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Restaurant workers scrambling for resources as they face unemployment

‘It’s a total disaster. People are scared and confused.’

Bianca Routt was laid off from her jobs as an office manager and a bartender. She is training to run in the Boston Marathon, but fears she may have to move back home to Miami.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Since Governor Charlie Baker’s announcement on Sunday mandating all restaurants shut down dine-in operations to help limit the coronavirus outbreak, it’s left an industry of over 350,000 employees statewide scrambling.

The National Restaurant Association estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic could result in a loss of $225 billion in sales nationwide during the next three months, and the elimination of up to 7 million jobs. On Monday alone, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development office received nearly 20,000 unemployment applications, many of which likely came from workers in the service sector, which has been hit disproportionately hard due to closures.


“It’s a firehose of people,” said Lou Saban, an employment attorney who works with the city’s service industry workers. “Tens of thousands of people lost their jobs overnight, and most have less than $10,000 saved up. It’s a total disaster. People are scared and confused.”

Mike Labo was waiting tables at Burton’s Grill in North Andover on Sunday, yammering with a skeleton crew of colleagues in the back of the restaurant when they all got the news alert about Baker’s mandate on their phones.

Labo, a 42-year-old single father of a 4-year-old daughter, said he saw things slowing down at Burton’s and Dick’s Last Resort in Faneuil Hall, where he also worked as a bartender and waiter. But the abrupt shutdown still took him by surprise. The conversation among the staff immediately turned to what would happen next. “How are we going to pay for everything? Rent and everything else?” Labo said. “We were all kind of blindsided.”

It’s a sentiment felt across the region as waitstaff make the abrupt adjustment from serving food to worrying about how they’ll put food on their own tables.

Tony Iamunno 39, was just a few weeks into a new job bartending at Lucie, a restaurant that opened in the Colonnade Hotel in the Back Bay last month. “Things were great, the place was busy and we were starting to click with the neighborhood and the hotel guests,” he said. But the city’s previously booming restaurant business may be his financial undoing. He’d been working at Gustazo in Cambridge when he took the Lucie gig, but the restaurant’s opening was delayed by a month because they couldn’t find enough staff. So he had to go unpaid for a few weeks while they tried to fill out their team.


“That successfully depleted my savings to a point where now things aren’t looking good,” he said. “I’m praying. I’ve been reading about a large federal economic stimulus and I’m hoping that goes through so I could pay rent."

Bianca Routt may not be so lucky. Routt, 28, had been juggling jobs as an office manager at an ad firm and a bartender at A4cade, a bar and arcade in Cambridge. She had recently cut back bartending hours to prepare for Speed Rack, a female bartending competition. She was also training for the Boston Marathon and planning to host a fund-raiser at the bar.

Routt saw the slowdown coming, as the restaurant had already scaled back operations. But A4cade decided to shut down operations entirely on Saturday out of concerns for public health. Routt found out via e-mail that she’d been laid off at the bar. Then she lost her other job.

“If offices close, there’s no need for office managers," she said. “I got laid off from both of my jobs in a matter of 24 hours.” (Her Marathon fund-raiser is now off and, to make matters worse, it was raising money for departing quarterback Tom Brady’s TB12 Foundation.)


Routt tried to apply for unemployment, but accidentally entered some information incorrectly on her application, and it now needs to be reviewed by the state. She has no idea when that will happen, and if it will happen before she runs out of cash to pay rent for her Back Bay apartment. “I’ll probably have to move home to Miami," she said. "I only have rough savings for the month of April and about $600 for a moving truck, which I don’t think is enough.”

So she thinks she may have to leave her things in storage and take the bus. “I don’t think I can afford to live here anymore without a job and unemployment," she said.

In the wake of mass layoffs, resources have begun to spring up to support hospitality workers. Restaurants have begun launching GoFundMe pages and Venmo fund-raisers to support their laid-off staff, or offering a portion of gift card sales to their laid-off workers. Virtual happy hours have been held to help raise tips for unemployed bartenders.

John Pepper, the cofounder and owner of Boloco, has been talking to his employees who have other jobs, asking them to let their co-workers get the hours they need. He’s pared back the entire menu, focusing on serving restaurant and health care workers. “If we feed people what they need quickly and safely for five bucks, we break even," he said. "And we keep our people employed.”


Irene Li, of Mei Mei Street Kitchen, has begun offering emergency groceries at cost to restaurant workers and other front-line workers. “A lot of restaurant workers are pretty low wage and any help we can give them we’re enthusiastic about,” she said. It also helps that she can give her own staff hours packing bags for others while they’re shut down. Anoush’ella in the South End is clearing out the stockpile of food in its kitchens and said it will use it to serve free meals to up to 70 restaurant workers a day.

On Wednesday, Samuel Adams and The Greg Hill Foundation announced that they had created the Restaurant Strong Fund for Massachusetts restaurant workers, which will provide a $1,000 grant to employees who worked over 30 hours a week in the industry and have been at a restaurant for over three months. Seeded by $100,000 from Sam Adams, the fund has already amassed over $300,000. But while it will help some workers, it may not apply to new staffers like Iamunno or part-time employees like Routt.

Finding resources for people who fall into these loopholes has become a priority for Keith Sarisan, the owner of Greenleaf restaurant in Milford, N.H., and the creator of the Industry United Facebook group, which was made in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Sarisan launched the site last week, when it became clear that the restaurant industry would take a hit as the virus spread. “I felt helpless. I was scared I was going to lose my restaurant, I didn’t know where I could get resources," he said. Now, nearly 16,000 restaurant workers have joined the group, seeking help with unemployment and emotional support as they sort through their new reality.


“The current bailout plan exempts small businesses under 50 people. There are so many restaurants who are not going to be able to reopen and employees who are not going to be able to take care of themselves,” said Naomi Levy, a bartender in Boston who works as a bar and cocktail consultant.

Levy launched a fund-raiser for Cambridge and Somerville hospitality workers on Tuesday — supporters who donate will get a special cocktail recipe derived from what’s in their liquor cabinet — and she’s been offering assistance on budgeting and financial management to laid-off restaurant workers who are now trying to make ends meet. Ironically, that has meant telling her clients to stop paying her for her consulting services.

“The way I put it, in hospitality we take care of other people,” Levy said. “Now we really have to ask our community to take care of us.”

Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.