The Most Vulnerable Workers : The Indicator from Planet Money Because of social distancing, the U.S. restaurant industry has entirely disintegrated with unimaginable speed, leaving its workers to face an uncertain future.

The Most Vulnerable Workers

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Cameron Johnston (ph) lives in Austin, Texas. He's 31. And for the last three years, he's worked as a food server at the Alamo Drafthouse.


The Alamo Drafthouse is one of those movie houses where you order food and drinks before the movie starts, and then servers like Cameron bring it out to you. And from how he describes it, Cameron loved this job.

CAMERON JOHNSTON: It's a very social place. You go in there on a Friday night, and there's 20 other servers. And most of them love movies, and most of them have seen the newest movie out. And we just, like, all talk about them. We have pretty much free reign to see movies ourself (ph). You know, we don't have to pay for tickets most of the time. It's a great place for movie lovers, and I love movies.

GARCIA: At the specific Alamo location where Cameron worked, there are 10 theaters. Some of them can sit more than a hundred people in them.

VANEK SMITH: And like a lot of workers who have jobs in places where people are crowded together, Cameron knew that the Alamo Drafthouse was at risk of being shut down to comply with social distancing. That's the national strategy for slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus - basically, keeping people apart, not allowing crowds.

GARCIA: And so last Monday, when his manager called to break the news that his Alamo location was, in fact, closing, Cameron's first reaction was, well, I expected this.

JOHNSTON: But then I got on social media, and I have probably 150 Facebook friends that work at that location. And all of them within an hour just realized they weren't going to have a job. And so that was hard. It was a rough night for all of us.

I've never - I actually watched everyone I know lose their jobs. I'd say probably 95% of the people I know in Austin are service industry - past jobs and all that jazz. I used to work at a mom and pop diner called Opal Divine's. And everyone I knew from there - we're still in this big group chat; we all work at different restaurants now - everyone lost their job on the same day.

GARCIA: Cameron and all his server colleagues at the Alamo Drafthouse had to be furloughed, which is like being laid off, except hopefully it's just temporary, and someday they can go back to work at the same place. But for now, they're all stuck without jobs, without paychecks and they have no way of knowing how long the crisis will last. And what just happened to them is a story that is suddenly familiar to a depressingly huge number of workers.

I'm Cardiff Garcia.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. It's hard to think of people whose livelihoods are more threatened right now than workers like Cameron - workers who prepare and serve food and drinks for a living. Today on THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY, indicators all about them and the places they work.

GARCIA: Starting with just how many of these workers there are in the U.S. It's a lot. There's about 2 million servers, and there's a little fewer than half a million bartenders. Those right there are already pretty big numbers.

VANEK SMITH: But then if you also add workers like cooks, hosts, hostesses, dishwashers, just everyone involved in food preparation and serving jobs, then the total number is more than 8 million workers.

GARCIA: Or to put all that in perspective, roughly 1 out of every 20 workers in the whole U.S. works in food prep and serving. And the fact that so many of them have jobs that have either already been lost or probably will soon be lost is a trend that Cameron as a food server never could've imagined.

JOHNSTON: 'Cause that's one of those jobs that is necessary everywhere at all times, you know? It's one of the reasons I do this - is because I know that if I wanted to move to a new city or just, like, if I wanted to get a new job, like, I could. I would have a job wherever I go. So this is probably the first time I've ever seen this kind of mass unemployment. Like, if I wanted to go get another job in the service industry right now, I could not. And that has never been a thing.

VANEK SMITH: And the massive collapse at the places that employ these workers has happened at a mind-boggling pace. Open Table, a company that lets people book restaurant reservations online, also keeps track of how many people eat in restaurants in cities that have at least 50 restaurants that are in the Open Table network. And the Friday before Cameron was furloughed, there were already 36% fewer people eating in restaurants than on that same Friday a year ago.

GARCIA: And just one week later - this past Friday - there were 99% fewer diners than a year ago. Not only cities like Austin, but entire states, including California and New York, have ordered bars and restaurants closed, allowing only delivery and takeout. In cities and towns throughout the country, almost nobody is eating inside. Nationwide, the industry has collapsed. After a quick break, we are going to tell you more about the workers themselves who staff this industry.

VANEK SMITH: The average wage for food servers throughout the country is about $26,000 a year, including tips. Cooks in restaurants make slightly more. And that compares to the national average of more than $50,000 a year for all jobs. The food preparation and serving industry is not a high-wage industry.

GARCIA: And in fact, the industry has more workers making close to the minimum wage than any other industry. So a lot of people who work in restaurants and bars have to live paycheck to paycheck or even shift to shift. Plus, because so many people work for tips, their wages end up fluctuating a lot. Cameron Johnston says two separate shifts of work or even two separate weeks of work can be totally different in how much money they make.

JOHNSTON: Like, when you ask a server what their average wages are, some people have no idea. I mean, they just - they go in, and they make the money. We used to get cash every night. So it's just kind of like - I would know how much money I made at the end of a week depending on how much money was in my wallet.

VANEK SMITH: Cameron has filed for unemployment, and he's likely to get a little more than half of his average wages once those checks start arriving. And all things considered, Cameron says he knows he is lucky in several ways, especially when compared to his server friends who work at other places.

GARCIA: Yeah. Food servers and restaurant workers generally tend not to have many benefits. Most workers at big restaurant chains, for example, say they do not have access to paid sick leave. So when they're sick, they have to choose between getting paid and getting better. Cameron, on the other hand, did have access to paid time off at the Alamo Drafthouse.

VANEK SMITH: Plus, a huge number of restaurant employees actually work for small-business restaurants, which tend to operate with tiny amounts of reserve cash. So they might not be able to give their employees much or any severance pay as they lay them off.

The Alamo Drafthouse is a chain, and it's paying its workers two weeks' wages in relief money to help tide over workers before the unemployment checks start arriving. And it's extending their health coverage until the end of April. Some other restaurants and coffee shops, like Olive Garden and Starbucks, are taking similar steps. They will keep paying their workers for some time while the crisis lasts.

GARCIA: But Cameron is still worried about his friends in Austin who work at other places. He says one thing the federal government could do to help is to send a big check to everyone immediately. And according to analysis by economist Claudia Sahm, that is an idea that does help people and the economy more than sending out multiple smaller checks over time. Cameron says that sounds about right to him.

JOHNSTON: I know hundreds of people that would instantly benefit from that. And obviously, Austin is pausing shutting down utilities and evicting people at the moment until this all blows over, but that doesn't necessarily mean we're not going to owe that money eventually. And digging a deeper hole isn't really the answer to getting out of this, you know?

VANEK SMITH: We also asked Cameron, if the crisis goes on long enough and your savings starts to dwindle, would you take another job?

GARCIA: And Cameron says yes. He has considered applying specifically to the big local grocery chain H-E-B, which is hiring. And the reason he gave is one that probably a lot of people right now can relate to.

JOHNSTON: I mean, part of it is the financial, but part of it is I just - I'm not someone who just can't work for a long time. I've never not had a job or been in school. I get stir-crazy. I've been home since Sunday when I started getting called off, and I'm already, like, pulling my hair out, you know? It obviously wouldn't be a bad idea to try and get that extra income, but also, like, just - I have nothing to do.

VANEK SMITH: If you're looking for more news about coronavirus, NPR has a new daily podcast for just that. It's called Coronavirus Daily, with new episodes every weekday in the late afternoon.

GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Camille Petersen (ph). Our fact-checker is Brittany Cronin. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.


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