NYC restaurant workers who still have jobs say they're afraid to ride the subway to work and wonder if they're really 'essential' workers in a pandemic
- New York City's restaurants have been closed to diners for three weeks to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, leaving thousands in the industry jobless.
- Some restaurants have been able to keep on some of their staff by pivoting to takeout and delivery.
- While those workers feel lucky to still have a job, some wonder if they're really "essential" workers during the pandemic - and some are afraid that coming to work will expose them to the virus.
- "The struggle is weighing which is more important: coming into work and then possibly getting sick, or leaving work and not having a job to come back to," one restaurant manager told Business Insider.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
For Jimmy Lee, the fear of getting the coronavirus is always in the back of his mind.While thousands of New York City restaurant workers are out of a job, Lee has been putting in 45-hour weeks doing takeout and delivery at the BBQ restaurant in Brooklyn where he works as an assistant general manager. About 16 people were furloughed or laid off at the restaurant, Lee said, including the entire front-of-house team and most of the kitchen team.
"Food is an essential for everybody, but restaurant-quality food? I'm not sure," Lee told Business Insider. "... The struggle is weighing which is more important: coming into work and then possibly getting sick, or leaving work and not having a job to come back to."The coronavirus pandemic has devastated the New York City restaurant industry, which employs an estimated 167,000 people. After the city's restaurants were ordered to close for dine-in service on March 17, thousands of cooks, servers, and other workers were laid off or furloughed.
Commuting to work via public transit is a problem for those employees who still have jobs
Before the pandemic, Okonomi Yuji Ramen in Williamsburg had about 15 employees, according to general manager Peter Colón. Now that the restaurant has started doing takeout and delivery for the first time, it's down to only Colón and one chef working each day, which means Colón has been working with virtually no days off.
Neither Colón nor his coworker is taking the subway to work anymore. Colón rides his bike from his apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant to the restaurant, about a 15-minute journey.While public transit is still running in NYC, many of the restaurant workers Business Insider spoke to described a fear of riding the subways because of the spread of germs.
Lee, for one, is able to drive to work, but some of his coworkers are still commuting on the train."That's really what I'm mostly worried about," he said. "Once I'm here, I feel safe. I'm fortunate enough to have a car ... But all these employees we have that take the train, inevitably they are exposed to more people to come into work."
"He apparently knows some people in his neighborhood that have gotten infected and he was really worried that commuting would expose him to the dangers," he said.
Sweet House, a dessert shop with locations in Chinatown and Brooklyn, has kept its Chinatown location open for takeout and delivery."We are not really essential, but we felt like at least we need some income for the rent. And I think people do want something sweet at this time," Sweet House's manager, who wanted to be known only by her last name, Cheung, told Business Insider.
Cheung's boss has been giving her rides to and from work each day. She says if she had to take the train, she would reconsider coming to work.
"Right now we don't want to take the subway because we don't want to get the virus," she said.
Restaurant owners also wonder what is the right thing to doIt's not just the employees who feel conflicted about continuing to work throughout the crisis.
"I still weigh how I feel about, am I putting people in harm's way?" Ariel Arce, owner of Manhattan Japanese restaurant Tokyo Record Bar, which is open for takeout and delivery, told Grubstreet. "Is this a good service we're doing for the community?"
Jessica Quinn, a pastry chef at upscale Italian restaurant Rezdora, told Grubstreet that several staff members had the option to keep coming into work but chose not to. "They don't feel safe," she said.But not everybody has the "luxury" of not coming into work if they feel unsafe, Lee told Business Insider. Lee has kept his job, but with a 25% pay cut - which still amounts to more than what he would get from unemployment benefits, he says.
"There's that thought of: OK, that extra amount of money, is that worth exposing myself potentially?" he added.
The guilt of still having a job, and an uncertain futureLee said his entire social circle works in the restaurant industry - and most of them no longer have jobs.
"When I talk to my friends that have been laid off and I talk to them about how I'm feeling and my complaints, I always start it with apologies of, 'Sorry, I probably sound like a brat because I still have a job,' but this is how I feel," he said.Colón said he and his sole remaining coworker are doing everything they can to limit contact with others at work, such as only allowing one other person inside at a time. He said he thinks customers are appreciative that the Japanese restaurant has stayed open. "As far as whether it's a problem healthwise for the community, I hope not," he said. "It's difficult to say one way or the other."
At the BBQ restaurant, Lee said they're taking safety precautions including keeping one of two entrances locked and designating a small area where drivers or customers can come pick up food. He said they've bought "boxes and boxes of sanitizing wipes" and that they're "constantly" sanitizing surfaces.
But for some restaurateurs, takeout and delivery-only is not a sustainable business model. Some restaurants that initially pivoted to takeout have already switched gears and closed their doors, as Eater reported."Our goal now is just to stay open and make sure there's a restaurant to rehire people back to," Colón told Business Insider. "That was the original intent, and now the longer this stretches out, it's like, well, I don't know how long people will be able to survive."
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