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The New Orleans Service Industry in Crisis, and What Comes Next

21:46 April 07, 2020
By: Alena Cover

In mid-March, the owner of Turkey and the Wolf and Molly's Rise and Shine, Mason Hereford, and his team decided to switch both restaurants to take-away only. This decision came from them independently, the day before the city order came down. Days later, they decided to close down entirely.

As it became clear that COVID-19 had reached New Orleans, Hereford and his staff of approximately 24 employees came together to discuss how they could balance the responsibility of taking care of their staff with that of protecting the community.

Michael "Swade" Swadener, the executive sous chef, remembers their early conversations as "very open and democratic." Even before the outbreak, Hereford often asked his staff for their ideas of solutions to problems facing the restaurant, and many decisions were made by majority rule. In this case, the group quickly decided to switch to take-away orders because they felt it was safer for everyone involved.

"This is an unprecedented situation. We did the best we could with the information we had.It was the right move at that time, and I think when we decided to close a week later, that was also the right move.Neither of these decisions were easy. We had many factors to consider, including the health of the staff, the customers, and the business," Swadener said.

Hereford was amazed by the staff's desire to look out for each other. Some staff members who had more in their savings accounts, or who had someone in their family who was willing to support them, offered to split up their paychecks to be redistributed among the people in the team who were in less stable situations.

"We immediately decided that every single person on our team was going to make the exact same amount of money--whether you're a part-time cashier, or if you are the executive chef, or whatever. We decided that all the tips would be split--from the front to the back of the house--evenly. We decided everyone would make $10 an hour, with all the tips divided evenly, depending on how much you worked that week."

Three days later, through texts, emails, and one-on-one conversations, Hereford found out that more of the staff wanted the restaurants to close than to stay open. The main reason for initially wanting to do take-out as long as possible was that everyone wanted to look out for everyone else on the team financially, but when pressed individually, rather than in a group setting, many on the staff said that they felt uneasy about potentially contributing to the spread of the disease by staying open.

Another staff member, Nathan Barfield, remembers feeling conflicted about what he thought was the right thing to do.

"We were all told that if we did not feel comfortable coming to work, then we were free to stay home. I live with my mother-in-law, who is among the demographic of the most vulnerable to the virus. Because of this, I had already taken leave, before the final decision was made. I was on the fence because as someone who had already made the decision not to work, I didn't want to tell someone else who was healthy that they should not have the opportunity to work and make money," Barfield said.

Looking back now, he feels comfortable with their decision to close, because it would have been stressful for the staff to continue interacting with the public without knowing for sure who was or wasn't sick, and it was the only way to guarantee that they weren't contributing to the spread.

Hereford respects the decision of other restaurants that have chosen to stay open during this time. "We're happy that they're doing that, and we love that we're able to support them--our team just wanted to tap out," he said.

Swadener is impressed by the creativity of the restaurants that have remained open, seeing how many are adjusting their menus and service daily.

Turkey and the Wolf Staff

"I'm glad that the city has classified restaurants as essential businesses and is allowing them to continue operating with service modifications. It gives restaurants and their workers an opportunity to continue to make money and to help get through this tough situation."

Hereford and his staff expressed anxieties and concern about not knowing how many restaurants will be able to survive the shutdown and who will still have jobs once it's over. New Orleans has more restaurants per capita than most cities, and so many people rely on them for their livelihood. Spring in New Orleans is the busiest season for restaurants, with more visitors in town for Jazz Fest and the temperate weather, and that period usually provides a cushion for the long, hot, slow summers.

At the same time, they have been inspired by the way the service industry has responded to the crisis. Before restaurants had even begun to figure out how they would save themselves, they were already looking for ways to help, like preparing meals for people in need and donating school lunches.

"The number of people who have said, 'let me know how we can help' is extraordinary," Hereford said. Purveyors have been reaching out to restaurants to donate food to support restaurant workers, and the Lee Initiative has turned Cochon into a relief center for restaurant workers, packing to-go meals and collecting household supplies.

Ultimately, Hereford said, "I think if you aren't worried, you aren't paying attention. But I don't think I've ever been more inspired by the group of people that I work with. Optimism is important. New Orleans is resilient. We love each other, and we're going to get through this."

Since closing, Hereford and his team have taken to the internet to raise money and have been able to raise more money online for the staff than they would have been able to continue to pay their staff (while still having enough to reopen at the end of the shutdown).

