Troll Pub bartender Dionna Warfield-King had four cents in her bank account after paying rent.
And after Gov. Andy Beshear announced all restaurants and bars were to shut down dining rooms on March 16 due to continued fear over the coronavirus pandemic, she was among thousands of Louisville-area service industry workers who panicked.
“I don’t know how I will eat,” she said. “I don’t know how I will keep my apartment, my car, the gas to go in my car. I don’t know.”
There are more than 200,000 restaurant and food service jobs in Kentucky, according to 2018 data from the National Restaurant Association. Not everyone earns the same wage — but with the federal food service wage set at $2.13 an hour and many employees surviving on tips, a restaurant shutdown could be catastrophic.
Restaurants can still operate for takeout and delivery, but they’re doing so with skeleton crews, if at all. In the service industry, many employees live paycheck to paycheck and depend on tips and consistent hours to make their rent.
Anya Decius, a single mother who works two restaurant jobs at Captain’s Quarters and SOU!, said that hours have been cut severely as the restaurants shift to takeout-only model to practice “social distancing” in an effort to combat a growing number of coronavirus cases that cause COVID-19.
“At the end of the day, the service industry was something you could always go to,” she said. “To lose something like that, a staple across the world is really crippling and scary to think about.”
Continuing to support local restaurants via takeout is something Louisville Metro Councilman Bill Hollander, a Democrat whose district includes Frankfort Avenue’s restaurant-heavy corridor, said is important to do to support the people most at risk by taking actions to protect “all of us.”
“No one is invincible, and everyone can spread the virus in close quarters,” Hollander said Monday. “These are extraordinarily difficult decisions, but I trust the public health experts and support the governor.”
In posts about two announced restaurant closures last night, Hollander praised the decision-making as “early and difficult decisions” that “show great leadership.”
Maddie Rogers, an employee at a Buffalo Wild Wings, said it took hours to find out what was happening at work after the governor’s announcement.
“It’s a serious slap in the face, for one,” Rogers said. “And for two, now we’re all concerned about our income. In some cities, they cut the capacity of restaurants instead of closing them altogether. I wish we could have done that before taking such extreme measures.”
Christi Penick, an employee at a Longhorn Steakhouse and single mother of three, said she normally makes between $600 and $800 a week. Last week, income was less than $200. Now, she doesn’t know how she’s going to feed her family.
An employee at Joe’s Crab Shack, Kristi Stewart, said that while her family will probably be OK, most service employees are completely lost on what to do next.
“I spent eight hours on Facebook today helping answer questions and posting any information I can find,” Stewart said. “These people are terrified and rightly so. The average age of a person in the industry is around 24 to 28. They have not had to face issues like this.”
Forget living paycheck to paycheck, Stewart said. The servers and bartenders she knows live shift to shift, day-to-day.
Stewart said when she lived in New Orleans weathering the Hurricane Katrina, at least they knew it was coming.
“There is no escape from the storm called Corona,” she said. “Its path is absolutely covering everywhere.”
On March 17, Stewart said unemployment office officials told her bartenders and servers would be getting $100 a week in unemployment benefits, but not until March 29. It equates to less than one shift of work.
In the unprecedented times for restaurants, some restaurant groups and owners have been getting creative with ways to help employees.
Lamar Cornett, an employee at 80/20 at Kaelin’s, said his chef is cooking a “family meal for staff every day at 4 p.m. with plenty for us to take home.” And an event is planned for March 23 — planned before the shutdown — to give 40% of sale profits that day to employees as a give-back.
“Despite all that, the team is scared,” he said. “Unemployment only does so much, and getting another job is a rough prospect because no one knows what the next thing to get shut down is going to be. It’s really hard to not freak all the way out right now.”
An employee at Recbar, 10301 Taylorsville Road, said the owners were trying to help employees find fill jobs in the meantime.
After Beshear announced the shutdown, Recbar shut down completely “to save as much money as possible so employees have jobs to return to in the coming weeks.”
The Lee Initiative, founded in 2018 by James Beard Award-winning Louisville chef Edward Lee and managing director Lindsay Ofcacek, launched a program this week to help those workers who are suddenly without a paycheck. In partnership with Maker’s Mark, Lee’s restaurant 610 Magnolia at 610 W. Magnolia Ave., is becoming a relief center for any restaurant worker who has been laid off or had a significant reduction in hours.
“Independent restaurants are at the center of the vibrant growth in America,” Lee wrote on the program’s Instagram account. “For the past decade, we have relied on the stellar hospitality and positive PR, now restaurant workers need your help more than ever. If we don’t take a stand and do something now, there will not be an independent restaurant industry to speak of when the coronavirus crisis is over.”
Tom O’Shea, co-owner of O’Shea’s Irish Pub, reportedly told employees he would try and employ them “one way or another” at an hourly rate for 40 hours a week.
“He said he’d work with us in small teams around the three locations,” said employee Erin Lawson. “I believe the team of three I am on will paint a mural. It’s just a relief in this industry right now to have a boss that is worried about his employees and not just his numbers.”
Tony Hazelip, a cook at Red Top Gourmet Hotdogs, 1127 Logan St., and several food trucks said that he was trying to gather some food trucks to station in neighborhoods to serve people who are staying home.
“It might not be as much as we’re normally used to, but anything is better than nothing,” Hazelip said. “We can bring the food out to you, maybe even bellhop style. We just don’t want people out and about — get your food, we love you, go home. Maybe we can help you skip a ride to the grocery store, bring a smile to your face in an otherwise trying time. A lot of comfort foods come from times of trouble if you think about it.”