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Facing Mass Layoffs, Restaurant Workers Living “Tip to Mouth” Demand Living Wage & Paid Sick Leave

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Mass shutdowns and layoffs due to the spread of COVID-19 are affecting millions of restaurant workers across the U.S., with bars and restaurants closing for the foreseeable future. Servers, bartenders, kitchen staff and more have been left in the lurch, many without paid sick leave, paid time off or benefits. One study estimated 4 million restaurant workers in the U.S. are at risk of losing their jobs in a matter of weeks. For more on the impacts on service workers, we speak with Saru Jayaraman, the co-founder of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and president of One Fair Wage, which has launched an emergency fund to support workers during this time. We also speak with Damani Varnado, a restaurant worker who has worked in catering, fine dining and cocktailing for the past 20 years in New York City. He was working at the restaurant Tiny’s & The Bar Upstairs when the whole staff was let go during the coronavirus pandemic. The coronavirus outbreak is a “devastating” blow to an industry that had “severe structural inequality problems that existed long before this crisis,” Saru Jayaraman says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to look at how the mass shutdowns and layoffs due to the spread of COVID-19 are affecting millions of restaurant workers across the United States. With cities across the U.S. going dark, bars and restaurants closed for the foreseeable future, servers, bartenders, kitchen staff and more have been left in the lurch, many without paid sick leave, paid time off or benefits. One study estimates 4 million restaurant workers in the U.S. are at risk of losing their jobs in a matter of weeks. Many were already living paycheck to paycheck. This is India John, a server at The Chocolate Bar in Cleveland, Ohio, which has closed due to the coronavirus.

INDIA JOHN: I’m kind of upset about the closing, because of rent and financials, and I know that we all have families to take care of and things like that. I do want us to all be safe and healthy, but I’m really concerned about how I’m going to pay my bills.

AMY GOODMAN: Nearly one in five households have already experienced a layoff or work reduction due to the pandemic, according to a new PBS/NPR/Marist poll. As many hope for desperately needed federal assistance, the Senate is set to take up a significantly weakened emergency coronavirus bill the House passed Monday night. The bill had already exempted employers with more than 500 workers, such as megacorporations like McDonald’s and Amazon, only protecting 20% of workers in the private sector. Now it’s expected to leave out even more workers, including millions who work for small businesses. The Reverend Dr. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign tweeted, “Congress must go back & pass another bill that covers all workers. They cannot leave out millions by exempting some low-wage workers from paid sick leave. These workers will not be exempted from the disease.”

This comes as the Trump administration said Tuesday it will support a plan to inject more than a trillion dollars into the U.S. economy to fight the unprecedented drop in economic activity. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the stimulus package would rapidly deliver a $1,000 check to most American adults, with more direct payments likely to come in the months ahead.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. From California, by Democracy Now! video stream in Berkeley, Saru Jayaraman is with us, the co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, president of One Fair Wage and director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley. We are also joined in New York by a laid-off worker, by Damani Varnado, restaurant worker in catering, fine dining, cocktailing for the past 20 years. He was working at Tiny’s & The Bar Upstairs when the whole staff was let go during the coronavirus epidemic.

Saru, let’s start with you. Give us the scope of the problem and what’s happening now. I mean, we’re talking to you in Berkeley. San Francisco, 7 million people are just sheltering in site right now.

SARU JAYARAMAN: Yeah, and I think that we are at just the tip of the iceberg. I think we’re going to see this happen nationwide. You mentioned that as many as 4 or 5 million workers are at risk of being laid off in the restaurant industry. I think it’s much higher than that. The restaurant industry is nearing 14 million workers nationally. And I think that you’re going to see a very large percentage of those workers at risk of being laid off as more of the country follows the Bay Area with shelter in place.

And that is devastating, because this industry had severe structural inequality problems that existed long before this crisis. In particular, this industry, unlike almost every other industry, was allowed to pay a subminimum wage to its tipped workers, forcing them to live off of tips. That’s an actual literal legacy of slavery and a source of terrible sexual harassment for a mostly female workforce of servers and bartenders and bussers. Now, think about that workforce when it’s laid off. First of all, there have been very little tips in the last few weeks leading up to shutdowns. And so, already people were struggling. With layoff, people have been living, I call it literally, tip to mouth. They got tips on Friday. They were laid off over the weekend. They can’t feed their kids on Monday.

