I’ve worked in the food-service industry since 2010, however, never in my 10 years of serving have I made anywhere close to $900 per week — until I was unemployed.
Before COVID-19, I worked at a restaurant in Los Angeles. It was originally a catering company, but due to its popularity, it slightly expanded its walls to fit about 10, two-person tables inside.
Decorated by dried flowers hung upside-down in a repetitive V-pattern on its back wall, and having specialized in the quintessential healthy food LA can often be associated with, the restaurant was often packed with lines out of the door. These lines were even populated with well-known musicians and actors.
Despite the often well-paid clientele and due to the counter-service environment, the staff had to adopt a mandatory 10 percent gratuity for all orders because we weren’t being tipped.
This was not to say the staff wasn’t being paid well by the management. My owner wanted to make sure we had a good life outside of work so she paid everyone on the payroll above the current minimum wage, but that still only reached about $13 per hour.
It still wasn’t enough.
My coworkers and I still would collect about $400 weekly, which is no insignificant amount but was only enough to cover our expenses. Savings were cast by the wayside in order to appease our aggressive landlords and the insistent bills from credit-cards, which essentially worked as our savings anyways, and student-loans.
There I was, still making much more than the average minimum-wage worker, but still feeling the agonizing weight of financial stress on a daily basis.
I wasn’t prepared for a situation like the one we all live in now. COVID-19 came to the service-industry like a flash flood. On Saturday restaurants were full of hungry customers and on Sunday hours went by without seeing a single patron.
When I was told the restaurant would be significantly reducing its hours and staff, the only savings I had was about $1,000 from my tax return which could cover about a month of expenses. This was probably the most I’ve had in a savings account in all my life.
Now, due to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, I make that amount nearly every week. The act adds an additional $600 to all unemployment checks through July to ease the economic burden COVID-19 has caused in many bank accounts.
I’m not going to complain about making the most money I ever have in my life, but it just feels wrong. Why is my unessential ass getting paid upwards of $983 a week, while my former coworkers who still keep the restaurant in operation make less than they did before?
Why are the essential workers who risk their lives only receiving a $2 per hour boost to their paychecks while I receive a 200 percent boost to mine while not working at all?
Coworkers and friends of mine still are having to face the virus head on but also the financial rigors of being financially independent in their 20s while I am back to living the life I did fresh out of high school.
I’m conflicted. I’m able to use this blood money to finally ease the financial burden of debt that’s been the leading actor in a play called “Cody’s Fragile Mental Health.”
But, while I escape from this plague to finally live in some state of financial stability, the people who have become like a second family to me will have to crawl out in a place probably much worse than where they started.
Will I give any of this money to those who can use it? Perhaps, in some small donation to ease my conscience, but if I am being completely honest, no.
Does that make me selfish? Decidedly, yes. Is it the wrong decision? I hope not.
If an airplane was plummeting out of the sky, and air pressure inside the cabin was dropping rapidly, the little face masks would plop out of seemingly nowhere. What is that one thing the airline attendants say to do? You should place the mask on yourself before you help place the mask on someone else.
At least, this is the metaphor I use to wrap my head around the fact that I’m making double the amount of money as people who are working in grocery stores and packing boxes for Amazon while I sit at home with my dogs and video games.
Why me though? Why is the government helping me instead of those who are actually doing something? Or, why aren’t they helping both of us?
When lawmakers came up with this aid, surely they intended I use the money to invest in the current economy, but paying off my debts feels like I’m retroactively investing into the economy of 2016 — when I incurred my debts in the first place.
I guess that clears up a portion of my current income for investing in the post-COVID-19 economy but, still, it feels weird.
This time of COVID-19 is strange, surely. I guess my one hope that comes out of this is that people begin to understand and relate to service-industry professionals.
Food for thought (pun very much intended):
Grocery store workers will still perform the same task even when there is no contagious disease going around and you will still need someone to stock the food you take off the shelves. If we, as a society, see value in them now, then I hope we put that into some kind of monetary value in the future.