They had a merch order that they hadn't gotten around to putting online before the shutdown and decided to put it up for $5 more than they normally would have sold it for, with all proceeds going to the staff. With the help of friend Via Fortier, they added a button to their website so that visitors can "tip the staff" and timed the button with the release of the new merchandise and the option to purchase gift cards.

Since then, they have been getting everything mailed out and getting another campaign going. On social media, they shared ways that customers can help the staff of Molly's Rise and Shine and Turkey and the Wolf specifically, and how to can help the restaurant industry in general.

They have used their Instagram platform to highlight the work of Ashtin Berry, who founded the movement Unite America's Table.

Unite America's Table aims to draw attention to the rights of service industry workers and advocate for change at the federal, state, and local level. Much of the proposed relief effort so far has been focused on bailing out small business owners, without enough focus on support for workers. Helping small businesses through this crisis is crucial, but giving a lump sum of money to business owners will not necessarily translate directly into help for workers.

As restaurants adjust to the shutdown, service workers have been laid off, have had their hours cut, and have been working for to-go tips and making a fraction of what they normally earn. But even before the pandemic, service industry workers were already vulnerable because minimum wage for tipped employees is set at $2.13 an hour in Louisiana, and most service industry workers don't get sick leave or health insurance.COVID-19 has not only created problems for workers, but also made more obvious the problems that already existed before the pandemic.

Unite America's Table has a three-point action plan, starting with making sure that small businesses and service industry workers are included on the Stimulus Bill. On their website is a petition for a proposal based on Rep. Maxine Waters's relief proposal and the Stimulus Bill proposed by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, with suggested amendments that focus on the hospitality industry specifically. Secondly, they are creating a hospitality census to collect data on independent businesses and laborers across the country. Thirdly, they aim to create continuity measures to support people when things like this happen in the future and to make sure that workers who may not have jobs to go back to after the shutdown will have sustained support.

Unite America's Table is a nationwide movement, but their work is particularly important for a city like New Orleans, where the restaurant industry is so central to the economy.

Ashtin Berry feels that there should have been more direct communication from the mayor and city council to local restaurants during this crisis, and that the city order to switch businesses to take-away only should have come sooner than it did.

"American cities need to pay more attention to the hospitality industry, because had restaurants and bars been asked to move to delivery and take-out or to shorten their hours or implement social distancing measures immediately, when we heard about the first case, it probably would have severely lessened the curve. Instead, hospitality workers ended up being vectors for contraction" Berry said. "Let's just take, for example, the French Quarter, and how many people those people who work in the service industry come into contact with a day. Even on a slow day. All you need is one person to be infected, and they can easily infect multiple people."

"This has proven that not only our mayor, but our City Council people have a lack of intimacy with our industry, and do not understand how it operates. And the things that they do understand about it come from a power position, where they are only communicating with those who have access to power and money, and that means chefs and owners," Berry continued. "This is the first pandemic that our country has had for the people who are living right now. So, I'm not saying that Mayor Cantrell has done a horrible job. I think that she's doing the best with the knowledge that she has and the resources that she has. But I am saying that she has some blind spots in how our city operates. Nationwide, there is a lack of understanding of the hospitality industry at every level: federal, state, and local government. At the same time, hospitality workers are the fifth-largest working labor cohort in this country."

Berry expressed that if the city government had communicated more directly with restaurant owners earlier on and given more information about safety measures, owners would have been in a better position to understand what the virus meant for their businesses and might have been more likely to communicate better with their staff.

"A lot of owners didn't have direct communication with their staff about what coronavirus meant for their business. Not all owners; some owners did go out of their way to communicate what was going on, but the vast majority did not," Berry said.

Berry hopes that the way that this crisis has made the vulnerability of service industry workers more obvious will force a conversation about workers' rights into the fore. The nation can use this as an opportunity to make changes that needed to happen anyway.

"Hospitality workers need to be politically activated. I'm hoping this will help them to be. The department of labor suspended affirmative action guidelines for the next three months. They do not have to consider diversity. That's really serious in a state like Louisiana. I think people haven't been asked, prior to this, to think of the industry in an inter-sectional way--how it intersects politically with race and socioeconomic status and health access. They've never been asked, but now, every owner should be thinking about it," Berry said.

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