We started a relief fund for these workers Monday morning at 9:30. We’ve had almost 15,000 workers apply for relief in just over a 24-hour period. And that’s because most of these workers aren’t going to qualify for any kind of unemployment benefits or paid sick leave, as you mentioned. Paid sick leave wouldn’t last long enough anyway. But even if they do qualify, even if they are eligible [inaudible] the subminimum wage and a very poor or rough calculation of tips. I mean, unemployment insurance is already a percentage of your income. For subminimum-wage restaurant workers, you’re talking about a percentage of a percentage of your income. There was a problem that existed before this crisis, that is now exemplifying why we needed $15, one fair wage, much more sustainable industry, long before the crisis hit.

AMY GOODMAN: So what exactly are you pushing for, Saru Jayaraman?

SARU JAYARAMAN: We’re pushing for multiple things in this moment and long term. Right now we are pushing for that unemployment benefits actually measure — provide some buffer, particularly for tipped workers, that they overcompensate for the fact that really the government has no clear idea of how much these workers actually earned in tips. So we want to see a better calculation of unemployment benefits, number one. Absolutely, paid sick leave, covering all industries, all workers, and better paid family leave, as well.

In terms of relief for businesses, we would like to see targeted relief along the lines of what Senator Warren called for, basically, targeted relief for businesses that are willing to move to a sustainable model post-crisis. Let’s encourage businesses post-crisis — let’s support businesses to stay with us through the crisis and to move to a better model post-crisis, so that we are not in the same boat afterward. So that would look like tax and rent abatements for small businesses that are willing to commit to going to $15 and one fair wage after the crisis. We don’t want to see this industry stuck through the crisis, only at the end of it with large chains surviving, because they’re the ones that are able to weather the crisis. We don’t want to see small businesses go out of business as a result of the crisis. But we do want to see businesses encouraged through this crisis, supported through this crisis, that are willing to make a commitment to change, because, clearly, the crisis is highlighting why we needed that change in the first place.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to turn to a comment of Robert Reich, who said — earlier this week, he tweeted, “McDonald’s Burger King Pizza Hut Duncan Donuts Wendy’s Taco Bell Subway None give their workers paid sick leave. They should be required to post this sign on their doors: 'Because we don't give our workers paid sick leave, they may be sick when they serve you.’” That was Robert Reich, the former labor secretary. Saru, you retweeted his message. Talk about this. For people to understand, as the White House talks out bailing out the economy, who is being bailed out, and who isn’t? And are there strings being put on these bailouts to ensure that their workers are protected? When they say they’re bailing out the airline industry to the tune of $50 billion, are the airline flight attendants, are the workers on the planes, etc., are they being protected? But you stick with what you know, the restaurant workers and these large corporations.

SARU JAYARAMAN: No, absolutely. That’s exactly my point. There is talk of very large bailout and, in some cases, funding already going to very large restaurant corporations, that — many of whom have been taken over by hedge funds, so this is Wall Street controlling very large restaurant corporations. They are seeing potential large subsidies, tax subsidies, incentives. There is talk also of support even for smaller businesses, but we haven’t seen it yet. Meanwhile, these same large businesses are not being forced to provide their workers with paid leave, and not being called on, when receiving these bailouts, to move to higher wages, that we know would have staved off the kind of dire situation we’re seeing right now among millions of workers, had they been forced to pay livable wages and provide paid sick leave prior.

