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Monday, April 27, 2020

Not All Service Industry Pros Eager to Return to the Job

Posted By on Mon, Apr 27, 2020 at 10:59 AM

  • Ohio Restaurant Association
Later today, Governor DeWine is expected to announce his plans to reopen the state’s economy. While owners like Tony George are urging nothing short of a "full-fledged" reopening of businesses, such as his many restaurants, employees who staff those restaurants – bussers, servers, bartenders and cooks – are rightfully concerned about safety and the ability to earn a decent wage in this dubious climate.

Many Ohio service industry employees are being asked to trade the security and consistency of unemployment benefits for a job that comes with inconsistent hours, uncertain wages, inherent health risks and the very real chance of shutting down again in the likelihood that an employee or guest tests positive for COVID-19. (George, incidentally, told a state task force that people who refuse to immediately return to work should have their benefits cut.)

As Dan Herbst finalizes plans to restart Cleveland Bagel, which has been closed since mid-March, he has been reaching out to employees in an attempt to re-staff the business. What he’s finding is that a majority of those people are not ready to do so.

“Out of a staff of 30 people, only seven said they were willing to come back right now,” Herbst admits. “Some are terrified, or if their situation is better on unemployment they don’t want to come back to work part-time. And who knows what’s going to happen with this virus. They might shut everything down again in a month or two.”

Nobody is more eager to return to work than Amanda Okin, a veteran service professional who has earned enviable wages while working at fine-dining establishments like Lola, Red, Luca and others. At present, however, she doesn’t have much confidence that the income will be there for her if and when she returns.

“Are we still going to be making the money we are used to,” she wonders. “No bar stools, taking temps before seating people, no more than four at a table… Who’s going to come out and ‘enjoy’ themselves?”

If the guidelines set forth by the Ohio Restaurant Association are any indication of what staff and customers can expect at restaurants as they transition from carry-out and delivery only to full-service dining, we can look forward to facial coverings, health screenings, strict social distancing and capacity guidelines.

Large private parties (think bountiful pharmaceutical lunches, wine-soaked rehearsal dinners) often make or break a restaurant’s bottom line. Given the likelihood of group-size limits, restaurants and service staffs can kiss those dollars goodbye.

“The already super-competitive industry just got a lot harder to navigate,” says sous chef George Callas, who believes that smaller, trimmer staffs will be the model for months to come. “Most places in Cleveland depend on the busy summers and increased foot traffic to get through slow winters. Sit-down dining will not be worth the risk to most so there's lesser need for front of house or even hourly employees. Staggered shifts and small staffing will become the norm. Staffing will become an issue because I predict most will be scared to work.”

That fear – of contracting COVID-19, or transmitting it to family and/or friends – is very real, and simply not worth the risk for many employees.

Dan Garcia, a familiar face behind the bar at places like Ohio City Galley and Bakersfield, is not rushing to return to the restaurant world he left behind just weeks ago. For him, the benefits do not come close to balancing out the risks.

“I wouldn't [return] – for health reasons and financial reasons,” he explains. “With unemployment and the supplemental income, I'm making about what I was making bartending with tips. There's no way I would make that much if I went back to work now, which would put me back on bills. And the obvious health implications. Just because I have on a mask and gloves, doesn't guarantee my safety; I'd still be in a building for eight hours with multiple people coming in and out.”

Toss in additional financial burdens like supplying one’s own PPE – not to mention health insurance, which often is not provided by small-business owners – and the decision-making process grows increasingly difficult.

“Going back work is a worry for me because I'm expecting my first child in early July,” notes Callas. “I don't want to inadvertently get them sick or anyone else. Being at home for the past 30-plus days gives you so much time to think of every possible scenario.”

Ohioans have done a great job of flattening the curve, but what happens as the weather warms up, people begin traveling across state borders in larger numbers and those months of stay-at-home habits melt away.

“I understand the science and wanting to build your immune systems back up, but this will get out of hand and some people won’t take it seriously anymore and everything we have done in the past two months will be in vain when it spikes towards end of summer or fall or sooner,” states Okin. “Then holiday season is here and we are all shut down again.”

The hope by many in this hard-working industry is that a slow, thoughtful start – as opposed to a "full-fledged" reopening as demanded by some restaurant owners – will pave the way for a more robust and economically viable future for the folks who shoulder the load at those eateries.

“I understand that unemployment will run out and end, but the hope is that the state of the world has stabilized a bit more to accommodate people actually going out and for us to actually be able to make money doing what we do,” Garcia says.

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