All About America

Suddenly Out of Work, US Service Employees Left Hanging

By Dora Mekouar
March 23, 2020 11:41 AM

Now that the restaurant where he works full time in the Washington suburbs is closed, server Gerardo Espiell, 23, plans to move back in with his mother and sister to make ends meet. Together, he’s hopeful they can make the mortgage.  

“Honestly, it’s kind of crazy,” he says. “I’m very calm about everything. I’m just taking it day by day. I have some PTO (paid time off) saved up, so I’m using my PTO.”  

Server Gerardo Espiell says he has no savings because all of his earnings go to rent and other living expenses. (Photo courtesy Gerardo Espiell)

In San Francisco, Anita Reyes, who had her fourth child six months ago, usually waitresses at SanJalisco, the family restaurant owned by her mother, Delores. Her husband works there, too.  

“It’s overwhelming,” she says. “I thought I’d come in and help her because she can’t afford the workers. We’re living off this food (in the restaurant refrigerator) right now. We’re taking it home to our families.”   

Percy Saloman, who drives for a ride-hailing service in Virginia, is still working, but he’s putting in longer hours for less money.  

“Yeah, I’m worried, because right now, this is my second shift, and I only made like $70. And usually, I finish with around $150 or something,” he says.  

Saloman, Espiell and Reyes are among millions of American workers in service industries that are among the hardest hit by restrictions imposed by many U.S. states trying to stem the spread of the coronavirus known as COVID-19. 

Some states are telling people they must stay home. Businesses that are deemed as nonessential are closing. 

About one in six workers, some 17% of U.S. employees, could be impacted by social distancing, according to an analysis from Ball State University. 

“Four-and-a-half million retail sales folks, 3.5 million food preparation, almost 3.5 million cashiers, 2.5 million waiters and waitresses,” says Ball State University economist Michael Hicks. “So, those numbers add up pretty quickly to about 28 million workers in the United States who are immediately affected by the social distancing measures that have been taken at the federal, state and local level in the U.S … a very vulnerable share of the workforce. These are mostly low wage workers. (They) face almost immediate financial problems.” 

Congress is debating a relief package that could include a direct cash payment to U.S. adults. 

“I think something like at least a short-term universal basic income that pays everybody $1,000 a month for three, four or five, six months,” Hicks says. “We could collect some of that back in taxes from the better-off, for those of us who are unaffected by this. Those are the sorts of policies that are going to, I think, sustain households through this short-term social distancing that we're facing right now.” 

Server Syndi Brooks, a married mother of one who works at a San Diego eatery, relies on tips to help support her family. (Courtesy Sydni Brooks)

Money like that could go a long way for some workers.  

“That would help a lot, actually," says Syndi Brooks, a server in the San Diego area. “That would hold me over for a few months.”  

The 29-year-old has a 7-year-old daughter. She and her husband, a tattoo artist whose business is also suffering, are living off money they’ve saved.  

“I'm worried. I'm lucky to have some savings, and I know a lot of people don't,” Brooks says. “This wasn't what we intended to save for. We were intending to save for a house.”  

Espiell, the server from Virginia, says help from the federal government could make all the difference, especially with money already being tight. 

“Not just me, but, like, everybody in the service industry sometimes live paycheck by paycheck, especially, like, it's been very slow this winter, too,” he says. “Not a lot of people have been coming out, so, everybody's trying to save up all that winter money by not going out and all that stuff. Or, like, you know, some people don't eat.” 

Ride-hailing driver Percy Saloman, picking up a fare in Northern Virginia on March 17, 2020, is driving longer hours for less money.

Saloman intends to keep driving. Beyond that, he admits to having no plan for his, and his family’s, future. 

“So far, the only thing that I can do day by day, is just to keep working longer shifts to be able to provide the same income that I was bringing in before,” he says. 

Reyes, the San Francisco server, is hopeful her family and its business can see the crisis through. 

“We're staying together,” she says. “If this is only a timeout for a little bit, then we're sticking together.” 

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