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Can food service workers climb out of the dishpit in the wake of COVID19?

Late on March 15 2020, Governor Jay Inslee released a new mandate on COVID-19 precautions. Bars were to close, restaurants would go to take-out service only and gatherings of over 50 people were banned. In King county, the effect took hold immediately and the rest of the state would wake to yet another change of scenery in the COVID-19 landscape.

Over the last few weeks, over 50 Seattle businesses have closed their doors. Most notably, 12 of 13 restaurants owned by renowned restaurateur Tom Douglas have closed, leaving 800 employees without work. With the new restrictions in place and an industry with razor thin margins, more closures are expected. Many smaller restaurants have little to no hope of re-opening.

On Capitol Hill, well-trafficked cafes have reduced hours significantly. Shops in the more outlier parts of the neighborhood have closed altogether. Local coffee roaster, Victrola, has reduced hours in several of their locations for the foreseeable future. Local bar and nightclub, the Rhino Room, was forced to close earlier in the month when Inslee instituted the 250-person gathering ban, as their over 1,000-person capacity was woefully out of compliance.

Many food service workers fall below the poverty line, especially those who work without tips to supplement their income. Seattle’s minimum wage usually hovers around $15 an hour, which still means that if you work 40 hours a week for 50 weeks out of the year you earn around $30,000. In a city where housing alone costs 93% more than the national average, many service workers hold multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet.

Liam, a bartender in the Central District, said, “My hourly wage isn’t nearly enough to cover the cost of living in Seattle. Bartenders by and large live off of their tips from alcohol sales, and without that kind of cash-flow we now work low-wage jobs without any kind of benefit whatsoever in regards to insurance or retirement.”

Though his employer found a way for him to work a few hours while the restaurant decides whether to close or not, his wages won’t compare to his normal wages with tips. “As of right now, myself and everyone I’ve spoken with has enough money for rent for the next month or two.” Beyond that, Liam and most of his fellow service workers seem not to have a safety net.

A front of house worker at Spinasse, an Italian restaurant on Capitol Hill, echoed a similar sentiment. “Spinasse is in an unusual position for the restaurant industry in that they are able to continue supporting us a little bit for the next two weeks even though we can’t work. That is a huge relief, but the future of any kind of direct service provision is so uncertain that it is still a bit anxiety-inducing to imagine paying bills in the future.” 

But even those who have small beacons to follow for the next few months are unsure of what lies ahead. Many service-work oriented Twitter accounts and Facebook groups, along with employers, have begun pointing people towards unemployment benefits. While some of these workers will meet the requirements, many will not. Washington state unemployment requires you to have worked at least 680 hours in their base year. Many of Seattle’s service employees split their time between 2 and sometimes 3 jobs. Many cafes and restaurants do not hire a lot of full-time staffers in an effort to keep overhead low. Because of this, workers are finding themselves being denied unemployment benefits even though they are now completely out of work.

The process has been slow for some, and many are still waiting to hear if their benefits will come at all. “It certainly shows the shortcomings of the system without this kind of emergency funding or allocations or whatever stimulus they’ve injected into it” Danny, who worked at the Runaway up until it shuttered under Inslee’s 250-person limit, said about his time trying to get access to unemployment benefits. 

Kary Wayson, who has worked at Tom Douglas restaurants, Palace Kitchen and Serious Pie, for a combined 15 years, said she had difficulty with the online unemployment application. When she called to address the issue she waited for two hours before talking “to someone about setting up a phone appointment with a specialist.” Then the specialist called an hour-and-a-half after the scheduled appointment time. Wayson will begin receiving benefits during the last week of the month. “They require that I look for work during this time,” she added. While a few inconveniences feel understandable in a world where thousands of laid-off workers apply for unemployment in the same week, the expectation that these same workers will seek employment as a condition of receiving benefits when the governor’s declared the state an emergency area and no restaurants are hiring feels surreal.

“A better option than just making unemployment accessible (given how much work it is for applicants and city employees) would be to make a moratorium on rents, mortgages, loans, evictions, and parking enforcement,” the Spinasse worker said. Liam’s thoughts echoed this sentiment. “I would like to see the city and the state cancel all rent and mortgage collection for the time the shutdown is in effect,” he said. “It is absolutely preposterous that working-class people are prevented from going to work and expected to continue to pay rent.”

The city of Seattle has begun to address some of the lingering concerns around the economic impact of COVID-19 on the city. On March 16, the Seattle City Council ratified the Eviction Moratorium presented by Mayor Jenny Durkan on March 3. The newly drafted memorandum extended the original moratorium from 30 to 60 days. It says that residential leases can not be voided, and the occupants of a property can not be kicked out unless the tenant poses “an imminent threat to the health or safety of neighbors, the landlord, or the tenant’s or landlord’s household members.” Those currently facing eviction can have their eviction hearing moved to a date after the moratorium has ended. 

But even though the city has begun to address these issues, concerns for the future of the hospitality and restaurant business abound. And people are beginning to question whether the income inequality rampant across a rapidly gentrified city is sustainable. The Spinasse server echoed that concern, “it is fundamentally problematic to tie people’s ability to have a place to live and food to eat to their employment. Many people outside of the service industries are able to work from home, so they are buffered from the experience a lot of folks are having right now.” 

As this crisis dips into the managed phase, what this city will look like, and who will continue to both live, work and thrive in it is yet to be seen. 

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