, no one knows what the restaurant industry is going to look like on the other side of the pandemic. And so workers wait, hoping their restaurants will reopen, hoping they or their coworkers will be rehired, hoping there will be a workplace to come back to. As chains and fine-dining chefs are the only ones with access to the White House, it’s important to remember their experiences do not represent the restaurant industry as a whole. Whether or not restaurant workers, not merely restaurateurs, feel supported will be the true test of any government program’s success. With that in mind, we spoke to five restaurant workers across the country on what they’re experiencing right now. These are stories in their own words, edited lightly for clarity.

Gregg Adams, line cook at J Harrods, Louisville, Kentucky

The chef and I are the only kitchen staff left of four full-time and two part-timers. He takes a salary, I am on reduced hours, which means less money to repair the house and cars, much less save anything. Since this began we have been steadily losing customers. Our food isn’t geared for takeout, though we changed the menu some. Also, we made a lot of our money through drinks. Initially, the state only allowed the sale of closed alcohol containers, and some restaurants started selling flight bottles and half pints with soda or cup mixer on the side. Within a week, open alcohol sales were allowed rather than just packaged liquor, but it was too late for those who followed the rules.

I’m hanging in there, but I’m lucky. Not much has changed for me and my family. My wife is on medical disability with fixed income and doesn’t leave the house much. My teenager already practiced social distancing. My 26-year-old is working 60 hours a week at a local coffee chain. My 25-year-old works for UPS. I’m blessed to have employment. I know three other cooks and two chefs who are unemployed. But I can’t plan anything for anything now. I’m wondering about my concert tickets and my child’s education if my older children will get sick, and what my options are in general. I’m trying to not panic.

Massoud Violette-Sheikh, sous chef at the Heights, Ithaca, New York

I am 23 years old and have been working in the industry for five years, starting as a dishwasher at the Heights. My start in the industry was mainly out of necessity — dishwashing offered good hours and the possibility of upward mobility in the restaurant. But the work ethic and our local food community was contagious; I wouldn’t want to be in any other industry, even in these times. I rose to sous this past year. In an area where we are financially dependent on Ithaca College and Cornell as our main contributors to economic stimulation, this has train-wrecked the local economy.

At the Heights, all staff with the exception of our chef de cuisine have been temporarily let go. I think the post-pandemic dining landscape is going to be entirely different — staff cuts, wage cuts, and mandatory seating reduction will absolutely affect how we are able to eat. Even the most luxurious restaurants will have to cut back on menus, garnishes, and available reservations. I’m hopeful that diners will come out in droves after restaurants open up, but realistically that’s not likely. The social habits that we develop will linger. I spend a lot of time talking with my close friends and coworkers. Everyone just wants to be back in the kitchen — to be back home. As an individual I’m grateful for private grants such as the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund — programs like that are going to be our saviors. But our primary concern is how long our local independent restaurants, farms, and purveyors will be able to stay open. The debt to equity ratio in our industry is very high, and I expect to see places sink into irreversible debt. I hope customers will be patient as we get back on our feet; without their support, all that will be left is Chili’s and McDonald’s.

Marlena Chaboudy, cook at A Frame Bar & Grill, Westhope, North Dakota

Busy season is the beginning of spring through the end of summer. We are situated on Lake Metigoshe, and when the snow melts people start moving in their boats and readying their docks to enjoy their summer. We were all gearing up for that when the spread of the virus hit hard and hours were cut. Our place was then shut down for dine-in service and we tried to stay positive. I found out the secret was really not to make eye contact, because if I saw one of us start to tear up, it opened the floodgates for me.

I’m behind in rent, my vehicle is in need of a few repairs. I had planned on moving closer to work — I live about 40 miles away — and found a place, but will have to come by money for the utility and house deposits and rent in order to do so. My fiancé and I live together, and he also works at the A-Frame as a dishwasher. He has filed for unemployment but has a limited work history and hasn’t paid in enough in the quarters to draw unemployment. And he won’t get the one-sum stimulus check either, and that’s going to hurt. Living in a rural community, you can’t count on anything for relief. You can’t count on the small town store to get a delivery truck, or go to the store the same day and be able to buy a roll of toilet paper or a dozen eggs. I can’t guarantee that my internet will be functional much less my phone service, and trying to even access the unemployment website can take all day. You go to the gas station for a treat and you never know if they are open because if they haven’t had enough business that day to justify keeping the lights on, or paying an employee to sit there, they close early.

