'I'm walking on thin ice here': Hospitality industry workers struggle

People sit at tables in a restaurant.
Patrons enjoy the last evening at Searles on Fifth Ave in St. Cloud, Minn., before restrictions on indoor and outdoor dining took effect on Nov. 20.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News file

Tom Jermann lives in a state of perpetual anxiety.

“I'm walking on thin ice here," the 36 year-old said.

Things were great for him at the beginning of the year. He was making good money waiting on people, working catering events and counter-service. But the pandemic took it all away.

“The last of my savings went to paying rent for December,” Jermann told MPR News recently.

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A man wearing a mask in a photograph.
Hospitality worker Tom Jermann says he was able to weather the first lockdown because of the supplemental money from the federal government. Without those $600 weekly checks, he’s on a much tighter budget, with no room for unplanned expenses such as car repair.
Courtesy of Tom Jermann

For him, paying rent is paramount. “Right now, there is a very narrow path for me to get there by Jan. 1.“

Jermann, who lives in south Minneapolis, asked that we not name his employer.

He says he chipped a tooth a few months ago and had enough money to pay the bill — no more.

“There’s no latitude for something to happen,” Jermann explained. “If I have to do work on my car, I’m just not going to have a car.”

Jermann said he’s no longer able to replace things that break. Money is tight. He buys food in bulk. Grab-and-go eating is too expensive.

“I’m counting dollars at the grocery store right now,” he said. “There’s a hard budget and if I go beyond that, something else is going to have to give.”

Jermann said worrying about what's next can be all consuming. So, he tries to live incrementally.

“You kind of take it a day at a time,” Jermann said. “It’s very much a survival kind of thinking and feeling right now.”

For Jermann and many other hospitality industry workers, it was a different story during the first shut down. The federal government stepped up and supplemented state unemployment benefits by $600 a week for months. Jermann said it was the right thing to do.

“When your compelled to give up your livelihood to serve a public good, that feels fair and square,” Jermann said, adding that the extra money made all the difference.

“It meant that I could make it through that initial shutdown without losing money. It replaced my income.”

Jermann doesn't dispute that businesses need help, and he applauds Minnesota’s new relief package for doing just that. The aid also extends unemployment benefits.

But Jermann said he and other side-lined workers desperately need more help. Even if they could get even half of those early pandemic $600 a week checks, he said, many would be in much better shape. 

He knows others are suffering more than him. And he says the struggle of hospitality workers has implications for everyone.

“Every day more households are falling off the edge and the more we allow to do that, the longer it will be before we are all economically whole again.”

Jermann said he's disappointed the Legislature did not include supplemental unemployment money in its latest relief package.  He hopes they'll consider it during their next special session.

“It just twists my gut. What’s going to happen next? Will they take action to assist people like me? I need the help,” Jermann said.

But one lawmaker recently told him the state can't foot the bill for supplemental unemployment.

“I guess that we’re going to cross our fingers and hope Washington can put something together,” Jermann said.

In the meantime, for Jermann and many others, life means a continual search for cost-cutting the best way manage the stress of treading water into the new year.