Southern California restaurants are full of people pursuing their dream. That includes Jonathan, who came to LA to be a screenwriter and filmmaker. But to make ends meet, he’s spent the last 15 years working in restaurants, busing tables, serving food, and interacting with all sorts of people.
The COVID-19 pandemic messed it all up.
“It was a little bit like 9/11. You’ll never forget where you were when you were told you had to close. ... People were crying. You could see how scared everyone was. They would be trying to guess how long this is going to go on, ‘It can’t go on longer than two weeks, it can’t go on more than a month,’” he said.
Jonathan, whose last name KCRW is not sharing because he’s afraid of losing his job, has spent the last three months in unemployment limbo. His Hollywood restaurant shut down, cutting off his main source of income. California unemployment checks helped a little, as did the $1200 federal stimulus check.
When he heard LA County would be reopening its restaurants, and maybe even bars in the days to come, he faced no other choice but to go back — even if the idea of spending hours in a restaurant terrified him.
“There’s 20% unemployment. And it’s not like you’re going to change jobs, so you’re probably going to put on a face shield and a mask, and head back into a dangerous situation,” he said.
That is exactly what Jonathan did, like thousands of other front-of-the-house workers in Southern California as the gates of nightlife swung open in June.
In the days following the reopening of restaurants and bars for dine-in service in Southern California, KCRW talked with three workers from around the region. These are their stories.
More labor, less security
To keep patrons safe, the restaurant where Jonathan works installed plexiglass separators, dining groups were spaced out at least six feet apart, and sanitizer was available for everyone.
But for Jonathan and his coworkers, the amount of daily work during their shifts increased significantly.
“Every time you clear a table, it's rubber gloves and forethought about every motion you're making. And then you drop off the dirty plates. And you take the gloves off like a doctor. And you clean your hands and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ for 20 seconds. And you do that 50 times a day,” he said.
Management offered staff personal protective equipment, including masks, gloves, and a plastic face shield. Jonathan opted to buy a better face shield online. He was relieved to have some protection between him and guests, but the adjustment wasn’t easy.
“The actual working is terrible. … The face mask is sort of fine and easy. The face shield is a nightmare. It is hot, you can't see, you can't hear. They're not very transparent,” he said.
As the days continued, Jonathan realized his biggest concern was catching COVID-19 from his coworkers. Guests might be socially distanced in the dining room, but he was constantly working in close proximity to fellow waitstaff.
One day, he saw most of the house staff, including a manager, sitting indoors together during a break without wearing masks. They sat there for about an hour.
Jonathan later brought it up with his manager.
"I said, ‘Any one of those people at that table with you have coronavirus. And with the numbers at what they are, it's likely that somebody does. You absolutely have it. ... You promised us a safe work environment. That was not safe.’”
Doing more than the job description and getting sick
Julian, whose last name is also being withheld because he’s afraid of losing his job, just started a new position at a bar in Orange County. He recently graduated from UCLA with a degree in theater.
Julian technically worked as security, but his job didn’t stop there. Food running, drink running, picking up trash, and sanitizing surfaces were all part of his daily duties. Before coming down with the virus, he had already considered quitting.
“We're the ones that are most exposed because the kitchen stays in the kitchen. The bartenders for the most part stay behind the bar, as well as the barbacks. We are the only ones constantly walking the floor, so certainly the ones most at risk and getting paid less than anyone else,” he said.
Last Thursday, a few days after he started the job, Julian was diagnosed with COVID-19. It started as light fatigue that turned into a sore throat. Within a day, that sore throat turned into a full-blown fever.
He doesn’t know if he’ll be able to walk away from this illness.
He suspects, but can’t prove, that he got the virus at work. And though he followed the rules, he isn’t sure whether he spread it to others at the bar.
The false narrative of heroism
Matthew, who worked as a waiter for the last eight years, felt the restaurant environment could be fatal. He went back to work at a restaurant in Santa Monica because he felt he had no other choice.
“I’m not a medical worker. I'm not saving people’s lives. I’m serving food and drinks. I’m around a ton of people all day. I don't know who’s looking out for me. You can definitely feel like a grunt. You have to show up and you have to work. I don’t have another option,” he said.
COVID-19 is a hot topic of conversation at work, and he’s not alone in feeling despair.
“It can be very frustrating, and it can make you feel disposable for sure. … We all seem to feel similar about having to put our health on the line, just to keep things running. It doesn't feel heroic. It doesn’t feel noble,” he said.
The pandemic seemed to have made customers grumpier than usual too, Matthew pointed out.
“In a restaurant, if you make a little mistake, normally, you fix it. People are usually pretty understanding and adaptable. Lately, most of my coworkers,
including my managers, have really dealt with a lot of anger, people exploding sometimes, swearing at you,” he said.
One patron even called him a thief. It apparently took him too long to return the customer’s change.
The bottom line
Since Jonathan’s return to the job, it’s felt like no one cares about him and his coworkers.
“The federal government, at least, doesn't care. In fact, [it] considers you to be able to cattle. ‘Just get back out there. You gotta pull the economy together. You have to do this, not us. You are the heroes of this story. Get back out there, and get on the line, and I'm going to go play golf.’ It's completely maddening,” he says.
Julian, who’s currently battling COVD-19, is facing a crisis of conscience. Before his time at UCLA, he spent five years in the Marine Corps. While growing up in Florida, he loved his country and wanted to do the most he could for it.
“I was raised with the concept that America is the greatest country on Earth. With the concept that there is something special about America, that we are an example to the rest of the world. And that's just completely evaporated. … It's kind of completely destroyed the image of what I thought America was,” Julian says.
Meanwhile, Matthew is still working. His Santa Monica restaurant has outdoor seating, so it’s still allowed to stay open.
Public officials say restaurants will stay closed for dine-in service for at least another two weeks.
That means workers like Jonathan will once again rely on unemployment benefits, which are set to expire at the end of the month.