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Restaurant workers on how their lives have been changed by the coronavirus

Many servers, baristas, and bartenders have already been laid off. Now they’re looking to the government for help.

close-up of a bar being wiped down
In some places, bars and restaurants — like the Ohio establishment pictured here — have been asked to close down.
Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images

As the coronavirus spreads to more and more cities in the US, restaurants across the country are scaling back their services — or shutting their doors altogether — to help slow the spread of the disease. Some cities, including San Francisco, have ordered all non-essential businesses to close indefinitely. In some cases, this means bars and restaurants can stay open, but only for takeout and delivery (which have been classified as essential). This precaution cuts down on foot traffic but also means lower wages for staffers who rely on tips to make ends meet.

I spoke to seven current and former food-service employees about their experiences working in restaurants, bars, and cafés as Covid-19 spread to all 50 states — and about how they’re faring now. Some are still showing up to work; others have filed for unemployment. Some are worried about being exposed to the virus or exposing someone else. And they’re all worried about paying their bills now that food-service jobs are disappearing everywhere, with no end in sight.

These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Connor, worked at a small neighborhood bistro in Pennsylvania

Hourly wage before tips: $2.80

When all the sporting events started to get canceled and when we found out Tom Hanks got it, we figured it was about to hit the fan. But up until then, it was barely even discussed at my place.

Before we closed, the servers were taking it more seriously than the customers. Sunday night, every single time someone came in, we found ourselves feeling a weird mixture of gratitude and irritation. We were thinking, “It’s good that we’re working, because we’ll need the money, but on the flip side, is no one paying attention?”

The last day I worked was Sunday night [the 14th]. We usually get an email Saturday or Sunday with our schedule. We got it this Sunday with a message [from] our manager saying, “Some shifts have been cut back because we don’t know what’s going on.” Then the city said all non-essential businesses need to close, and we got an email saying we’re closed for two weeks. No one in the front of the house — hosts, bussers, and servers — will be needed for at least two weeks.

I can’t speak for every restaurant, but tips were 90 percent of my income. My hourly income goes to my taxes, so I get a $0 paycheck every two weeks.

I saved pretty well, so I’ll be good for a couple of months, but everyone I’ve talked to is in a worse situation than I am. Some of their bank accounts are in the negative already, because you’re living week-to-week depending on how busy the restaurant is. Me and a lot of my friends are hoping that it gets solved as quickly as possible. I think people are intentionally not thinking too far out, because we’ll be terrified.

Mai, worked at a Vietnamese restaurant in New York City

Hourly wage before tips: $10

We started losing customers when the first cases in New York were announced. First the locals stopped coming, then the NYU students. There was a time when only the international students were coming.

We’re a big college-campus restaurant, so we rely on students a lot. When they go on break, we cut our shifts. Our shifts started getting cut [the second week in March]. We had two servers and two bussers on the floor, and then we just had one busser and one server. We used to fill the restaurant; we’d have lines out the door. Last week, after the schools had closed, we didn’t have anyone for the first hour, and we maybe filled half the store. During peak season, if I worked four days, which is 27 hours, I’d make like $650 a week, which came out to around $25 an hour, more or less, depending on the tips. Last week, we went from 150 tickets a shift to 20 tickets a shift. Minimum wage is $10 an hour, so we basically just made $70 a shift.

Then they closed.

It’s a small family business. Most of the people who work there are people the owner knows personally, and none of us are career servers. I’m not sure if it’s within his means to give anyone PTO, especially not now. I feel like it’s the government’s job to bail everyone out.

Abe, worked as a bartender at a bar in Maryland

Hourly wage before tips: $3.63

As there were more cases here in Maryland, [foot traffic] started to slow down a lot. There were people who thought it was a joke and were waiting for it to blow over, and people who were canceling reservations or just not coming in at all. I worked at a speakeasy-style cocktail bar. It has a dark, 1920s kind of feel. It started to get a little eerie when it was just empty.

