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How Are Restaurant Workers Doing As 2020 Ends?

An employee wearing a mask and face shield bring coffee to customers at Eat At Joe's in Redondo Beach on December 1, 2020. (PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)
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The pandemic has put restaurant workers in an impossible situation.

The federal government has provided no targeted relief for the restaurant industry and much of the first round of PPP funding went to chain and publicly-owned restaurants. The state of California has issued guidelines on how to operate safely but no subsidies to help businesses do that. Los Angeles County offered $30,000 grants to 2,500 restaurant applicants and when the portal to apply for these grants opened, it crashed almost immediately because so many were applying. The city of Los Angeles has provided $800 payments but only for 4,000 out-of-work restaurant employees.

For the vast majority of people who work at restaurants, here's what that amounts to: zilch.

Since March, they've been bringing in a fraction of what they normally earn. With outdoor dining shuttered once again due to the spike in COVID-19 cases, the next few months look grim.

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We talked to people who work either front-of-house or back-of-house jobs at Southern California restaurants about what they're facing.

What Choice Do Workers Have?

Being classified as an "essential worker" doesn't always mean much. As many as 40% of employees at Los Angeles restaurants are undocumented, making them ineligible for unemployment although they often pay taxes through a TIN (tax ID number). Without their regular paycheck, undocumented restaurant workers often have to choose between staying home and earning nothing or going to work and risking their and their families' health — if they can even get hours.

For most people, this is no choice at all.

Luis Delgado, from Yalalag, Oaxaca, is a cook at Judi's Deli in Beverly Grove. The small cafe, which has never had outdoor dining, shifted exclusively to takeout and delivery in March. Since lockdown, Delgado has worked only 20 hours per week, down from the 45 he typically worked before the pandemic. In early December, Delgado tested positive for COVID-19. He has no idea where he contracted it, explaining that he has only been to work, the market and home.

"We don't have papers and it's hard for us to survive here right now," Delgado says. "Some of the people I know left to go back to Oaxaca, and it's even worse over there. [People here] don't know what to do right now. They don't have money to pay rent, to eat. It's always Latinos and Indigenous people that are working as cooks, dishwashers, busboys. We're such hard workers but with the pandemic, it's affecting us. So many people saved money for so many years but now it's gone and they have nothing."

Fortunately, Delgado's family and coworkers have all tested negative for coronavirus.

The Health Risks Of Going To Work

Among restaurant workers who are U.S. citizens and qualify for unemployment, opinions on the outdoor dining ban run the gamut. Some think it unfairly targets the restaurant industry while others believe it's a necessary measure to stop the spread of COVID-19. Overall, they skew toward feeling safer without outdoor dining.

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Gabriella Mlynarczyk, a bartender who most recently worked at Winsome in Los Feliz, supports the temporary halt to outdoor dining.

"I think we should just close everything down, get it over and done with. All of these piecemeal bits where [we say], 'Oh, we're gonna open for this and then close for that'... It's confusing and people don't know what they should be doing and when they should put the mask on. I feel for the staff who have had to go outside and have all these people surrounding them, potentially exposing them to the virus. Then, they go inside, potentially spreading it to people in the kitchen," Mlynarczyk says.

Even when restaurants do their best to create a safe environment, workers can come in contact with dozens of drivers for third-party delivery apps, who may or may not be adhering to best practices.

"We have so many Postmates drivers coming in and out," says Alex Chi, sous chef at Melrose Avenue pizzeria Ronan. "We get slammed with those orders. There's a stand [where they can collect the orders] but sometimes they come inside and we [have to say], 'Go wait outside!'"

Overall, Chi supports the outdoor dining ban — "I think patio dining should not be in L.A. right now," he says — but he also understands the hardships many restaurants face without that revenue stream.

"Thank God we're a pizza joint because everyone loves pizza. But if you're some other type of restaurant, it'd be kind of difficult. Especially a smaller mom-and-pop shop," Chi says.

Elyssa Phillips, a server at Osteria Mozza, expressed qualms about the uneven enforcement of outdoor activities and feels restaurants have been unjustly blamed for spreading the virus.

"If you're gonna shut it down, shut it all down," Phillips says. "But don't tell me that outdoor dining is scientifically [proven to] increase the spread of COVID. Because when I worked that last week [of service], the only people I waited on were two-tops. They were husbands and wives [who had] quarantined together. I wasn't waiting on groups of eight or 10. So don't tell me that restaurants are the cause. It's the people that are gathering together. You could play pickleball but you couldn't eat at Republique."

Even when outdoor dining was allowed, how many establishments were following the rules? Driving around L.A. during the summer, it was easy to spot restaurants and bars with improperly spaced tables, too many patrons and unmasked customers walking around in broad daylight.

