When outdoor dining returned to New York City in late June, Charles Payne was hesitant to go back to his job as a server at a neighborhood bar in Brooklyn. But with enhanced unemployment benefits set to expire at the end of July, Payne took the shifts. By the end of the week, he was bedridden with a cough and fever, and his workplace was shuttered. He is convinced that he got the virus during those first few days of outdoor dining.
“The government-added $600 is what’s been making it work for me,” says Payne, referring to the payments that the federal coronavirus relief CARES Act adds to weekly unemployment benefits. “The state assistance running out is forcing us to go back whether or not we want to.”
The conversations surrounding reopening (and the decimation of the restaurant industry) have largely focused on owners thus far. But workers are the cogs that make the machine run, and while some have been eager to go back to work, most say that they are trapped in a Catch-22 situation regarding their return.
“Nobody’s really talking about the fact that a lot of people are being thrown into a corner having to go back to work even when they don’t want to do it,” says Tonya Brooks, a server at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Midtown. “But what other choice are we going to have when it comes to July 31? We don’t have any other source of income.”
Eater spoke to workers across the city to get an on-the-ground perspective of what it’s like returning to work for restaurant industry staffers in the middle of a pandemic. All spoke under the condition of anonymity, to avoid reprisal from their employers or, in some cases, the government. Their names, including the ones above, have been modified.
Server at a Midtown steakhouse
At 9 p.m. on Monday, June 29, Jason Rice got an email from his employer, a popular steakhouse in Midtown Manhattan. It was a recall letter, telling all employees that they would have to return to work by Wednesday at 11 a.m. or the restaurant would report the absentee worker to the Department of Labor as a resignation.
“They’re putting everyone in this position where it’s kind of like, either return to work and lose your unemployment, or don’t return to work and lose your unemployment,” says Rice. “I would prefer to be at home and not be working while all this is going on.”
In addition to safety concerns, tips are lower due to reduced customer volume. Because the enhanced unemployment benefits are in effect until the end of the month, some workers are augmenting those lower paychecks by clocking just few enough days a week to still qualify for the bonus $600. At the same time, their employers are trying to have their federal loans forgiven, which is contingent on employers rehiring most of their staff.
“I’m, like, playing this chess game of going to work to satisfy them and not having anyone be able to say that I turned down work,” says Rice.
The tables at Rice’s restaurant are spaced out, with plentiful supplies of gloves, masks, hand sanitizer, and Lysol available, but nobody feels completely safe, even the diners. “I actually had a couple of guests who were like, ‘It’s kind of ridiculous that they’re open,’” says Rice.
”And I was like, ‘Well, it’s kind of ridiculous that you’re here.’”
General manager at an Italian restaurant in Clinton Hill
The reopenings couldn’t come soon enough for Frida Gonzalez, general manager at an Italian restaurant in Clinton Hill, and mother of a 3-year-old. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to be stuck at home with my child for 24 hours a day, seven days a week,’” says Gonzalez. “At the time, he was 2 and a half. He was just a tyrant, so I was worried that I was going to lose my mind.”
After the initial shutdown in mid-March, Gonzalez’s employer decided to wait it out to see where the industry would settle before offering takeout and delivery. Gonzalez went on unemployment, but leapt at the opportunity to return to work once the restaurant reopened. “I was making more on unemployment than I would at any kind of salaried manager job,” says Gonzalez. “But I was like, all right, I gotta get out of the house.”
Gonzalez, her husband, and her son all contracted COVID-19 a week into the shutdown, so the transition back to work has been fairly stress-free because the family is less concerned about contracting the virus again, Gonzalez says. Besides, everything seems to pale in comparison to dealing with a 3-year-old running around.
“Being a parent is a wild ride on its own,” she says. “Pandemic or not.”
Bartender and server at a Brooklyn bar
Before he contracted COVID-19 while working shifts as a server, Charles Payne was the bartender at his neighborhood bar in Brooklyn, and continued to prepare drinks for takeout and delivery without incident. That all changed when outdoor dining kicked in during phase two of reopenings.
“Patrons, as soon as they sat down, didn’t have to wear a mask at all,” says Payne. “I could encourage them to keep wearing their masks when they’re not actively drinking or eating, but I was interacting with them, and there was no way to maintain distance with all these maskless people. So I got sick almost right away and we had to shut down.”
None of Payne’s coworkers tested positive. The owner, who has been operating remotely out of state, plans to reopen the bar in the coming days with a walk-up window format to limit exposure to guests without face coverings. Payne intends to return to work, just as soon as he stops coughing and clears CDC protocol.
“We can’t stay locked up forever,” says Payne. “But there’s math there of how many lives it’s going to cost.”
Bartender and server at a Lower Manhattan restaurant
For Luis Perez, an undocumented worker originally from Venezuela working in one of the most popular restaurants in downtown Manhattan, unemployment benefits were never part of the equation. But because he was subsidized out of pocket by his employer and a staff GoFundMe account while waiting for the reopening, he was never in any financial peril, and has now returned to work.
“I really like working,” says Perez. “I don’t have family here. I prefer to work because I don’t have anybody here.”
Perez sends much of his earnings as remittances back home to family in Venezuela and Ecuador. He works six days a week, sometimes picking up shifts from his colleagues who call out “sick” while they navigate the dance of keeping their unemployment active while simultaneously returning to work.
“At work, I have to do everything. I have to be a waiter, I have to be a bartender, and sometimes I’m even doing the polishing,” says Perez. “There was nobody willing to come back to work.”
Server at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Midtown
For workers like Richard Weigler, a laid-off server at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Midtown, there is not enough of a reason to return to their jobs during a global pandemic. The extra money from the CARES Act has been a nice bonus, says Weigler, but he’s never made a lot of money in hospitality to begin with, and can easily live on a shoestring budget.
“Luckily, because we do have a cheaper rent here, there aren’t that many expenses if we really buckled down,” says Weigler. “If the CARES Act runs out and we drop back to just the New York State unemployment, I’d be able to survive comfortably, if not frugally.”
The financial incentives to work, which were never great to begin with, do not outweigh the health risks for Weigler. Restaurant operators who spoke with Eater have reported difficulties in hiring back enough of their staff to support even their limited outdoor dining operations. Enticing workers with higher wages, when they’re already months behind on other payments, will likely not be an option.
“If I were to go back to working, I would be making less money than I would be on unemployment,” he says. “So I don’t want to take a pay cut, and also, I don’t want to get sick.”
Additional reporting by Erika Adams