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The Heartbreaking Ways COVID is Impacting Food Service Workers

Updated: Apr 20, 2020 09:10
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In 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimated that the food service industry employed 5.4 million workers. That number was almost certainly higher at the start of 2020, but has greatly diminished since restaurants, bars, cafes, caterers, and school lunch programs across the country have reduced service or closed outright in response to the coronavirus pandemic As of publication nearly 17 million Americans have filed for unemployment.

But the national unemployment figure is not an accurate representation of the total number of people currently out of work. Even if the numbers were broken down by industry, they would still be inaccurate. Many food service workers are of uncertain legal status and now find themselves in the double bind of having both no income and no social safety net — ineligible for unemployment benefits, unable to collect a personal check as part of the coronavirus stimulus bill, even if they fall within income requirements

This has been of particular concern for Rhaasan Fernandez, owner and chef of Boffo Cart, a mobile catering company and pizza and sandwich pop-up. “The restaurant industry is full of people who can’t collect any benefits, and things are going to get really bad for some people,” said Fernandez. “It breaks my heart.”

“I think if you went into this without having money to float, you are suffering right now,” said Fernandez. “So personally, we’re suffering.”

Pre-pandemic, food service workers could already little afford even the most minor of financial shocks. The BLS puts the median income of a worker in the food service industry at $21,750 a year, or a little more than $1,800 a month. As a business owner, Fernandez’ income was above that figure, but not in any way able to withstand a system wide shutdown. “We went from serving 500 sandwiches a week to around five.”

The Boffo Cart during happier times at Hiero Day. Photo from the Boffo Cart FB page.

Fernandez let go of all his employees, put his lease of the shared commercial kitchen he typically operates out of in Berkeley on hold, and has moved all work to his home kitchen, operating on a skeleton crew of one. Though even such drastic cuts have not been enough to stay solvent. To save the business, Fernandez gave up his home lease. “I just gave 30 days notice,” he said, and will move in with his girlfriend in San Francisco.

Fernandez wants to stay in business in the East Bay. Berkeley is home, it’s where his son lives, and he built the business on that side of the bay. But the future is murky. 

“I’m not sure,” said Fernandez. “I think it really depends on the amount of money that we can get from SBA [Small Business Association] loans to get started back up, but we don’t go into this with a great amount of holdings, so it depends on the money that comes in from the stimulus.”

“But we’ve always hustled. So if we have to start back at the bottom, we can start back at the bottom,” said Fernandez. “At least we have experience.”

Zoë Ellis and Jubilee Dominguez at Augie’s Montreal Deli in Berkeley. Photo by Sarah Han for Berkeleyside

Jubilee Dominguez, assistant manager at Augie’s Montreal Deli, is one of those 17 million workers who have filed for unemployment. On April first, Dominguez was out of work and had to face the choice of paying her rent or paying her health insurance. She chose health insurance. She worked out a deal with her landlord, and while a bit uneasy about how to manage that agreement – and what might happen to tenant protections post pandemic – health came first. “I’ve been keeping that a priority,” she said, “in case I do get sick.”

It’s been a financial squeeze for Dominguez since the pandemic started, but one that has already lightened up. Dominguez was initially laid off since sheltering in place began, and applied for unemployment that same week. She had received a response and had begun the process of receiving financial support from the state when, two weeks after being let go, she was brought back to Augie’s at 20 hours a week.

“So I’m not really worried about money any more,” she said. It’s less than what she was making, but it’s enough to get by. And in the meantime, she’s reading more books, and not eating out as often. 

Dominguez is feeling concerned but prepared. The kitchen at Augie’s is large enough that staff have plenty of space to observe social distancing. Behind the counter, where Dominguez often works, she wears gloves and a mask, she disinfects the customer interface after each use, and there is hand sanitizer available for customers who come in to order, pick up and pay. Though these days, most customers are served curbside. 

Owner Alexei “Lex” Gopnik-Lewinski had already set up curbside delivery for the busier nights at Augie’s or when parking was tight. So the business didn’t have to hustle at all to develop a system to keep customers happy, and despite the initial slump, business has rebounded. Not back to previous levels, but enough that Dominguez is now at 25 hours a week. 

Dominguez has many concerns about just how rigorously customers are watching out for their own health and that of those around them. Or in some cases, not. “I do get a little bit uneasy when I see a customer without masks or gloves,” she said, particularly when she has to hand off a heavy item which could draw her closer to the customer, or when the customer is at the counter inside. “I have to step back a little.” 

Chef Brandon Peacock. Photo by Chris Nechodom for Oakland North 

Brandon Peacock was the executive chef and director of Eve’s Waterfront in Oakland, a four hundred plus seat restaurant and banquet venue which closed on March 13th. Peacock is paying off a mortgage on a house in Pittsburg and two car payments while supporting his family. His wife has been able to continue to work from home with her construction firm, which has a contract with BART, but for Peacock the downtime has been near maddening. 

It’s not just the lost wages. It’s the lost activity. Peacock feels most at home in the electric pace of a large kitchen. He rattled off a quick list of everything he had done at Eve’s, from cooking to carpentry, meeting and greeting, hiring and firing, the marketing and the laundry. 

Without that cumulative stream of daily accomplishment, he’s had to occupy himself in other ways. Since Eve’s closed, he put in a home basketball court, redone his garage, redone his landscaping, and now, he spends hours a day prospecting on the Bear River, moving hundreds of pounds of sediment, looking for precious minerals, something to add to the family coffer.

He and his wife take turns homeschooling their ten year old son. When it’s Peacock’s turn, he usually heads for the hills. Which means lately lessons have been mainly geology, conducted while knee deep in water and sediment, prospecting for gold on the Bear River. 

“You can look down the different levels and layers of all the dirt, what’s in there, how many years and years and years. I kind of give my son school lessons that way,” said Peacock. “Then we come home, classify the rocks and minerals. We find all kinds of cool garnets. Tin, nickel, aluminum, pewter, platinum, quartz, gold.”

Prospecting is a slower activity than Peacock’s old job, but a constant one which holds his attention and stills his mind. He finds it peaceful to be in the river, among trees, watching clouds and feeling the weather change, waiting for a glimmer among the grains of sand. “Gold is always going to be there,” he said. “It’s always going to go up in price.”

The day he spoke for an interview, he estimated he’d moved around 1,100 pounds of sand and mud, and found about 2 Troy grams of gold. There are 31.103 Troy grams to an ounce, which at the current price, meant that Peacock had prospected about $104.90 from the Bear River, or about his old hourly rate as a banquet caterer. “That’s not bad for one day,” he said.

“Hopefully this will all work out, because I am not going to make it as a prospector,” he said, “and I don’t know a damn thing else to do,” forgetting for a moment his skills in cooking, carpentry, landscaping, marketing, and management.

“I just try things in life,” he said. “That’s what I try to teach my son. Someone says, ‘No that’s not right,’ or ‘you did it wrong,’ you just try again.”

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