Local food service workers turn to other sources of income

Gillian Ritter, a co-owner at the worker-owned Little Grill Collective, is one of many area food service workers currently laid off due to COVID-19. Courtesy photo.

By Graham Schiltz, contributor

Food service employees have been hit hard by the effects of COVID-19. Now that dining rooms in Harrisonburg are shut down, restaurants have been closing or transitioning to curbside pickup and delivery.

Even employees of establishments that are still open have suffered via reduced hours or tips. In a system where most servers are paid less than minimum wage, the lack of customers — and, subsequently, tips — has led to uncertainty about the future among service workers who spoke with The Citizen.

Last week, The New York Times reported that 3.3 million unemployment claims were filed in the U.S. — four times the national record set in 1982. Many of those claims came from the service industry.

The term “social distancing” has become ubiquitous, but people interpret it differently. Many people aren’t leaving their house, even to pick up to-go food, but some business owners believe their establishment is still better off by remaining open in a limited capacity.

One such business is Black Sheep Coffee. Although Black Sheep has cut its hours and staffs each shift with fewer employees than usual, the sitting area remained open until the governor’s order issued March 23. The coffee shop now offers pick-up options as well as delivery via GiddyUp!, a bike courier service.

Though business has slowed to a near-halt, barista David Holsinger understands why some businesses can’t afford to close.

“I worry most about small business owners during this time,” Holsinger said. “The owner has a family to take care of, and this is all he has.” 

One restaurant that took a different approach for workers was the Little Grill Collective, one of the first restaurants in town to completely shut down. Business started to decline in the beginning of March before the Grill closed March 16. All employees are receiving half pay — $5 an hour — for the average number of hours they would have worked during this time. 

While lower sales was a factor in closing, the safety of employees and patrons was even more important, co-owner Gillian Ritter said. 

“The ownership wanted to do what we could for our employees,” Ritter said. “We’re fortunate to be able to do that.”

Although the Little Grill Collective is compensating their employees, Ritter is still encouraging them to file for unemployment.

How they’re getting by

Ritter is a part-time martial arts instructor, but now that classes have been moved online, she can’t work there either, for the time being. A self-described “people person,” she’s also worked in direct care and hospitality — two other industries threatened by COVID-19.

“Currently the best course of action is to stay away from people,” Ritter said. “I’m honestly not sure what to do at the moment.”

Part-time server Delaney Westwood relies more on her job as a real-estate agent, but the supplementary income from serving helps when her commision doesn’t cut it. BoBoKo Indonesian Cafe, where she works, tried to adapt to the new conditions. But after a little less than a week of trying curbside pickup, the restaurant closed indefinitely on March 22. 

Right now, Westwood’s real estate work, while slowed, is enough to support her without BoBoKo. But she said she recognizes that no industry is safe from COVID-19. In addition to real estate, she’s been picking up odd jobs and doing yard work for extra cash.

Holsinger’s second job as a mover has seen less business as well, with the moving company’s current job at a retirement home in jeopardy, due to COVID-19’s high risk to the elderly. His hours at Black Sheep have declined each week since the middle of March. While he’s making enough to get by now, the possibility of being totally unemployed is very real.

A $2.2 trillion aid package nearing final approval is slated to boost unemployment benefits and provide a one-time payment of $1,200 to many adults in the U.S., as the Washington Post reported. But more than one laid-off worker who spoke with The Citizen had limited faith in the federal government to come up with a solution to their financial hardships.

“Our government wasn’t designed to move quickly,” Holsinger said. “The world wasn’t prepared for this.”

Some, like Westwood, put more stock in locally-based initiatives.

“More than ever, relying on ourselves, our communities, and each other is probably the best way to get through this,” Westwood said. “I’d put my faith in what we have here over promises from the government any day.”

Banding together as a local industry

The local culinary community has been making good on that faith. 

Pale Fire Brewing opened its doors for a food bank called Pale Fire Helps on March 25, which is anticipated to continue for the foreseeable future. Any local restaurant industry worker can come with a recent pay stub between Tuesday and Saturday, 1 – 6p.m., and fill up a bag of food donated from Sysco and other businesses. 

There’s also the “Harrisonburg Tip Jar” started by local grant writer and A Bowl of Good employee Jacob Lester, where patrons can donate directly to service workers who sign up by linking their Paypal and Venmo. In a similar vein, Bella Luna Wood-Fired Pizza employee Nevin Lough Zehr began a GoFundMe to benefit laid-off restaurant workers. As of now, he’s raised over $4,000.

Westwood and Holsinger haven’t turned to these options themselves, as they both have other sources of income, but they’re thankful nonetheless.

“Others need these services much more than I do. I’m blessed to be in the position I’m in,” Holsinger said. “My hours are being cut or threatened at both jobs, but I still have work.”

The future is uncertain, but there seems to be a strong belief among industry workers that the people of Harrisonburg will support one another — before and after we reach a new normal.

“Harrisonburg is a town full of people that care about each other,” Ritter said. “I know that that spirit of community and our common goal will help us all survive this.”

In other news about COVID-19 related effects: 

  • Gov. Ralph Northam’s announcement to implement a Stay-At-Home order through June 10 to limit the spread of COVID-19 means that Harrisonburg residents — like all Virginians — must limit going into public to essential trips, such as grocery shopping and going to the pharmacy (provided people respect social distancing guidelines). 
  • For the city of Harrisonburg, essential services will continue unaffected, including police and fire services, bus and transportation services and trash collection, although the Beery Road recycling center is closed for now. The city has a page devoted to COVID-19-related updates. 
  • Northam’s order means that businesses that don’t limit to 10 patrons at a time could face misdemeanor charges, and restaurants must offer take-out only. People can still venture out to exercise and to the city parks, provided they follow social distancing guidelines. 
  • Meanwhile, Harrisonburg is among the Virginia communities encouraging residents to support local restaurants by getting carry-out orders two or three times per week as part of “Virginia is For Restaurant Lovers Takeout Week,” which started Monday.  
  • The city and JMU announced that JMU’s Godwin Hall was available starting Monday night for the organization Open Doors to operate a temporary overnight emergency shelter for people who are homeless. Open Doors, which operates the shelter during the winter, will work with JMU’s staff who oversee Godwin, and it will be available as a shelter only during the evening and overnight. 
  • The city, according to a press release, will enforce social distancing guidelines and while the shelter won’t be limited to 10 people, it will be required to maintain at least six feet between sleeping arrangements for each person.

Publisher Ryan Alessi contributed reporting to this article.

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