Business & Economy

‘I’m kind of screwed’: Restaurant workers brace themselves for more job loss

With Minnesota bars and eateries going takeout-only, layoffs are coming — this time without an essential lifeline

A person wearing a face mask while standing on the sidewalk.
Joe Jones, 27, is a chef at Fika Cafe, located in the American Swedish Institute. “If we close down, I'm kind of screwed,” Jones said.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Restaurant and bar workers who are already on shaky financial ground during the pandemic are facing new uncertainties as Minnesota’s latest restrictions on bars and restaurants go into place. 

The shift to takeout-only is leading to another round of layoffs in the hospitality industry. Workers who have been risking their health at work now again face the prospect of unemployment without access to a lifeline that helped keep them afloat at the start of the pandemic.

Minneapolis chef Joseph Jones, 27, has worked in the service industry his entire adult life. Back in March, when restaurants were first ordered to close, Jones and his coworkers were laid off on short notice. 

“It was just like, 'Hey, you have a job and now you don't,'” Jones said. “So clearly, it messed with my finances — I had no money.” 

Jones was able to receive unemployment benefits, as well as a $600 a week boost to unemployment benefits that Congress passed at the start of the pandemic. That financial boost wasn’t enough to cover all his household’s bills, but it helped Jones ride it out until he was able to find another job cooking at Fika Cafe in Minneapolis about three months ago. The federal benefit has since expired and a similar boost to unemployment has stalled in the U.S. Senate.  

With COVID-19 spiking and Gov. Tim Walz ordering more restrictions, Jones said it feels like he’s about to be out of a job again. He fears that many of his kitchen colleagues, who work as dishwashers and cooks, are unauthorized immigrants and will be hit hardest because they won’t qualify for unemployment benefits. 

“If we close down, I'm kind of screwed,” Jones said. “I’m lower-income, African American ... but at the end of the day hundreds of people, whether they look like me or not, are going to be jobless and are struggling right now.”

The monthlong dining restrictions take effect Saturday.

A man wearing a mask hands another person a bag of food.
From left, Robin Harkins receives a takeout order from general manager Sean Corrigan on Wednesday at The Gnome in St. Paul. Harkins said he orders takeout a couple of times a week and hasn't dined inside a restaurant since February.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Data from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development show that about 71,500 positions were lost in the hospitality industry from the start of the pandemic until October. And when it comes to public gathering spots, bars and restaurants have contributed by far the most to major outbreaks — more than weddings, sports, gyms and social gatherings combined, according to figures from the state Health Department.

Chad Wood, a server and floor manager at St. Paul’s W.A. Frost, has worked in the industry for two decades. He doesn’t expect to stay in it much longer. He recently started learning to code. Wood and his family are talking about what he’ll do when he inevitably loses his serving job again. 

“You do a little Door Dash-ing, you pick up side jobs here and there,” Wood said. “You just find a way to make some cash and, and just plug away at it until you find something that's more permanent and more stable.”

Wood said the pandemic has meant that lots of restaurant employees have had to balance their need to make a living with their safety. 

“People would follow the mask regulations to and from the tables,” he said. “But when you have to interact with people and they don't put a mask on and you have to pour water and you have to take their plates ... there's molecules in the air. No, it's not safe to be serving.”

Some restaurants have adjusted their practices to both try to stay in business and to keep their employees as safe as possible. In Minneapolis, the St. Paul Bagelry has moved completely to curbside pickup and takeout, which will still be allowed under the new restrictions.  

Worker Alisha Peterson said some patrons have made her feel unsafe, especially early on in the pandemic, by pushing back against precautions like wearing a mask. But recently she’s noticed that some customers seem to be changing their habits, for instance, visiting less frequently but buying more at a time.  

“I'm kind of really crossing my fingers and hoping that it's because people have learned that there's a smarter way to go about getting takeout food and respecting CDC guidelines and restaurant guidelines and keeping us safe,” Peterson said. 

A person wearing a face mask.
Caroline Dahl is a server at St. Genevieve, a French bistro in Minneapolis.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

A survey this fall from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve and Hospitality Minnesota reported that half the restaurants in the state would face permanent closure if they didn’t receive additional aid by January, which they estimated could lead to tens of thousands of more job losses. 

While the Democratically controlled U.S. House passed a $2.2 trillion stimulus package in October that would have boosted unemployment payments, the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate hasn’t taken any action on it.  

Caroline Dahl has been a server at Minneapolis restaurant St. Genevieve for the last five years. She was laid off in March, but got her job back in July. 

It’s been a challenging time to work in the service industry, Dahl said. 

“You're working harder, you're working longer, but you're also making less money than you were pre-shutdown,” Dahl said. “So that has also been stressful.” 

Watching restaurants close and longtime colleagues leave the industry has been alarming for employees like Dahl. She said more layoffs will mean that many people won’t be able to pay rent or take care of their basic needs.  

“None of us wants to contribute to spreading this virus. But in order to help our community, our community needs to help us,” Dahl said. “Unfortunately, we need the money so that we can be closed — but not closed forever.”

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