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Are Servers Making More on Unemployment Than They Would Be at Work?

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There’s a dirty little secret amongst some servers that aren’t working in their restaurants right now and are collecting unemployment benefits instead. It’s not something that many are willing to openly talk about because they know how their feelings can be interpreted, but it’s there nonetheless: they don’t want to go back to work because they’re making more money collecting unemployment insurance than they would be at their restaurant.

The amount of money someone collects while on unemployment varies from state to state and also depends on their previous income (Side note: servers who didn’t claim all of their tips, especially the cash ones, are regretting that decision now because their unemployment checks aren’t as much as they could have been). The additional $600 a week that the federal government has added to the benefits is what’s making it difficult for some servers to be willing to go back to a restaurant that won’t be as busy as it used to be. 

Again, it varies from state to state and even city to city how and when restaurants will reopen, but the one thing that’s certain is that servers won’t be making as much money as they were before COVID reared its ugly head. Servers make their money by having full stations and crowds of people, but if a restaurant isn’t allowed to be at full capacity, it’s not going to be easy to make money.

Lisa, who works at a small craft cocktail bar in Portland, Oregon says, “I am very torn on going back to work. The unemployment has been fantastic, but 10 people at a time aren’t going to remotely pay the bills.” This is assuming that customers will even be willing to go out to restaurants and bars again once they reopen.

On top of the worry about making enough money to pay bills, servers are also fearful about their health and safety. When they finally do return to work, they will more than likely be required to wear a mask for their entire shift, while surrounded by customers who are not required to wear them. Is making less money than you did before the pandemic worth putting one’s own health at risk?

Samantha, a bartender in South Carolina says, “as a person with a suppressed immune system, I opted against going back (to work) and got a doctor’s note proving so.” She’s still receiving unemployment insurance, but Samantha is one of the lucky ones. Mary, who works in Florida, says, “I would rather stay home and collect unemployment, but the government says if I don’t go back to work I lose unemployment so back to work I go.”

Plenty of servers are in the same leaky boat as Mary, stuck between a rock and hard place; their restaurants are opening up and they’ve been offered jobs. Knowing they will probably make less money or feel like they are putting their health in jeopardy, they have to agree to go back to work or risk being reported as turning down employment and have their benefits pulled from them. So off to work they go, broke, scared and uncertain.

Photo by Bimo Luki

A lot of servers are hesitant to admit they want to stay on unemployment because the assumption is that they will be perceived as lazy or taking advantage of the system. In actuality, most servers love their job and want to go back to work, but they want it to be the way it was before, which everyone knows is impossible. These restaurant workers are not lazy, they’re just trying to do what’s best for them financially and if collecting unemployment benefits assures that they can get their bills paid, of course that’s what they want to do .

The writing on the wall is as clear as the daily specials scrawled on a chalkboard: it will never be “the way it was before” which means a lot of servers are considering a new career. The thought of working harder, sanitizing walls, highchairs, tables, menus, the plexiglass partitions between booths, all the while possibly making less money, might be too much for servers to want to don their aprons again. In the mean time, some of them collect unemployment benefits tinged with guilt for making more money than someone who is busting their ass boxing up to-go orders for $10 an hour and the occasional pity tip.

On July 31, when the additional $600 a week is set to expire, those servers fortunate enough to have been receiving it will have to reevaluate their situation, but isn’t that what we’re all doing each day we wake up? Reassessing, rethinking, and recalculating what we should do to get through our lives. What feels right one day, feels wrong the next. Servers who are collecting unemployment because it’s more money than they would make if they went back to work are no different than anyone else in our country right now. They’re just trying to get by until the next day and hoping that things will get closer to the way it was before.

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Bitchy Waiter

Bitchy Waiter

Darron Cardosa is a writer, actor, singer, and waiter. He lives and and works in New York City and enjoys "The Brady Bunch," "The Facts of Life" and cocktails almost as much as he hates your baby.

5 Comments

  1. Gabrielle Richard
    June 5, 2020 at 8:42 am — Reply

    I’m one of those people boxing to go orders maybe making $5 in tips all day. I was previously averaging about $550-$600 a week and now I’m barely clearing $300 a week which is not enough to pay my $1,600 a month overhead and that’s just my basics, rent electric water car insurance phone and internet that I have to have for the kids to homeschool. I’ve had to choose which bills to get behind in. My checks have been taxed to death on top of it. Meanwhile our dishwasher is making $800 a week on unemployment and still working 5 hrs a week. I’m terrified that even though I’ve busted my ass working the whole time I’m still going to lose a lot. My stimulus only paid one and half months of bills and put food in my house. All I want is one unemployment check to get my bills caught up but I’m still working enough hours to not qualify for unemployment or at least I think I am… it’s hard to get a direct answer as to if I quatlify. I would think my pay being cut in half would but … I’m just over all this . I just want to open up at least 20% but MD won’t allow anything but outside seating which we’ve never done and therefore aren’t equipped for.

    • Tina
      June 5, 2020 at 10:47 am — Reply

      You should be able to collect underemployment due to COVID. You should at least try, the most that can happen is you’ll get denied. Don’t wait too long. I wish you well 🙂

    • TiffanyMishoe
      June 7, 2020 at 8:44 am — Reply

      Your unemployment benefits are based on earnings, not hours. So if you’re working but still making less than your unemployment amount then you too could also get it while working. For example, when I filed my amount was determined to be $326 a week. So, even though I may work a few shifts if my total earnings are less than $326 then I would still get a partial check. If you stay under your amount by at least one dollar then you would also get the $600. If I can answer any questions I’d be happy to help, good luck! (paytonzmom@gmail.com)

  2. Ann
    June 5, 2020 at 10:45 pm — Reply

    You need to file for unemployment noting reduced pay and hours.

  3. June 6, 2020 at 8:25 am — Reply

    Where is the outrage that billionaires have made even more billions during a pandemic? Publicly traded companies receiving PPP loans? Very few PPP loans going to Black and Brown owned businesses? This isn’t news, this is a distraction

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