By RJ Johnson
As we enter the third week of the bar and restaurant industry facing what could be the biggest change Anchorage has seen in recent years the workers are still on standby. A week after we were all told to go home, another group of people who live much lifestyle as we do were also told to close their doors and stop serving their clientele.
Hairdressers, tattoo artists, and other folks licensed to work with the public were also sent home in the interest of public safety. Most of the folks in these businesses have never experienced anything even close to this in their lifetime. Most never thought they would have to.
Across the country, communities are reacting in different ways. In Texas they have put temporary laws in place in order to allow restaurants and bars to-go options for alcohol. Delivery and to-go food are at an all-time high, not just here in Anchorage, but for most markets.
There have been funds that are being set up to assist with grants and money to help those within these industries at least have the comfort of bare necessities.
Much of the money being donated is coming from the large liquor companies. Diageo, one of the world’s largest liquor producers, with brands like Captain Morgan’s, Guinness, Tanqueray, and Cîroc vodka, recently donated $5,000,000 to the most well-known charitable fund, set up by the United States Bartenders Guild. Other brands like Jameson, Skrewball Whiskey, and others were donating half a million dollars or more. Celebrity chef Guy Fieri has become involved raising funds for another grant that will help bartenders, as well as kitchen staff and servers. Most in the industry have also attempted to sign up for unemployment insurance as well.
One of the reasons that the major liquor companies are able to make such large donations is that in times of economic downturn people don’t stop drinking, they simply stop drinking in bars. When those bars are closed all of the spirits and beer are purchased in package stores. Locations like Carrs, Fred Meyers, and Walmart are seeing an average of 20-30% increase in sales each week since the hunker down order came into effect. Usually a recession only happens in parts of the country at a time. When this is happening world-wide, these companies are seeing major growth. With this many people going to package stores and grocery stores for their libations, it may be time for the local authorities to find a way to make legal liquor delivery a reality. It would keep people out of stores and home more often.
The issue for most employees in the industry is that these grants can take up to 5 weeks to come through, if you are approved. For people that survive solely off of tips that is a long time to wait for any sort of money. Paychecks for bartenders that work 30-40 hours a week can be as low as $200 or less because professionals in this line of work are taxed on tips, whether they receive them or not. In the lower 48 there are states that have an even lower minimum wage for tipped workers and sometimes their paychecks are in the negative because they are taxed on a percentage of sales.
The other thing that is confusing for many workers is how to sign up for unemployment. Soon after everyone was laid off reports started rolling in about people waiting 2, 4, and even 6 hours on hold while trying to get questions answered about a process that is entirely new to them. There were reports that the unemployment office would not be requiring the mandatory job search portion of receiving benefits, while some were being questioned about why they were not searching for a job while on lockdown. For most in these types of jobs applying for benefits was something they had never had to do before. Once you are established in bars and restaurants you can usually find another job before you have left your current position, or very shortly afterwards.
For these people their fears are completely valid as some experts are reporting that up to twenty percent of bars and restaurants will not survive the pandemic. After going weeks at a time with no income some owners will have to make a tough decision about whether they will be able to reopen their doors.
For other workers, another thought is causing general worry. They are not as concerned with getting back to work, as they are with staying safe. “I’m also you know, uninsured and potentially at-risk due to some congenital issues and a predisposition to pneumonia. So actually, my biggest fear is everything going back to normal too soon, being forced to go to work because I need money, and then catching a virus that could kill or cripple me,” said Ella Evans, who works at Charlou.
This is a concern echoed by many. For those that are relatively healthy and have good insurance they could potentially pass the virus off to elderly family members or children that would not fare so well. For Evans she has taken the time to work on improving herself. “I’m drinking less, eating less, generally keeping costs as low as possible,” she said. “I’m very fortunate in that I have a pretty solid nest egg and am able to buy time that way.”
The bar industry has always had a kinship with professionals in the beauty industry, including hairdressers and tattoo artists, because we deal with many of the same types of customers. Many stylists started as bartenders while working their way through school. For Shawn Lyons of Shearsanity at Kelley Cuts it has been an emotional process.
“Finding out you are not essential hurts just a tad,” he said. “The initial shock and loss of income is scary, especially since there is no clear return to work date. Getting everyone back on schedule is going to be a nightmare.”
Lyons also said something that many bartenders are feeling. Concern for customers will always be a first priority. “Having to disappoint people by cancelling their appointments, even though it could save their life is an emotional drain.” Like many service industry workers, it’s not the work he misses but the people. “I miss my clients, the conversations and the interactions.”
Lyons is a sole proprietor and not an employee of Kelley Cuts. While he is able to take advantage of some programs being offered, he also has to think about the long-term effects other things will take on his business. He reported, “I’m personally not trying to take out a business loan. I would rather be broke right now, for a month, than further in debt once we are able to work again… Being a sole proprietor or booth renter is really scary at this time. There is no clear answer as to whether or not we qualify for the small business loan programs that were just passed.”
Throughout all of this chaos the customers have been the silver lining so many folks need. There are several websites set up so that people know which locations are able to offer to-go food and for the most part customers have been generous with their gratuities, especially after realizing that many times it is one person that takes your order, cooks it, packages it, disinfects everything, and makes sure that it gets to you. One of the most heartwarming experiences has been the website https://serviceindustry.tips/en/ak/anchorage/ where when folks log on they can tip a random worker that pops up through that individual’s Venmo or CashApp. You would not think that $3 to $5 helps that much but a few of those can help people find their next meal, or essentials for their kids.
The service workers of Anchorage are committed to taking care of their customers at all times. If, for now, that means staying home and keeping everyone safe. Just know that you, as clientele, are missed and appreciated and we look forward to the days when we can all be in the same space again.