I actually woke up and saw [that we were closing down] on one of the owner’s Instagram [pages], and a few hours later I got an email saying we had been laid off. It said we were all on layoff status, with a link to Maryland’s unemployment [website]. It said if we aren’t all back by March 31, then we all lose our health insurance.

There was no severance. Any gift cards that are sold now, the owners are matching that and it’s going into a pool for all the employees. Mind you, the restaurant group has 1,500 employees. We have 10 restaurants in the city. They also put together a family meal for us to go pick up food at one of the restaurants, but by the time I got there, they had closed it because they had already run out of food. The Baltimore Bartenders’ Guild put together a virtual tip jar that you can add your name to with your Cash App or Venmo next to it. People can go in and pick you out by either restaurant or name.

A New York bartender makes to-go cocktails.
Victor J. Blue/Getty Images

I also work in the music industry. I do marketing and hospitality and run an electronic music production company. We canceled a handful of shows. Not only did we not make any money off the shows, but the deposits we put down on artists, sound people, [and] lighting are just completely gone. We’re a couple thousand in the hole right now. All of those artists, and our company as a whole, are hurting. The restaurant industry is hurting, all of the things that got shut down are hurting. We bail out big corporations; I think it’s time we bail out the people that keep the economy going to begin with.

I’m making craft cocktails and bottling them and driving around making deliveries, just to make money now. I just started it up, and it’s been going well. I just had to make another case; I literally just finished capping all the bottles. I take the same precautions as when I bartend. I wear gloves because I’m touching people’s food products, and I have a mask. I’m not too worried about myself — I feel like my immune system is pretty good — but I don’t want to pass anything along to anyone else.

Peter, worked as a barista in Massachusetts

Hourly wage before tips: $15

I think my employers were ahead of what the city governments were asking. The city of Cambridge, where two of the shops are, was pretty quick-acting. The main shop is [in] Arlington, which had some of the initial cases from this Biogen meeting. It was the beginning of last week, I think [on March 8 or 9], that the town put out their first initial warning.

I was making huge batches of pre-mixed bleach and water that would sanitize surfaces, and trying to remind everyone that it’s particularly important now to use this on places where people are touching, like the door.

It wasn’t really until Sunday or Monday that we had fewer people actually coming into the stores, and what they were getting when they were coming in was different. Instead of getting lattes and sitting down in the store for an hour — this is before we had to start removing seating — people would get something to go, and an additional bag of coffee or a four-pack of cold brew for later.

All of the stores are closed now. One of the stores was open until noon Wednesday [the 18th], and that was going to be the end of it for the foreseeable future. I filed for unemployment in the state of Massachusetts about two hours ago.

Before that, a lot of regulars who came in left a $5 tip when they’d normally leave a single dollar. I appreciate that, and I appreciate that they’re trying to do their part to make sure the shop stays afloat, but I think if economic relief packages [were] in place, we wouldn’t have to have these conversations. If the owners of the shop where I work already knew, for example, that they could get a zero-interest loan from the federal government — which is something the government has done a few times in history — they wouldn’t have to be thinking, “Should we stay open because we need the money?”

If I knew I was going to get a $1,000 check in a few weeks, I wouldn’t have to think about whether I should be going to work and possibly being another transmission vector. I think solving the economic problems is a public health issue before it’s anything else.

Calden, works at a local coffee shop in Colorado

Hourly wage before tips: $15

On Monday, the governor closed all bars, restaurants, gyms, things like that. Restaurants are still allowed to do takeout and delivery, but the process of shutting down is starting pretty rapidly here.

After cases started to hit the US, we amped up our hygiene process really rapidly. We were cleaning things every hour on the hour: wiping down tables, cleaning handles, cleaning other things. We stopped accepting people’s personal cups to take with them, and we set up curbside orders. The people who own our business were taking it pretty seriously.

