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The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Laid-off restaurant workers face uncertain futures with looming rent and plenty of worry

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With the coronavirus sending those who could to stock up then hunker down in their homes, Anna Valero noticed that the line separating the haves from the have-nots was an unusual one: toilet paper.

It occurred over the weekend to the owner of Hook Hall, a tavern and events space in Washington’s Park View neighborhood, that some of the people who might not be able to acquire the scarce necessity were people she knew well — those who worked in her industry. While others were raiding supermarket shelves, they were working in hotel rooms and bars. Or maybe they’d been laid off, as restaurants and bars closed their doors and sent workers home with little hope that they would return to their jobs within weeks, if ever, and couldn’t afford to stockpile.

With their business evaporating, restaurants use their kitchens to feed those in need

Valero knew that she could get access to toilet paper and other necessities through her restaurant supplier. “I thought, ‘If I have access to something that somebody needs, I’m just going to get it for them,’ ” she says.

Valero sunk $7,000 of her own money into buying supplies and put out word that she was distributing kits filled with canned goods, feminine hygiene products and other staples. She helped set up a workers’ relief fund with the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington that has brought in thousands of dollars. She wrangled trucks from Occasions Caterers and Revolution Events to pick up leftover food and meals from closing restaurants to distribute at her beer hall, which has become a hub for the displaced hospitality workers of the area.

Other efforts to help laid-off restaurants workers have sprung up. The U.S. Bartenders Guild  is offering emergency grants. The nonprofit Restaurant Workers Community Foundation set up a fund to offer loans to businesses and to help individuals “facing economic hardships or health crises.” Also in Washington, a spreadsheet called a “virtual tip jar” allowing laid-off restaurant workers to share their Venmo accounts is making the rounds.

But even as the community rallies around them, thousands of laid-off restaurant workers around the country have little recourse as their entire industry all but shutters against the virus. Many were let go with little or no severance pay. It’s unclear what help will be available to them. New York and California have instituted a halt on evictions, but other assistance — including the possibility of cash payments to all Americans — remain mere proposals.

And as the days without work tick on, they are facing rent deadlines, difficulties getting unemployment benefits and an uncertain future. Here are some of their stories:

Shelby Gutleber, 26, New York 

Restaurants put Gutleber through school, first at community college, then Columbia University. Waitressing paid her share of the rent for the apartment she shares with two roommates on the Upper West Side. While working in wine bars and burger joints, in fine dining and bars, the New Jersey native always figured that her willingness to work and the abundance of restaurant gigs meant that she always had a safety net. If you didn’t like management, or they didn’t give you the hours you needed, she says, you just went elsewhere.

“If I wanted to leave, literally, the next day, I was training in a new restaurant,” she says. “So when people say: ‘Why don’t people have money saved up?’ it’s that you were always guaranteed work.”  

Until Sunday, that is, when she worked a dinner shift as a full-time server at Mel’s Burger Bar on the Upper East Side. One table was filled the whole night. Later, she saw the news that all restaurants in the city were being shut down, with delivery and takeout the only options for diners. And then the email from her boss.

Gutleber quickly got practical. She listed her room for rent. She figures she has enough money to cover expenses this month, but not after that. If restaurants stay shuttered and none of the jobs she’s applied for at law firms and nonprofit groups (she has a degree in political science) pan out, she has a backup plan. She’ll get herself to Jacksonville, Fla., where her uncle has a spare room she can use.

And as much as she tries to keep a level head, she says, she sometimes feels panicky when she contemplates the future. “I’m trying to use time productively — it’s the perfect opportunity to sit down and maybe finally apply to law school,” she says. But studying for the LSATs isn’t as easy as cracking a book. “It’s hard to focus, when I’m thinking, ‘How am I going to pay rent?’ ” she says. “It’s easier to watch Netflix.”

Chad, 33, Brooklyn

Chad, a longtime waiter in Brooklyn who lost his job last weekend at a high-end farm-to-table restaurant, knows that he should be more worried. And he is, sometimes, like when he thinks about the small amount of money he has stashed in his bank account — enough to get by, but not for long. Or when he tried to apply for unemployment benefits this week and found that the government site had crashed.

But there’s something that a career of spending time with restaurant people he finds reassuring, even in unprecedented times. “In a weird way, it’s like we’ve been primed for this — we know how to take care of people, and not just because we know how to take care of our guests, but because our bosses have never taken care of us,” says Chad, who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used because he feared retaliation from restaurant management and others.

When workers in a restaurant need surgery, Chad says, they don’t turn to insurance companies. Most don’t have sick leave or vacation.“We collect cash in envelope that gets passed around,” he says. “It’s the built-in state of restaurants that we take care of each other because we’re the only ones who will.” What’s happening right now is bigger, he knows, with eateries from Seattle to Manhattan shuttered, and thousands of people are no longer able to work. He trusts that the efforts now will scale up.

Since his restaurant closed, he’s been in touch with various local groups trying to help industry people. He’s volunteered to make grocery runs for others who can’t leave their homes. He has a group of friends, all restaurant folks, who check in on one another every day. He’s looking into activism aimed at prodding public officials to help people with overdue rents.

