Ohio restaurant workers are making less money thanks to the pandemic. How are they coping?

Patrick Cooley
The Columbus Dispatch
Alisha Kaplan, bar manager at Wolf's Ridge Brewing taproom Downtown, has had to take on additional job responsibilities like many who work at bars and restaurants. Waiting on more tables can mean more tips, but not being able to give customers as much attention can also result in lower gratuities.

Kelsey Fent, who bartends for Local Roots in Powell, cut most nonessential spending from his personal budget at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

An after-work drink or two was off the table, which Fent partially attributed to fear of COVID-19. But mostly he had to cut back because he was making significantly less money in tips.

“I didn't have frivolous money to spend,” he said. “I was more wary about rent and the bills and stuff like that, so I wasn't really going out and doing much.”

Service industry:Restaurants have trouble hiring

Fent’s earnings have improved as more people are vaccinated against the disease and customers gradually return to restaurants and bars, but he is still short of what he was making before the pandemic, he said.

This is a common story among Ohio’s servers and bartenders.

Help for restaurants:Eateries look to another round of federal aid to carry them through the pandemic

Tips, shifts disappear as restaurant patrons continue to stay home, switch to carryout

More than a year after the first cases of coronavirus were identified in Ohio, patrons are still staying home or switching to carryout, which means less gratuity for front-of-house workers like bartenders and servers, and fewer shifts for back-of-house workers like dishwashers and cooks. Others are still catching up after extended periods of unemployment.

Restaurant workers describe living a more frugal lifestyle, and in many cases their depressed wages or late-arriving unemployment checks meant important bills went unpaid.

One Fair Wage, an advocacy organization committed to higher wages, surveyed 1,675 tipped workers across the country late last year and 83% said their gratuity fell during the pandemic, and 70% said they received worse treatment from customers. The survey doesn’t break the data down by state, but Ohio restaurant workers largely say their tips fell at the onset of the coronavirus and haven’t recovered.

A small number of eating and drinking establishments raised wages to attract workers in a COVID-battered job market, but the move comes too late for workers who have already missed rent and car payments.

More:Legal Aid sees surge in clients fighting for unemployment benefits due to pandemic

When wages fall, workers suffer

Renee George waited weeks for her unemployment benefits after she was laid off from a bartending job at an upscale Youngstown restaurant near the start of the pandemic last spring.

“I never collected a single unemployment check until June,” she said. In that time “I racked up a hefty amount of bills.”

Utility companies were barred from shutting off her power or water and her landlord was forgiving, but those payments eventually came due.

“By the time I got paid, it all went to bills,” George said.

And she didn’t have enough to cover the car payments she accrued while she was without a salary. By the time her unemployment checks came, her car had been repossessed.

“I’d been struggling for years to rebuild my credit, and now all of a sudden it’s trashed again,” she said.

Gig workers:Is delivering food in Columbus worth it? Drivers for apps say orders are up and tips down

George was called back to work as the economy improved, but upscale restaurants suffered most during the pandemic. Her tips were only a small portion of what she made pre-COVID, forcing her to cut back on all but the most necessary expenses.

Recently she was laid off yet again, but expects a call back later this month.

When restaurants and bars first reopened following a two-month lockdown last spring, Fent was making a quarter of his pre-pandemic wages. 

“I was making so little, I qualified for unemployment,” he said.

Coronavirus restrictions, he found, hurt worse than a lack of customers.

State regulators told bars and restaurants to space tables at least 6 feet apart and barred standing room-only crowds, cutting capacity in half at many Ohio eateries. So even with a full bar, Fent may only have half as many customers.

'I've never seen anything like this'

Nearly all restaurant workers have taken on additional duties such as deep cleaning seats and tables in between customers or taking carryout orders.

“Almost everyone has cross-trained more so than they did in the past,” said Alisha Kaplan, the bar manager for Wolf’s Ridge Brewing's taproom Downtown.

Alisha Kaplan, bar manager at Wolf's Ridge Brewing taproom Downtown, has had to take on additional job responsibilities like many who work at bars and restaurants. Waiting on more tables can mean more tips, but not being able to give customers as much attention can also result in lower gratuities.

But they’ve also taken on extra shifts or more tables at a time thanks to a shortage of workers willing to accept a restaurant job, which can lessen the quality of service and impact tips.

Cherie Barnes is 58 and has spent the better part of her life working for restaurants in the Cleveland area. “I've never seen anything like this,” she said.

Tips are hit or miss lately, Barnes said, and the least generous customers cite inadequate service or anger over required precautions.

"One table tips you very generously, the next table might be someone who is angry when you tell them they need to wear a mask," Barnes said. "They see you're busy, so they find a reason not to tip. They'll say, ‘You forgot my side of ranch dressing.’ They don't understand the complexity (of the job)."

Why restaurant employees won’t come back

Bar and restaurant owners throughout Ohio say they have difficulty attracting job applicants. Many blame enhanced unemployment benefits. An extra $600 was added to weekly checks at the beginning of the pandemic, and unemployment recipients are still entitled to an additional $300 per week.

For restaurant employees on the lower end of the pay scale, unemployment payments can exceed their weekly salary.

Advocates and some employees, however, say that restaurant workers are still afraid of contracting COVID-19 — which has killed more than 19,000 Ohioans since last spring — and spreading it to at-risk relatives and friends.

“A lot of people in general have left the service industry,” Kaplan said. Those losses, she said, are at least partially due to anxiety over the pandemic.

An unemployed Columbus restaurant worker who asked that her name not be used to protect her career prospects after the pandemic fits into both categories.

She makes more on unemployment than she did at her most recent restaurant job, but she also lives with a friend who is especially vulnerable to COV-19 because of a recent battle with cancer.

On top of that, she’s read news articles detailing rare but debilitating side effects from the coronavirus infection that don't fade over time. A meager restaurant salary, she said, isn’t worth the risk of chronic fatigue or the loss of her mental faculties.