I don’t think the aid the government is giving is enough. Not at all! It’s getting bad everywhere. The people in the foodservice industry are the “blue collar” workers that everyone forgets about. We are not paid as much as the blue collar norm and making ends meet isn’t looking possible for most.

Rae Bullinger, former front of house at Rise Bagels, Minneapolis, Minnesota

We closed our dining room around March 16th, but kept our online and takeout phone ordering systems the same. After closing the dining room, it was fairly slow that first week, but we kept advertising the online and pick-up ordering and by the weekend our system just couldn’t keep up. On my weekend shift, we were so overwhelmed with online orders overnight that we actually had to turn the first customers away, because we were still trying to catch up with the online orders. The next day is when the owners decided to temporarily close. Before coronavirus, we had a good sense of how many bagels we needed each day of the week to fill our normal amount of orders. Once we started advertising more about online and phone ordering mid-March, our demand shifted to a point we couldn’t have predicted.

Before I started my job, I was a graduate student in the psychology field. I had to take a leave of absence in October due to an inpatient stay for my mental health, and decided to put school on pause and pursue a new career in food sustainability. I thought getting my foot in the door at a local restaurant that focuses on local, organic ingredients and sustainable practices would provide me with some great insight. The job finally gave me a sense of purpose and control when I hadn’t had that in a long time. However, when we suddenly had to close, it was like my sense of purpose also disappeared. My job was the one thing that kept me feeling certain about my future. Uncertainty about my future at Rise has led to an increase in my anxiety around leaving school and my future career. I have many fears of having to start all over again, and it’s hard to stay motivated when I can’t gain restaurant experience from my home.

Here in Minnesota, individual unemployment benefits are only given if you had made $3,000 or more before unemployment. Because I was in graduate school and had only been at my job at Rise for a few months, I did not meet this requirement and will not be receiving any unemployment benefits. For those making minimum wage (aka many of those in the food service industry), prerequisites like this may have some major impacts. I’m incredibly thankful to be living at home during this time with great support, but I couldn’t imagine being in a more dire situation and then denied benefits based on something I may not have had control over. I’m really glad something is being done for small business owners, but what really matters is what happens after this. A restaurant will only survive if better legislation is passed and people continue to visit even after social distancing orders are lifted. The attention and support food service employees and places are getting right now is amazing, but systematic change needs to occur for them to continue to survive.

Ashton Long, bartender, Portland, Oregon

We were all in an especially odd situation because we had just all been through training and had opened the restaurant, Bar King, to the public Monday, March 9th. Our restaurant closed down to the public on March 15th and began only providing takeout orders. Luckily, right now it is looking like we’ll be opening back up and all have our jobs back, but when? I don’t think anyone has even a clue. And that is terrifying.

My partner and I moved here in early January of this year. Luckily, he works from home, but I set out to find a job as soon as I got here, and even with my experience and my resume, it took me nearly two months to find something because of how competitive the service industry staffing is in Portland. I exhausted nearly all of my savings and threw all of my faith into the fact that I’d find a job when I got here, and then I worked for literally two weeks and then lost my job. I don’t remember a time in my life where I didn’t have two jobs and work anywhere from 40 to 70 hours a week, so having this much free time, and on such an incredibly STRICT budget of one income, has been extremely challenging to fill.

While I think the stimulus money is great, and quite literally a life saver for many — including me — unemployment has been a literal shit show and a nightmare to deal with. I still have yet to see any benefits or correspondence from either Michigan or Oregon to figure out what I need to do in this situation where I lived and worked in Michigan last year and Oregon now. While I do understand that having 2.2 MILLION people sign up for unemployment in the last month is overwhelming, if it weren’t for the stimulus check and my partner, I could very well be on my way back to Michigan right now to live with family. And as a 25-year-old who has never had to consider an option like that because I’ve always had work and savings, that is a horrifying and scary scenario.

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