He fears that when restaurants eventually get the green light to reopen, not all of them will, and he and many others might have a hard time finding good jobs. Until there’s even a possibility of returning to work, he’s relying on his community.

“I’m hoping I can make it through on food stamps and hoping the city government will do something to address rent,” he says. “If the worst happens … I can’t go there yet. I have to take it as comes.”

Arlena Bain, 28, Menlo Park, Calif.

On Sunday, Bain, who worked as a cashier at the Wahlburgers location in Palo Alto, got a text from her manager. It was bad news: He would try to find her and her boyfriend, who worked as a server, some hours to work, but there were no shifts.  Business had been slow for days, she said, and when the restaurant moved to takeout only, work dried up. “Basically, he told everyone to file for unemployment,” she says.

Bain and her boyfriend, Alex, have a roof over their heads; they live in the Menlo Park house where she grew up, where her grandmother pays most of the bills. But she feels guilty that she won’t be able to contribute by buying food and groceries, like she usually does. She spent much of the last of her money stocking up on necessities for the household, which also includes her 94-year-old great-grandmother, her grandparents, 80 and 75, her sister and her sister’s child.

She’s applied for unemployment and is planning to look into food stamps. She tried calling Chase bank to see if she could get an extension on her car payment, but the wait to speak to a representative was too long. She worries about her elderly relatives getting sick.

Unemployment is just the latest blow for Bain and Alex: They recently had to sell the RV they were living in on her grandmother’s property because it violated a city ordinance. Facing fines, they took a loss on the sale. “We just recovered from that —  and now this,” she says.

Still, she’s grateful that so far, everyone in her family is healthy and that they, unlike others, have enough food to get by. She even said she made a fettuccine Alfredo the other night that was a hit. “I’m incredibly anxious, but I’m trying to see the bright side,” she says.

Gary Smith, 46, and Sharyce “Reesey” McElvane, 37, Lanham, Md. 

Usually, McElvane considers herself the optimist of the couple, who have this month suffered a double-whammy of layoffs. They both lost their bar-management jobs at the Rock and Roll Hotel on H Street when it closed March 2, and he lost his second job the following week when U Street Music Hall shuttered as the coronavirus prompted concert cancellations.

In normal times, she’s the one pointing out silver linings and writing songs while Smith absorbs himself with gloomy news cycles. But last week, she says, she fell into a funk that lasted for days. She didn’t feel like going to the grocery store with Smith, something they usually enjoy doing together, or even getting out of bed.

And so Smith had no choice but to play the role of the cheerful one. “It was either give up or keep striving,” he says. She says he’s the reason she’s still standing.

Right now, their home is a hotel room in Lanham they found on, with a front-desk staff they’ve made friends with and a weekly rent that they’re not sure how much longer they can keep up. The couple had to resort to renting rooms when a friend’s death late last year meant they lost the room they had been renting in his home.

Both are looking for work, but prospects are few. When they lost their jobs at the Rock and Roll Hotel, McElvane posted about it on a hospitality industry Facebook page. Interview opportunities quickly came her way — only to evaporate even more swiftly as the coronavirus wreaked its havoc. “I was supposed to have two interviews yesterday,” she says.

Smith’s new mantra is to focus on the things that will help. So they spend time with their eight children, ages 12 to 25, all from previous relationships, when they can. He’s going to figure out the morass of unemployment benefits. And McElvane has rediscovered her glass-half-full attitude — not just for herself, but for an entire industry. She sees herself running another bar someday, maybe even her own. “We’ll come through this,” she says. “And maybe we can all start to rebuild things we didn’t even know were broken — unemployment and sick leave and all the things that can help us all.”

Lyn Holland, 47, Washington 

Holland has spent much of the past 20 years behind one bar or another, serving cocktails and befriending regulars. Now she isn’t working at all: Both places she bartended, 3 Stars Brewing Company and Beau Thai, have shifted to takeout and delivery only. And that has her feeling out of place.

“The word I used the other day was ‘discombobulated,” says the Britain native, who moved to the Adams Morgan neighborhood in 1999 and hasn’t left. “It’s weird not to have anywhere to be, and there’s only so much cleaning you can do, or at least only so much you want to do.”

Her employers are trying to help out, she says. Beau Thai is offering laid-off employees three staff meals a day. “There’s a lot of rallying around.”

She counts herself luckier than most. Her partner is a chef in Virginia, where restaurants haven’t shuttered as they have in the District and Maryland, so there’s one paycheck coming in — for now. She has a small rainy-day fund and credit cards to float them if things get bad. They have health insurance, whose high co-pays she can’t believe.

To fill the time, she has offered to take care of friends’ children, but no one is taking her up on it —  they’re all home, too. A friend gave her 10 books last week, and there’s Netflix. Amid the anxiety, she has found comfort in small offers from people she hardly knows. A woman who participates in the plant swap she organizes knitted her a plant holder with a baby sloth stitched into it. Another guy from the plant swap offered to Venmo her some cash. When she protested that he hardly knew her, his response was that she was a plant person, so it was okay.

Though she’s being careful with expenses, she and her partner are planning to spend his next day off getting takeout from the mom-and-pop places around their apartment. Maybe it will help them stay in business, too, she thinks. “We’re all in this thing,” she says. “That’s a small reassurance.”

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