My last paycheck at a Santa Cruz restaurant The COVID-19 Chronicles

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This is the first in a series of first-person accounts of how COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders around Monterey Bay are affecting us all. If you would like to share your thoughts about living under the sheltering sky send your essay to us at admin@vomb.org.

By Susan Landry

Last week, I was writing up the daily specials at the small Santa Cruz cafe where I work, discussing the economic and health anxieties of the COVID-19 pandemic with my co-worker. A passing bystander quipped, “This whole thing will be over in a week. I think it’s just ridiculous.” Flash forward to today, and our entire staff is out of work.

Amid Santa Cruz’s shelter in place order, restaurants are to remain open only for to-go food until at least April 7. As a fine dining restaurant, this is not a change we can easily make.

In response, we received a mass email from our employer informing us that we are all laid off, effective immediately. Not only does this mean we’re out of work for an undetermined amount of time, it means that we are unable to use any accumulated sick time on our final paychecks. If the mandatory paid leave bill passes — as it appears it will — we would not qualify.

My situation is not unique. Mass layoffs are well underway across the country, with 18 percent of households reporting layoffs or reduced work hours as of last week, a number sure to increase with each passing day. Several of my coworkers have already filed for unemployment, and several more plan to in the coming days, joining the massive swaths of Californians turning to government assistance during this unprecedented time.

I think it is a good thing that restaurants are closing, and I pray it will quell the spread of this virus and allow our hospitals to operate without being completely overwhelmed.

Two caveats here. First, I in no way blame my employer for making this decision. Restaurants operate with very thin profit margins, and the reality of providing paid leave to employees during closures is very difficult for many small businesses to afford.

Second, as a young person in good health, I feel incredibly fortunate to be sheltered from the worst impacts of this virus, and take the directives to self-quarantine for public health very seriously. I think it is a good thing that restaurants are closing, and I pray it will quell the spread of this virus and allow our hospitals to operate without being completely overwhelmed.

I write this not to distract from the very serious health impacts of this virus, but to share insight into the economic reality it is creating for myself, and so many service workers like me. That reality is that I’m scared. I’m scared about how I will get by financially, scared about how I will afford food, and scared about how I will continue paying my rent.

As a tipped worker, I rely on daily bursts of income that have all but immediately disappeared. Because of the way tips are taxed, my paychecks — even with California’s $13 per hour minimum wage —typically amount to about $250 dollars for 40 hours of work. Even though I’ll still receive a final paycheck this month, it will hardly supplement the income lost during each day of work that the restaurant is shut down.

Just over two weeks ago, the restaurant was buzzing with people and coronavirus was a back-burner topic among visitors, if it was discussed at all. By mid-week last week, our sales plummeted to a daily total of about $600. For reference, on a busy day, we’ll do at least triple that amount.

It was around this time that Gov. Gavin Newsom directed restaurants to operate at 50 percent capacity. Of course, we were already seeing about 80 percent less people than we’re used to, which made implementing social distancing practices easy. One kind customer even went so far as to give me his business card, with the directive to call him if I needed work in the coming weeks. At the time, I never thought I’d be so seriously considering taking him up on that offer.

I am a firm believer in social safety nets, and societies which support each other in times of crisis. But even still, I feel an internalized embarrassment to potentially be in need of that help.

Things changed so quickly and no one, myself included, was prepared for it. On my final shift last Sunday, I walked away with a total of $7 in tips, after being cut early due to a lack of customers.

And yet, I am one of the lucky ones. As a freelance writer, I have other sources of income which can help me cushion this type of loss. Most of my coworkers are not as fortunate.

This crisis highlights the precarity that is all too familiar to those in the service industry. For the most part, we have little job security, no benefits, and an extremely varied income.

As my economic reality sets in, I can’t help but be filled with a certain sense of shame. I am a firm believer in social safety nets, and societies which support each other in times of crisis. But even still, I feel an internalized embarrassment to potentially be in need of that help.

As I notice the growing gaps of impacts between my friends, between those who are safely working from home as accountants or therapists, and those who are calling me in tears unsure of how they’ll make it by, I can’t help but feel angry at a system that leaves so many people I love so vulnerable. I can’t help but question my own life decisions. Should I have stayed at that office job I hated to shield me from this very moment?

As this virus exposes the inadequacies of our current system, I hope that we can start working to solve them. I hope we can take this opportunity to come together — even as we physically distance ourselves.

The world will undoubtedly look different in the next few weeks, and the decisions we make today will shape how that future takes hold.

For those who are interested in supporting their local businesses during this time, I encourage you to place to-go orders from your favorite restaurants. Tip generously if you’re able to. Order something online from a local maker. Buy a gift card to use once this is all over. Trust me, it means more than you might realize.

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Susan Landry

About Susan Landry

Susan Landry is a freelance journalist currently living in Capitola. She loves plants, rock climbing, cooking, and almost anything to do with the outdoors. She can be reached at susanamandalandry@gmail.com.