Every shift counts: what happened when my bar closed

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK  - MARCH 16: A bar sits closed in the early evening in Brooklyn after a decree that all bars and restaurants shutdown by 8 pm in New York City as much of the nation slows and takes extra precautions due to the continued spreading of the coronavirus on March 16, 2020 in New York City, United States. Across the country schools, businesses and places of work have either been shut down or are restricting hours of operation as Americans try to slow the spread of COVID-19. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The bar where I work closed its doors at midday on Friday the 13th, brutally retiring all its staff around 6pm. I received the news from a friend working during the shift, then received an email stating that we were put on leave immediately so that we could apply for unemployment.

I realized this morning that today, Thursday 26, is the longest period of leave in over 10 years. It’s more free time than I even took for my wedding or honeymoon. The texts and emails I received from my colleagues and my company this Friday put me in an emotional turmoil – I was afraid that something like this would happen for the restaurant and bar industry in New York due to the spread of COVID-19. I had already driven my friends crazy in the worst case scenario: would I lose my job and be unable to pay the rent? Where would we go? Would we even be able to move? Can I go back to live with my mom? And it seemed like it had finally happened to me. At this point, many people still hoped to have their jobs, even at reduced capacity. But I felt heartbroken. I didn’t get out of bed for two days and I could barely speak to anyone. I really loved my work.

I’m good at bartending. At 34, I didn’t expect to find myself working full-time in bars. I have an MFA in poetry from New School, so I was still expecting to be a writer, but I worked in bars before I went to college and I worked in bars for the rent , so when I graduated, I bartender. I think a lot of people in the service industry are still waiting for “what’s next”, but aside from daydreaming, I don’t know what would be the next step for me.

Like many of my friends in this industry, we wear a lot of hats. Maybe you serve brunch, but you also write a screenplay in the afternoon. I am a bartender, but I am also a writer. I’ve been writing every day since this happened, but it wasn’t exactly what I thought of when I wanted more time to write. I published a poetry book in 2018 and work as an associate editor at Hanging Loose Press (without salary), but I never run out of things to read. I am happy to be passionate about both things. The service industry has become my home, not only because I’m good at my job – and I have a knack for making themed cocktail menus – but because I really like others, guests and my colleagues. This year, I finally felt like I was getting back on track, working in a bar I loved, learning from our drinks manager and the teaching staff every day. And then the city closed. At 34, I did not expect to testify for unemployment.

The Monday morning after the bar closed, I started the process. I always thought about New York’s social support systems, so I didn’t feel intimidated, but I couldn’t get through it all in one day. The website would let me pass most of the application and then stop. As most people find out now, once the website has expired, you have to start all over again. I received similar messages from friends, so I thought there were just too many people trying at once, and I set the alarm early Tuesday morning. This Tuesday morning, my husband learned that his bar was going to close completely the next day, and that’s when I started to panic about renting. Around the middle of the month, we generally don’t have any rent saved for the following month, which comes from the work of the next weekends. It was not bad financial planning, but a reality for most people in the service industry. Every quarter counts.

My husband asked me to apply for unemployment that night, as did many of my friends that day and the weeks ahead. I have worked in the service industry for over 10 years, so I know a lot about applications and departures, and I generally have good advice for people in the industry. This situation seems completely different, because we are all unemployed at the same time, without anyone being able to hire us. My husband and other friends have asked me how much they can get out of unemployment, but it’s different for each place depending on how many hours you work and how you get paid – tip workers will receive amounts different from those of employees. At my bar, I contributed to unemployment, so I was entitled to this unemployment. I have averaged around 45 hours per week over the past three years at this bar, so I felt hopeful.

Finally, Tuesday morning, I went to the website at 8 a.m. I answered all the questions and they said that my request was complete, but that I still had to call and make a request weekly. I was not entirely clear about this, but when I was able to get the number of requests on Sunday, it explained that even if I did not receive any money yet, I had to make a request for each week when I was unemployed. What is frustrating for many of my friends is that they were able to partially complete the online part, but they have to call and complete their application by phone. This is different from the call for claims they will still have to make.

Due to the number of people in New York crushing the system trying to get and claim benefits, many people are unable to reach the phone to complete their claim. I finally received the letter in the mail giving me the amount; it was about half my normal net salary. Friends of mine who did not work as many hours as me, or who did not claim all their tips, recovered from their unemployment and cried. A dishwasher at work said it was approved for $ 90 a week. Every day I received text messages from friends about how they couldn’t get through, or didn’t know when to call, or what to do next.

The system seems deliberately confusing, and it obviously continues to crash under the additional traffic. I consider myself a fairly computer savvy person, and I even felt frustrated with it. I can’t imagine how a person with kids coming home from school could do it. How would you spend your whole morning trying to call if you were to prepare breakfast or connect your children with their new online learning platforms? The offices are also closed for in-person applications, so I worry about my colleagues who don’t have phone service, let alone laptops and WiFi. Many of my friends are in the service industry and everyone is in the same boat.

For the first time, I feel like I have no useful advice for anyone. I keep telling people, trying to connect, to call. Everyone is concerned about these benefits, but also wonders if their restaurants will even reopen. We are not the only ones concerned about the rent. Small businesses will also suffer, with some warning that we could lose 75% of our restaurants and bars nationwide. To date, my husband has still not managed to get through. Rent is due next week.