Welcome home, chickens

Less than two weeks ago, LEO staff writer Danielle Grady interviewed me for a piece about sick leave in the local hospitality industry. I was glad to help her because I was already writing a similar piece, but she got the assignment first, and it is an important subject. At that time, the buzz phrase going around was “if you feel sick, stay home,” and we discussed how that was really not workable for people who live paycheck to paycheck. It’s also frowned upon in kitchen culture — you come to work, no matter how shitty you feel or leave your co-workers in a lurch. That all seems rather quaint now.

Now, all the restaurants are closed to in-person diners. Many nimble owners, managers and chefs are recreating their businesses to provide curbside take-out, just to survive. To use up the product in their walk-ins that’s already paid for. But they’re doing it with tears in their eyes, because they’ve had to lay off virtually their entire staff. It doesn’t take that many people to provide curbside service; a cook or maybe two if you’re incredibly lucky to have enough take-out business to warrant it. A person to take orders to the curb and answer the phone. These duties are largely being performed by owners and salaried managers.

So, the next step for laid-off workers is to apply for unemployment benefits. Hopefully, most of you never have and never will have to apply for unemployment. Even at the best of times, it’s a bit labyrinthine. Your weekly benefit is 1.1923% of your earnings over the last four complete quarters before the current one.

A line cook with an extremely solid job over the last year (with no hiccups like a few weeks between jobs) will still receive less than $300 a week. Servers’ income is all over the place (some good weeks, some lean weeks). Those who’ve been underreporting their cash tips are royally screwed, because their benefit payments will end up based roughly on minimum wage (they’re actually only paid $2.13 an hour before tips, but their employers are required to make up the gap if they clear less than the federal minimum of $7.25). This hypothetical server will receive $166 a week.

Have you ever tried to live on $166 a week, minus taxes? Sure, restaurant workers are largely fringe-dwellers without 401ks, without dental insurance and little to no health insurance. We have addiction problems. We have mental health problems. Anthony Bourdain famously compared a restaurant kitchen to a pirate ship.

But we’re a family. Hilariously, we’ve all been telling each other for years that this industry provides job security like no other because “people have to eat — even in an apocalypse!”I guess we chose the wrong apocalypse.

The local restaurant community is ramping up assistance programs. APRON, the nonprofit organization that has for the last nine years helped cooks and servers with temporary financial relief, is ready to step into the breach, but their coffers will likely be drained quickly. Chef Edward Lee’s The LEE Initiative, in cooperation with Maker’s Mark, is providing to-go meals directly to effected restaurant workers who have lost or been laid off from their jobs.

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Please donate to these organizations. Yes, buy take-out food and gift certificates from local restaurants, but remember, these efforts are to try to ensure that some of those spots will be able to open back up when the social distancing mandate is lifted.

Many restaurants will never open their doors again. But the laid-off workers need direct help and quickly. A payroll tax holiday doesn’t mean anything to someone who’s not getting a paycheck.

Addiction will rear its ugly head again for those who thought they had beaten it. Don’t ask how an addict will get the money for drugs — they’ll find a way. And the liquor stores are still open. There will be suicides born of financial desperation and despair for the future.

How is it that we’ve allowed the minimum wage to stagnate for over 10 years? How is it that a society is OK with servers making less than $2.50 an hour and having to hustle on the edge of financial ruin for the rest of their livelihood? Why doesn’t everyone have health insurance?

Now all these chickens are coming home to roost at the same time, and the coop can’t hold them all.

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, Café Lou Lou, Marketplace @ Theater Square, Fontleroy’s and Harvest.

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