When she was doing cocktail delivery this past summer, Mlynarczyk says, "I'd drive on Sunset Boulevard, for instance, so many [restaurants] had outdoor dining on their patios [or] on the street and there was no social distancing whatsoever. Nothing. Five or six people would be sitting outside next to another group of five or six people, and there's no space in between them."

At Ronan, which is located on a stretch of Melrose Avenue with several cafes and boutiques, Chi spotted people queuing up at nearby stores without maintaining six feet of distance.

"It's crazy to see some people... There's a sneaker shop right across the street and every morning there's a massive line of people and they're not six feet apart, at all," Chi says.

The Outdoor Dining Ban Backlash

Given how much money restaurateurs spent to create outdoor dining set-ups that adhere to L.A. County guidelines, it's not hard to understand why they're so frustrated by the outdoor dining ban.

In early December, Angela Marsden, who owns Pineapple Hill Saloon & Grill, noticed a TV production had set up a craft service table next door to her Sherman Oaks bar. She posted a video on Instagram voicing her anger about what seemed to her like a clear double-standard. Why were restaurants being forced to shut down outdoor dining while the She's All That reboot almost closed COVID-19 testing at Union Station?

It's a good question. Part of the answer is lobbyists.

When Gavin Newsom was outed for eating at the French Laundry back in November, one of his dinner companions was Jason Kinney, a lobbyist who represents Netflix, among other clients. Those kind of relationships help explain why California politicians at every level — state, regional and local — can, with a straight face, classify film and TV production as "critical infrastructure."

Marsden's clip went viral, drawing much deserved sympathy and $185,000 in donations for Pineapple Hill.

What you wouldn't know from watching the video is that unionized production contracts in the COVID era often require pandemic compliance officers to be on set so they can regulate proper mask-wearing and social distancing. Crew and cast members are also tested regularly. Those are the arguments representatives for the entertainment industry make when they claim production should be allowed to continue.

The L.A. County Department of Public Health doesn't completely agree. On December 24, the agency sent an email to its film industry contacts requesting they "strongly consider pausing work for a few weeks" amid the surge in COVID cases. But it's notable that the agency asked — rather than ordered — the entertainment industry to halt production.

For opponents of the outdoor dining ban, these situations add fuel to the fire.

On December 1, several protestors gathered outside the home of L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who had voted the week before to prohibit outdoor dining. Many of the protestors were not wearing masks, according to the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.

In the meantime, challenges to the outdoor dining ban are happening on the legal front. In early December, a judge overturned L.A. County's outdoor dining ban, ruling that it was enacted "arbitrarily." But this week, an appeals court ruled that the ban on outdoor dining can stay in place, at least until a hearing on February 10.

Even if the appeals court hadn't issued that ruling, the state of California's regional ban on outdoor dining supersedes the county one. That order is also being challenged in court.

Pineapple Hill owner Marsden recently filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the state-issued ban on outdoor dining.

Plus, there's a class action lawsuit demanding L.A. County reimburse dining establishments for the cost of liquor licenses, health permits, state tourism assessments and late charges. The argument is that if restaurants are following orders to shut down, why should they have to pay these fees?

In the meantime, some restaurant owners are flouting the ban on outdoor dining.

In Burbank, Tinhorn Flats owner Baret Lepejian has continued serving customers, both outdoors and indoors. In early December, Lepejian, who has posted anti-mask and pro-Donald Trump content on social media, told Eater LA that the Burbank Police Department doesn't plan to crack down on him. (Just before Christmas, five people got into a fight "fueled by differing political views," outside Tinhorn Flats, adding to the controversy swirling around the bar.)

Most recently, Italian restaurant La Scala, in Beverly Hills, gave patrons invitations to a potential New Year's Eve dinner — to be held inside. The invites read, "Welcome Back to the 20's Prohibition," and they urged diners who were interested in attending to, "Please keep this discreet, but tell all your friends."

After an outcry and a denouncement from Beverly Hills officials, the restaurant backpedaled and issued a lukewarm apology, claiming it was all a joke.

But on the other end of that potential New Year's Eve dinner were a bunch of servers who are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Depressed Wages And Increased Harassment

In addition to keeping up with changing health regulations while working fewer hours and making less money, servers routinely deal with hostile patrons who refuse to wear masks.

In late June, Hugo's Tacos in Atwater Village temporarily shut down after customers who were angry about the mask mandate screamed at and attacked their staff.

On December 29, police responded after approximately 50 anti-mask protestors tried to force their way into Erewhon, an upscale health food store in the Beverly Grove neighborhood.

Even when servers manage to police maskless customers, they often face repercussions — no tip.

Rooted in slavery, tipping has always been a discriminatory compensation system but the pandemic has exacerbated its inequities. New Deal-era legislation solidified the practice of allowing customers' tips, when combined with a sub-minimum wage, to add up to the federal minimum wage. In the 43 states that allow this practice, the hourly minimum wage for tipped workers can be as low as $2.13 per hour.