We haven’t seen a huge slowdown yet so we’re not super-worried yet, but I’m sure in the next couple of days it’ll definitely hit us pretty hard.

I don’t think there’s as much of a concern about getting sick as there is an economic concern. I’m definitely worried about paying rent and buying groceries, but I graduated recently and am actively paying student loans, so it’s hard to balance what that’s going to look like in the future — just in the next month, too. I live pretty [much] paycheck to paycheck, so we’ll see how it goes.

I definitely think there should be something that’s done at the government level, supplying businesses with the cash flow to be able to keep going and to be able to pay workers. A lot of people live paycheck to paycheck, and there’s a lot of uncertainty of what’s going to come next. In food service, tips are really important. That’s sometimes how I pay for my groceries. So I hope there’s some sort of intervention. At least deferring rent payments and bills, or even just supplying a check so people are able to afford necessities.

Marcus*, worked as a bartender in California

Hourly wage before tips: $15

I worked at a bar that was famous for being open all the time. It opens at 6 am and closes at 2 am — it’s a colorful crowd. I was watching a lot of news coverage about the virus and I felt very conflicted about exposing myself or exposing [people there], but it was a rock-and-a-hard-place thing. The bar was still open and I was still on duty. A lot of clientele are industry folks, other restaurant and bar staff, hotel folks. More than anything, they were just kind of pissed about how it was affecting them. I had one hotel guy come in and say they’re usually at 75 percent capacity year-round, and now they were at under 10 percent capacity. Everyone was getting their shifts cut.

During my shift, the governor decreed all bars and restaurants should close, so I had to do last call and lock the place up in the middle of the day. It was surreal. The owner of the bar sent a mass text out to everyone saying that because he’s so uncertain as to how [long] things will be like this, he advises everyone to file for unemployment.

The thoughts around money are pretty bleak. My wife works in a cash business as well — she’s part of a marijuana delivery service, and they were just shut down last night [on March 16], too. We have a lot of cash at the house because I make tips and she gets paid in cash, and then we’ll usually deposit it all once every month or so. Now we’ve got quite a bit of cash on hand and we’re not depositing it.

It’d be great if the owner of my bar could somehow sustain me financially during this time, but that’s a tough expectation for a small-business owner who just had their income cut to zero as well. It just doesn’t seem realistic. It seems like something bigger is probably required. A large governmental response makes sense, because how else could you fix things at this scale? Right now, things seem like a random patchwork of localities and businesses and people trying to do what’s right and what’s best, but there’s not really been a broad and sweeping response.

Billy, works at a bakery and a restaurant bar in Colorado

Hourly wage before tips: $8.15

I live with someone who is immunosuppressed. She has a weak respiratory system, and I was considering not coming in and using sick days for her sake, even though I don’t get paid sick time from either job. The bosses at the restaurant job gave me this guilt trip attitude of, “You’re low risk, it’s not that big a deal, don’t stress about it so much.”

At the restaurant job, they began implementing more safety measures. They were like, “Start washing your hands more often, pay attention if you’re feeling ill and don’t come into work.” But they also had these really flippant attitudes of, “Everyone is overreacting, it’s not a big deal. We’re going to lose business because nobody is going out.”

For the first week that we had American cases, there wasn’t much change [in customer behavior], but we rapidly saw a decrease in foot traffic. Now I’m being scheduled way, way less. In February, I was working close to 30 hours at both jobs, and now I barely work 20 between both. Most of the time when I go into work, they send me [home] early because there’s not enough business.

Now that I’m working fewer hours and I’m not getting as much money, I might have to take out a student loan just to finish the semester. When I decided to go back to school, I didn’t take out any big student loans. I was like, “If I can’t pay it off on a credit card within six months, then I just won’t go.” But I’m one of the luckier victims, because I don’t have kids like most of my coworkers do.

*Name has been changed for privacy reasons.

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