At 9:30 p.m., Amber Sexton was all by herself when she locked up at Otto’s Shrunken Head, a well-known tiki bar in New York City’s East Village neighborhood. It was Sunday, March 15, 2020, the day New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio ordered all bars and restaurants in the city to close by 9 a.m. the following Tuesday to customers, except for takeout or delivery, as part of efforts to “flatten the curve” and slow the spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus.
A former magazine and newspaper photo editor, for years Sexton worked Saturday nights as a bartender. In 2019, like many in the media, her day job went kaput. Bartending suddenly became her main source of income, and since then she’s found work at a variety of establishments like 2A Bar/Lady Stardust, a pillar of the East Village since the 1980s.
“They have had some bartenders who have been there 25 years,” Sexton says. “I hope they’re okay.”
Like many bar and restaurant workers, Sexton isn’t getting paid sick leave. Restaurant Opportunities Centers United estimates only 25 percent of restaurant workers have access to paid sick leave, and even in jurisdictions that have enacted paid sick leave, fewer than 30 percent of workers are aware of and have practical access to that leave.
New York City is one of 35 cities and states that do have a paid sick leave law, which applies to employers with at least five employees. But, with bars and dining establishments facing dramatic cash flow drop offs, even here most are simply letting go of bartenders, wait staff and other front-of-house staff, allowing them to claim unemployment insurance in the meantime — if they were officially employed. Many bar and restaurant staff have held under-the-table jobs, sometimes for years, for a variety of reasons.
Amber Sexton (courtesy Amber Sexton)
Sexton isn’t worried — yet — that she and everyone else who wants to won’t be able to return to work at Otto’s once things start getting back to normal. The owners and workers are friends (“We still have a group chat,” she says). Sexton was only supposed to be filling in a couple months for someone out on long-term leave, but there’ve been shifts for her to cover beyond that. But in the meantime, there’s all the lost income from tips that bartenders, barbacks, wait staff and others like Sexton have come to depend on.
The day after she closed up at Otto’s, Sexton started scouring the internet and social media for alternative ways to replace lost tips. Even unemployment insurance wouldn’t cover lost income from tips, since tips don’t show up on employer pay stubs. Finding no good options, Sexton created a way to invite patrons to tip their suddenly unemployed bartenders using online tools. She worked up a Google form and spreadsheet, allowing bartenders to list their payment platform info along with their Instagram handle — so customers who may not know their bartenders’ names can seek them out by bar name, then check their Instagram to see if they recognize them by their face.
It started out with just her fellow bartenders at Otto’s, including owner Nell Mellon, but she hopes bartenders from any bar across the country use her form and spreadsheet to list themselves and hopefully have their customers tip them. “A lot of people on there now are people who I don’t know,” Sexton says.
“We think it’s great,” says Teofilo Reyes, director of programs and research at Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. “Part of the toolkit we’re sharing with people includes information on how to use Facebook groups or payment platforms to reach out to people who are regulars and others.”
Others are starting to create similar ways to invite customers to tip temporarily unemployed bartenders and wait staff, using GoFundMe or other platforms. Artists, drag performers and sex workers are also inviting patrons to “tip” them while they can’t perform or provide their usual services. In San Francisco, a group has organized the SF Queer Nightlife Fund.
Of course, that’s far from enough. With a membership of 30,000 restaurant workers across the country, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United created a Worker Disaster Relief Fund to provide emergency financial assistance to restaurant workers with “the highest unmet need.” The One Fair Wage Campaign and the USBG National Charity Foundation also started raising emergency funds for bartenders, wait staff and other tipped services workers
According to Reyes, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United relief fund is prioritizing those with eviction notices, followed by those who are missing or at risk of missing rent or mortgage payments, then water bill and other utility payments that might be missed, and finally those who need help purchasing food.
“Even if there haven’t been official orders to close, the market is closing down restaurants as people follow guidance to stay at home,” Reyes says.
