- The Washington Times
Friday, March 20, 2020

For Maddy Rowland, the pink slip came Thursday evening. But the coronavirus pandemic made it seem Friday as if most of the nation’s 15.6 million restaurant workers had already received one or were expecting one.

“They told us at first we’d play it by ear, but last week it was really slow the whole week,” said Ms. Rowland, a server at Tsunami, an upscale sushi chain with three locations in southern Louisiana. “Then yesterday, they terminated us. They said they knew take out was not really much work for us.”

Ms. Rowland is 21 and a December graduate of Louisiana State University. And now she is one of millions of restaurant workers who will be out of work at least temporarily as the coronavirus mandates closures or restrictions on groups.

Dine-in closures have been ordered in 36 states and the District of Columbia, while three more states have put new restaurant restrictions in place, according to figures kept by Restaurant Opportunities Centers-United, a left-wing activist group headquartered in New York City. In New York alone, some 500,000 restaurant workers will be out of work by the end of the month, ROC-United estimated.

“Economically, we are anticipating sales to decline by $225 billion during the next three months, which will prompt the loss of between five and seven million jobs,” the National Restaurant Association said in a letter sent Wednesday to President Trump and key lawmakers.

One of those fearful of such an outcome is James Conway, 63, who is a server at an Olive Garden outside Pittsburgh.

“I’ve been a restaurant worker all my life and there’s really no other restaurant jobs out there to get,” Mr. Conway said. “I’m just hoping that the unemployment insurance comes through quickly.”

While ROC-United ripped big national chains such as Applebees and IHOP in a conference call Friday, Ms. Rowland said she believed her employer had done all it could to keep its roughly 25 employees at work.

“They’re doing everything they can to help us,” she said. “But for now I applied for unemployment yesterday, and a bartenders emergency assistance program, which is open to people with Louisiana bar cards.”

Workers who find themselves — or with slashed hours — must navigate a complicated field of state and federal assistance programs, from straightforward unemployment checks to the possibility of help with rent from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But for those living paycheck to paycheck, as many in the sector do, every bit helps.

“My pay rate started at $2.83 per hour plus tips — and now, after 16 years, I get $2.83 per hour plus tips,” Mr. Conway said.

Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse and other national chains, has been more attentive to employees’ needs than other chains, according to activists, including offering paid sick days and emergency pay.

“While I applaud both these gestures, they both come in the last week in response to the pandemic, and I think we all know this crisis will extend beyond two weeks,” Mr. Conway said, noting he will receive two weeks’ emergency pay.

ROC-United announced its own microloan program, which offers $100 to $300 cash to unemployed restaurant workers, although the advocacy group said preference would be given to undocumented workers, parents and those who must care for elderly or sick family. As of Friday, it had taken in $115,000, said Teofilo Reyes, a ROC-United deputy director.

One of those benefiting from that is Portia Green, who is raising her 13-year-old daughter in Harlem through catering — work that has come to a complete stop in New York.

“Like the majority of restaurant workers, I don’t have paid sick days and paid leave benefits,” Ms. Green said. “In order to survive during this coronavirus crisis, I have no choice but to apply for public assistance such as food stamps and unemployment benefits.”

Congress has been grappling with such assistance packages since the virus that first infected Wuhan, China, spread around the world. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed by Congress and signed by President Trump this week applies to workers “subject to a mandated quarantine or isolation order.”

The law requires employees to receive up to 10 days paid sick leave because of coronavirus, with full pay if they are sick, and up to ⅔ pay if it is to care for a sick family member or children.

While acknowledging the act is “an important first step,” activists said Friday the government must do more, including eliminating carveouts for businesses with more than 500 or less than 50 workers, although the New York legislature passed a law raising the floor to 100 workers.

At the moment, Ms. Rowland remains hopeful Tsunami will reopen soon.

“I’ve got grandparents and parents who are helping,” she said, “but it’s still going to hurt.”

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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