Service Workers are Still Struggling to Survive the Economic Fallout of the Pandemic

Saru Jayaraman, leader of labor advocacy group, One Fair Wage gives an update on the state of service workers in the age of COVID-19.

Stock photo of inside a bar.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the restaurant industry, which is among the fastest-growing private-employment industries in the nation, has experienced a series of hardships. 

Prior to COVID-19, the dining scene employed around 13 million people. Now, with a surge of cases and Michigan’s three-week epidemic order in place, restricting food service to outdoor, delivery and carry-out only, service workers are still in a dicey predicament as the industry struggles to gain stable ground and better conditions for employees. 

Listen: Saru Jayaraman shares how One Fair Wage advocates are addressing the injustices within the restaurant industry.

“With the pandemic, especially now, it has frankly turned from an issue of justice to one of life or death,” says Saru Jayaraman, President of One Fair Wage, a national labor advocacy group. “Prior to the pandemic, workers in Michigan earned a wage of $3.52 and they were struggling with economic instability and sexual harassment — it was mostly a female workforce having to tolerate inappropriate behavior to feed their kids in tips. Now they’re being asked to go back to work for the [same wage], when tips and sales are down and they’re experiencing the most severe hostility from customers, with having to enforce social distancing and mask rules with the same consumers that depend on for tips to survive. It is a disaster.”

In Michigan, Jayaraman notes that thousands of industry workers lost their jobs in March and most of the employers were unable to receive financial assistance to sustain their livelihood. The challenge for laid-off individuals to received unemployment assistance raised questions surrounding unemployment eligibility and the difficulties within the application process.

“Unemployment insurance was [historically] created as a system to provide funding for people out work, yes, but, from the beginning, it was intentionally set up to discourage people from getting it. It was set up to force people to take any low-wage job that comes your way,” Jayaraman explains. “It’s very hard to access and once you get it, if your boss calls you back to work, even if you’re a person with a pre-existing condition or someone at home with a high-risk [of contracting COVID], you have to take that job or risk losing your benefits and that was designed purposefully.” 

Currently, One Fair Wage is readying the release of a new report that illustrates with first-person accounts, the harsh and disturbing conditions restaurant service workers are subjected to prior to, and presently as the economy struggles to recover and overcome the effects of COVID-19. 

Related: Detroit Businesses Plead for Stimulus Help Amid New Restrictions

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  • LaToya Cross
  • Amanda LeClaire
    Amanda LeClaire is an award-winning host and producer of CultureShift on 101.9 WDET-FM Detroit’s NPR station. She’s a founding producer of WDET’s flagship news talk show Detroit Today, and a former host/reporter for Arizona Public Media. Amanda is also an artist, certified intuitive and energy healer, and professional tarot reader.