What to Do When You've Been Laid Off from Your Service Job

A growing list of government programs and crowdsourced funding for service industry workers amid COVID-19.

What to do if you've been laid off from your restaurant job due to coronavirus
Photo: Jetta Productions / Walter Hodges / Getty Images

Note: The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Food & Wine is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

If you’re one of nearly 14 million restaurant workers around the country, many of whom are out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic, you’re not alone. We have resources to help you navigate this unprecedented time.

The past 72 hours have seen an outpouring of financial support from national organizations like One Fair Wage, Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, United States Bartenders Guild, and Children of Restaurant Employees. All of them are offering some sort of grants or emergency assistance—more on how to apply for those below. On top of that, there have been countless regional efforts like the Seattle Emergency Hospitality Fund and D.C.-based Hook Hall Helps, that have been created to support local communities. (For more relief funds around the country, see our roundup here.)

As the crisis has proven, these are all Band-Aids on a deeply structural problem. Governmental safety nets like unemployment, disability insurance, and paid family leave are skeletal at best. And employees are scrambling.

One laid-off hospitality worker in New York wrote on Twitter, “I have my last paycheck and...that's it. That's everything I have.” Another laid-off worker in Portland described picking up her last check, along with food from the closing restaurant. “Today we picked up our final checks,” she wrote. “We are all laid off & are eligible for #Unemployment. Our GM & Chef/Owner set up the dining room like a grocery store so we could walk around & take food home.”

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For many, however, unemployment isn’t even an option. It doesn’t even apply to nearly half of restaurant workers in cities like L.A. and New York, who are undocumented, according to Saru Jayaraman, director of employee advocacy group One Fair Wage.

This list includes crowdsourced funds for documented and undocumented workers, as well as government funds.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps (U.S. Government)

Compared to unemployment claims, there’s less verification involved—meaning faster turnaround, hopefully. Find your state’s website and apply online.

Paid Family Leave (U.S. Government)

If you’ve had to care for an infected family member, you may be eligible for Paid Family Leave (PFL). Several states offer some version of PFL, with varying qualifications. Legal advocacy group A Better Balance offers a good summary of these benefits.

Unemployment (U.S. Government)

New York’s unemployment website actually crashed this week with the volume of applications it received; Governor Andrew Cuomo waived the one-week waiting period for people to register. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom did the same. Unemployment clearly has limitations for a largely tip-dependent workforce; furthermore, capped payouts ($450 per week in California, $504 per week in New York) will almost certainly fall short of prior incomes. Still, it doesn’t hurt to apply. Note that some states have instituted special guidelines given the rush of applications with COVID-19, advising people to apply within certain timeframes to not overload the website.

Disability Insurance (U.S. Government)

Even if you’re not eligible for unemployment, you may be eligible for disability insurance. It’s a short-term monthly stipend given by your state government if you have a physical or mental health condition that keeps you from working. This does not need to be related to coronavirus. You’ll need a sign-off from a medical professional (a doctor, a psychiatrist, etc.).

Crowdsourced National Resources

Sign up for One Fair Wage’s emergency fund, which plans to distribute $213 to every laid off service worker nationwide. They’ve gotten up to 50,000 applications so far, so know that this might take a while.

The Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation is raising money to distribute funds nationwide to service workers in need. Email covidhelp@restaurantworkerscf.org to express interest.

If you’re a bartender anywhere in the country, you can apply to the United States Bartenders Guild’s emergency grant. Children and spouses of bartenders are also eligible to apply. (Data analytics company SipScience just launched a GoFundMe to raise $100,000 for this cause.)

Children of Restaurant Employees has resources to help, although it’s unclear the quantity and availability of these grants. Email Kristen@coregives.org for more information.

Regional Resources

If you’re based in NYC, Rethink Food is hiring laid-off culinary workers.

The Seattle Hospitality Emergency Fund is currently trying to raise $150,000 to distribute to the city’s workers. Unfortunately, as of this writing, it is no longer taking applications. However, organizer Jessica Tousignant has assured the public that this is only temporary.

In Washington D.C., Hook Hall Helps is raising funds and distributing care kits in conjunction with Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington.

In Los Angeles, restaurants currently partnering with mobile app Off the Menu will be receiving funds from their GoFundMe. Click the link for partner restaurants.

Read more: Chefs Launch Petition Urging Government to Help Restaurants and Bars

Also in L.A., Nancy Silverton’s Mozza will be functioning as a makeshift resource center for laid-off restaurant employees, nightly from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.. Workers can grab to-go dinners as well as basic supplies like toilet paper, Tylenol, and diapers. Must show paperwork to prove that they were recently employed with a restaurant. More details here.

In California, the California Restaurant Foundation is offering assistance only to workers who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or those who have been quarantined with a doctor’s note. Given the difficulty and expense of getting tested in the first place, or accessing any type of medical care for most restaurant employees, this is nominal at best.

Note: The Limitations of Government Aid and Crowdsourcing

As director at UC Berkeley’s Food Labor Research Center, Saru Jayaraman has talked to service industry employees all over America. And she estimates that a full 40% of the restaurant workforce—especially in cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco—are undocumented, rendering them ineligible for unemployment and other vital governmental benefits.

“When I say undocumented, an immediate image comes to peoples’ minds,” she says. “They’re thinking brown [people], dishwashers. And that’s so not true. They’re front-of-house and managers—I’ve met countless managers who are undocumented. And they’re from all over the world.” And all of them will receive zero government-related assistance. Even Trump’s proposed $1000 stimulus check—assuming it passes—is for citizens only.

What’s more, for the additional 30% of restaurant workers who do have legal status, seeking government assistance can be scary. “I talked just yesterday to a resident who said, ‘I’d never apply for unemployment benefits because it would jeopardize my application for permanent residency,’” she says.

Read more: New York Restaurant Creates Relief Fund for Undocumented Workers

That’s a full 70% of the restaurant workforce who cannot or will not apply for governmental aid. For those that do, the situation is still bleak. “We've got an even wider universe of people in our industry who won't be able to access unemployment insurance because they were part time or they didn't work long enough in the restaurant to access employment,” Jayaraman points out.

“We are literally the largest industry in America,” Jayaraman says. “The number two largest workforce in America and the lowest paid. People who are laid off on Saturday have no way to feed their kids on Monday. It is not sustainable.”

For those who are able to navigate crashing state government websites to claim their unemployment check, many will be way lower than they should be. In 43 out of 50 states, workers are not paid the same minimum wage that non-tipped workers are. And because the government still doesn’t have great methods of accounting for tips—much less factoring them into unemployment benefits—unemployment checks can be dishearteningly meager. “43 states have this absurd sub-minimum wage for tipped workers, as low as $2.13 an hour,” Jayaraman says. “What is the good of unemployment insurance based on that ridiculous sub-minimum wage?”

How to Lobby For Change

Jayaraman and others are lobbying for systemic change to go beyond crowdsourcing. Just as chefs and restaurateurs are currently petitioning for emergency employment benefits and rent abatement, One Fair Wage continues to fight for a basic minimum wage. Down the road, this higher wage will help restaurant workers be less dependent on tips, more immune to fluctuations in business, and better equipped to build personal savings. Sign the petition, and fill out their form to contact your legislator. They’re also looking for 1,000 volunteers, Jayaraman shares, and should have updates to their website on how to get involved.

Read more: It's Time to Demand Government Action to Save the Restaurant Industry

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