As Delta Surges, Restaurant Workers Face Difficult Future

The instability of the service industry and the increase in Covid cases are combining to make an uncertain profession even more unstable

As the world looks at another oncoming Covid mass death event with the delta variant surging, people in the U.S. restaurant industry are increasingly concerned about the consequences for their work and health from the latest outbreak.

"Another lockdown or getting sick and not being able to work would be devastating," Dan, a server at a Cheesecake Factory in Long Island, told me recently.

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Dan is not alone. According to a recent CNBC/Momentive Small Business Survey, small business owners are reporting increasing uncertainty and downgraded expectations for Q4 as the virus spreads—concerns that are reflected by consumers as well, who are increasingly uncomfortable going out to eat or shop. 

As CNN reported:

Restaurant reservations slumped last week in states struggling with the latest Covid-19 wave.

Last week, Jefferies found, restaurant reservations on OpenTable fell 20% below the same point in 2019 in five high-risk Covid states: Alabama, Idaho, Louisiana, Miss and Wyoming. That's a big reversal from early July when reservations in those states were 10% above 2019 levels. Florida — another state grappling with rising Covid-19 infections — also saw a drop in restaurant reservations.

The instability of the industry is affecting job seekers as well. After an early wage shortage led to difficult to fill jobs in the sector, things have evened out a bit—but the rise in cases is pushing the labor pool back down. In New Orleans, according to reporting from 4WWL-TV, a "job fest" put on at the city's Smoothie King Center drew people in need of work, but some remained skeptical of the wisdom of going back when things are so uncertain. 

"My concern is if I was looking for a job I would be getting a job and then getting laid off later,” job-seeker Alba Huddleston said. 


A no-win situation

It's all adding up to another moment of anxiety and stress for workers in American restaurants as they face a future either where they'll be exposed daily to a potentially fatal disease or will face loss of income. It's a no-win situation for workers in one of America's most grinding professions. 

A DACA recipient originally from El Salvador—he came here when he was six—Dan told me that he's already had to deal with the up and down of Covid-disrupted work. Dan returned to his job in the summer of 2020, but when the second wave hit in early 2021, he went on unemployment for six weeks. 

"I was technically getting shifts but making like $200 a week because it was so slow, and then I remember on top of that the restaurant was about two to four Covid cases from having to close at any given moment because we would be so short staffed," said Dan. 

Catching Covid on the line

"If there is a lockdown, I am worried”

Dan and his girlfriend are moving to Hartford, Connecticut. Dan is studying for the LSATs and his girlfriend is in school, making Dan the primary breadwinner for their household. It's a lot of stress. 

"If there is a lockdown, I am worried about being able to make our rent, groceries, and car bill and insurance," Dan told me. "At the beginning of the pandemic I wasn’t even sure if I would get unemployment so I worked off the books disinfecting Section 8 housing in Brooklyn for my friend's mom."

"Thankfully I did get unemployment eventually but it was about a month before I got anything, stimulus or unemployment, and so I had to work in that time to make sure we had money to pay rent and eat," he added.

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