Even in California, which forbids the practice and requires employers to pay their workers a minimum living wage before tips, many servers still rely on tips to make ends meet. But they've had to cope with smaller, fewer, then no dine-in checks, and many customers haven't been tipping on takeout.

Before the latest round of layoffs at Winsome, Mlynarczyk had been making to-go deliveries. "I was delivering cocktails and people weren't tipping for delivery. I would say probably about 70% of the time we didn't get tips," Mlynarczyk says.

Although many customers are also dealing with financial difficulties, they often don't understand that their tips are the only thing keeping restaurant employees afloat during this pandemic.

Forced layoffs have meant increased responsibilities and lower pay for restaurant staffers who remain. On top of that, the pandemic may have increased sexual harassment, already a major problem in the restaurant industry.

According to a report issued by One Fair Wage in November, food service workers report a dramatic increase in sexual harassment. Already faced with a significant decline in tips, they fear that if they try to enforce safety protocols or speak out against sexual harassment by customers, they'll lose even more money.

Anyone who has ever worked any sort of service job can tell you the customer isn't always right. But during a pandemic, customer entitlement can endanger the lives of restaurant workers.

A Restaurant Industry Exodus?

COVID-19 shattered any notion of job security in what was already a volatile industry. Combined with the lack of meaningful financial assistance from the government, the future feels like exhausting and untenable for many people who once loved the grind of restaurant life.

"It's been a nightmare. After this past year, I don't ever want to go back to [working in] a restaurant again," Mlynarczyk says. She's not the only one.

From restaurateurs and chefs to servers and dishwashers, many of the people who make up the backbone of the hospitality industry are reconsidering if it's still where they want to be.

After coping with the lockdown in March, Hunter Pritchett, former chef-owner of Atrium in Los Feliz, faced the Bobcat Fire in the hills behind his Altadena home. In August, he also became a father, for the first time. Since leaving Atrium as a partner in September, he has found employment as a consultant in the restaurant industry — but not in the United States.

"[My employers] are setting up a ghost kitchen in Saudi Arabia, the first of its kind, with a very L.A.-centric concept," Pritchett says. "I just want some health insurance and enough money to support my family. Maybe some retirement benefits, so I'm not destitute. But right now, the industry is super sick, all the work is consolidated, and I think without assistance and any sort of unionization, it's really just showing how alone independent restaurants are."

We're Gonna Need A Bigger A Lifeboat

After months of gridlock, Congress finally passed its second stimulus bill just before Christmas.

It contains $900 billion of relief, including $300 weekly jobless benefits for 11 weeks, $600 stimulus checks (even if your spouse or parent is undocumented, unlike the first round), $285 billion in additional loans via the Paycheck Protection Program and $70 billion to fund vaccine distribution, contact tracing programs and other public health measures. An amendment to increase the $600 checks to $2,000 just passed the House but Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is doing his best to block it.

What the new stimulus doesn't contain is the RESTAURANTS Act, a bill pushed by the Independent Restaurant Coalition. It contains $120 billion in cash grants that restaurants could use to cover the difference between 2019 and 2020 revenues. The money could go toward essential expenses including payroll, benefits, mortgage, rent, utilities and bills from suppliers. In October, the House of Representatives approved the RESTAURANTS Act (for the second time!) and it has the support of 53 Senators, but the legislation has never made it to the Senate.

At least the latest iteration of the Paycheck Protection Program includes loans for 3.5 times the average monthly payroll costs for food services. The list of eligible expenses has also expanded to include mortgage, rent, operations and supplier costs. In the first PPP round, 75% of the loan had to go to payroll within eight weeks of acquiring the funds, without a restaurant owner knowing if their business could open back up or find enough employees. Plus, restaurants owned by publicly traded companies are now excluded.

These small victories don't do anything to rehire the 2 million restaurant workers who have lost their jobs since the pandemic started or the many others who have had their hours slashed. Restaurants need substantial help that targets the specific ways in which the pandemic has decimated the industry.

As winter settles in, restaurants in Southern California are in a holding pattern.

They're waiting for COVID case rates to go down, waiting for the outdoor dining ban to expire, waiting to see how the two Senate run-off elections in Georgia will play out, since they'll likely to determine whether an industry-specific relief bill gets passed. In the meantime, restaurant workers around the country are left out in the cold, and they deserve more support than they've been getting.

"I know other cooks and restaurant people just feel like we're being dicked around. They're not creating any sort of safety net for us... I don't know how long this can go on," Chi says.

Pritchett also has a bleak view of the industry in which he has spent his adult life.

"I don't have any prospects to go back into a standalone restaurant," he says. "I don't think it'll ever pay for my life, anymore. This has been a complete failure of the federal government, and it's gone on so long that people are now blaming the state, the county, the city, the health department. We've flat out given up on the federal because they've given up on everybody."

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