And so, what we need is not mass bailouts of an industry with absolutely no strings attached or requirements for workers. What we need is relief for an industry that encourages — or requires, actually — moving to livable wages, moving to what we call one fair wage, a full minimum wage with tips on top, as we have here in California, and paid sick leave, and paid sick leave because 90% of workers across the country don’t have the ability to take a day off when they are sick. Two-thirds reported that they worked when sick before coronavirus. You know, yes, a lot of workers are going to be laid off, and so paid leave is not going to be as relevant for them, but think about all the delivery workers that are continuing to work. Do we want them to work when they are sick? No. We need to see paid leave apply to everybody. We need companies to be forced to pay livable wages, if they’re going to get any kind of relief from the government.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Damani Varnado into this conversation, longtime New York City restaurant worker. He right now is in another studio in New York City, so we can maintain our social distance and keep our workplaces safe. But it’s good to have you with us, Damani.

DAMANI VARNADO: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what happened to you? We only have a few minutes. You were just laid off from a place in Tribeca?

DAMANI VARNADO: Yeah, I can tell you the short about it is. We were down in Tribeca. Tribeca is a pool of money. There’s a lot of influence down there from Wall Street to families to smaller businesses to basically tourists coming in. I’d say that the pandemic started about a month ago, and we noticed when Europe was starting to close restaurants and businesses, and people were getting scared. That’s when we started noticing a reduction in the customers that were coming in. We started to slowly reduce shifts right then and there. And then, I’d say, within about 72 hours, we not only lost our shifts but were told that we were going to be closing the business.

The business was nice enough to send us an email to say that they’re definitely going to be rehiring us when this is over, but that is an indefinite amount of time that no one can quite speak to. So, we’ve been devastated. And I say “devastated” not just for front of the house. Back of the house, immigrants that were working without any kind of legal status, they have no rights to unemployment benefits, which were already skewed off by, as Saru said, a percentage of what we would have actually been making as what will be adjusted for unemployment benefits, that many of us that were working part-time may not even be eligible for. So, I think the crisis —

AMY GOODMAN: Do you get unemployment benefits, Damani?

DAMANI VARNADO: I have applied for them, but I have not — a decision hasn’t been made right now, because the system continues to crash, because everyone in New York City is unemployed right now, not just — you know, the crisis has made everyone stop working, so…

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about what you’re most worried about right now, with what people will turn to if they can’t get financial support?

DAMANI VARNADO: I think that people are going to turn to resourcing food banks, human resources, social services. But I feel like when that is full, I think that people are going to start needing to move in together to reduce their living costs. I think that people are going to think more about shared kitchens for feeding their families. I think that restaurants right now should be thinking about, the food that is in their refrigerators right now should be donated to all food pantries, because there’s no one in the restaurants eating them, and there’s not enough takeout orders that are going to work right now to get —

AMY GOODMAN: And if people get really desperate?

DAMANI VARNADO: I think if people really get desperate, I think it’s going to be very similar to the Depression. People are going to be out in the streets in lines waiting for soup and bread, because there’s no money to go around the city.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Saru Jayaraman, what kind of organizing are you doing? I mean, we’re talking about people — I mean, you shelter in place, the whole San Francisco area, 7 million people. It looks like it’s coming to New York, as well. How do you organize in a crisis like this?

SARU JAYARAMAN: Well, as I mentioned, we launched this One Fair Wage emergency fund Monday morning. We’ve been raising money and doling out cash assistance to workers. But for every single worker that signs up, we’re doing a one-on-one, a one-hour conversation, talking to them about their needs, their situation, why are we in this to begin with, and why we need to vote. We’re signing people up to vote, as we talk to them and to screen them to send out the checks. So, it is a very strange and crazy and dystopian moment. The stories that are coming in of these 15,000 workers that have already applied are heartbreaking. You know, “I lost my job on Friday. I cannot feed my three children. I have children with developmental disabilities. I have children with illness. I don’t know how I’m going to feed them or take care of them. I really don’t know how I’m going to pay my rent to keep a roof over my head.”

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, Saru. I want to thank you so much for being with us. And be safe. Saru Jayaraman, with the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, One Fair Wage. Also joining us from New York, Damani Varnado, longtime New York restaurant worker who was just laid off.

That does it for our show. A huge thanks to our staff. Thank you so much to Julie Crosby, Miriam Barnard, Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Nermeen Shaikh, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Denis Moynihan, Libby Rainey, Sam Alcoff, John Hamilton. I’m Amy Goodman.

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