While some are converting closed-down restaurants into takeout or drive-through establishments — or community kitchens serving free or affordable hot meals — that still doesn’t replace lost income for workers from tips.
Restaurant Opportunities Centers United launched its relief fund relatively quietly on March 17, and by noon the next day the group had already fielded 300 requests for assistance from around 20 states. Restaurant Opportunities Centers United set an initial target to raise $500,000 for the fund, but it expects that number to increase. Of the money that has come in so far, Reyes says, half has come from individual donors, and the rest from foundations as well as restaurant companies.
And that’s still not enough. Reyes says after documenting needs, each worker who calls for assistance also gets a quick briefing and a toolkit with information on how to support their fellow workers across the country by helping to push for broader policy shifts at the federal level, like guaranteeing paid sick leave for all workers. The bill signed into law by President Donald Trump last week only guarantees paid sick leave to around 20 percent of workers, and excludes the country’s largest employers entirely.
Reyes applauds the decision by Darden, the large restaurant corporation behind chains like The Olive Garden, to institute a paid sick leave policy in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. Darden’s new policy offers up to 8.5 weeks of paid sick leave — although it doesn’t apply to new employees until 90 days after their hire date.
“We wish it were broader and more inclusive,” Reyes says. “But they’ve shown leadership on that and we want other restaurant chains to follow suit. It’s a shame that they haven’t.”
Reyes adds that between Monday and Wednesday last week, they organized at least 20,000 workers to send emails to Dine Brands, the parent company of IHOP and Applebee’s, demanding that the corporation also institute a paid sick leave policy for its workers.
But still, Reyes expects some employers won’t budge on paid sick leave unless it’s required by federal policy. Restaurant Opportunities Centers United is working with its membership — on the rise over the past week, Reyes says — to push for more legislation that will extend paid sick leave to all workers, a national moratorium on evictions and debt payments, and other structural changes. As certain industries start calling for bailouts, for example, the group is joining broader calls to ensure that any bailouts to the restaurant industry or others include specific provisions that bailout funds actually get to the workers hardest hit by the economic fallout from COVID-19.
“What we’ve seen with bailouts in the past is there haven’t been requirements to make sure bailout funds go to workers, the funds have gone to creditors to make sure companies don’t have to declare bankruptcy,” Reyes says. “Or even when there’s a bankruptcy those creditors are always the first in line and workers are last in line to get paid what they’ve earned.”
The challenge will be balancing both longer-horizon structural changes needed and the immediate needs of workers — not to mention musicians, comedians, drag artists, cabaret artists and other performers — who are already losing out on tips they’ve come to depend upon.
In New York, the relatively new Office of Nightlife has put out a survey to information on lost income from COVID-19-related business closures and event cancellations in bars, live music venues, nightclubs, lounges, restaurants, and other social and cultural spaces. Both workers and business owners can fill out the survey.
“The Office of Nightlife is making sure the needs of businesses and workers are shared with government,” said a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, which includes the Nightlife Office. “We have logged 10,000 responses [to the survey] since March 16. People tell us they’ve lost 90 to 95 percent of their income. We are communicating that to City Hall in our effort to help New Yorkers get back on their feet.”
Sexton was fortunate. She had saved up for a vacation and was supposed to leave last week, but canceled it to use the savings as a cushion instead. The day after she set up the form, she and at least one other bartender had already gotten some tips. (Beyond that, she doesn’t know how many bartenders have been tipped through the form, since she’s not requiring anyone to report back to her on how they’re doing.) Sexton is also encouraging bartenders to find even more digital ways to connect with patrons, like video conference “happy hours” where bartenders can guide everyone to make a drink and then have a drink together.
“If this is a month long thing, we’re going to be okay. If it stretches longer than a month, we’re going to struggle,” Sexton says. “Some people I know are in much worse shape. I’m okay, but many people are not. Bartenders are paycheck to paycheck people. Week to week, cash in hand kind of people.”
This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter. The Bottom Line is made possible with support from Citi.
Oscar is Next City's senior economics correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha, and Fast Company.