A week after closures, Brooklyn’s restaurant workers are fending for themselves
Greenpoint’s Five Leaves had just started to regularly seat outdoor tables at its coveted brunch spot facing the northern tip of McCarren Park when Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that all restaurants and bars in the tri-state area must shut down operations except for take-out and delivery.
As one of the most dramatic pushes to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, the abrupt closure of Brooklyn’s 6,857 restaurants — as estimated by the city Department of Health — brought thousands of the borough’s restaurant workers into an indefinite period of unemployment.
A week has passed since the directive went into full effect on March 16, and former servers, bartenders, line-cooks and managers are still reeling from the blow, wondering what to do next.
This includes 32-year-old Ilton Kosta, a musician who started in the hospitality industry as a busboy nine years ago and worked his way up to a floor manager position at Five Leaves. The restaurant paid the majority of his living expenses until Tuesday morning.
“We are kind of a mecca for Greenpoint,” said Kosta, who estimates that an average of 500 to 600 people a day dine at the restaurant, from breakfast until dinner, when outdoor and indoor seating areas are open.
“I’m not sure how we are going forward because we are, in a way, mom-and-pop. We’re not a big corporation,” he said.
A $1 trillion relief bill for small businesses and workers affected by COVID-19 failed a key vote in the Senate Sunday. If a federal stimulus package does pass, it’s unclear when and how those funds would be distributed, or if they will be enough to save many of Brooklyn’s restaurants.
With electricity bills, taxes, insurance payments and rent looming, a lot of restaurants may never reopen, said Kosta.
“People are expecting excellence, and it’s hard to deliver excellence when you’re not maximizing everything and everyone,” he said. “When we are shut down even for a day, we are actually losing so, so much.”
Workers dumped into a period of uncertainty
To reduce the burden on workers laid off because of COVID-19, Gov. Cuomo waived the seven-day waiting period to file for unemployment.
But the New York State Department of Labor was unprepared for the onslaught of people applying for unemployment insurance. Its offices received over 21,000 calls on Tuesday alone, over ten times the number of calls fielded the week prior according to the department’s Twitter account, leading the website to crash regularly throughout the week.
Thirty-one-year-old Jess Kimmel tried to file for unemployment after losing her serving job at Chez Ma Tante, a now-shuttered Greenpoint restaurant.
“I was absolutely expecting the site to crash,” said Kimmel, who eventually filed for unemployment insurance over the phone on Thursday after dialing the offices nearly a hundred times over the course of three days.
“But it’s like, if I expected it, you should have expected it too,” she said, speaking of the NY Department of Labor’s office.
Kimmel grew up in Midwood and has worked front-of-house and kitchen roles in restaurants, bars and cafes since her first job at Starbucks when she was 17 years old. She said she couldn’t imagine herself working in any other industry and considers restaurants to be “a very integral part of New York culture.”
“Every celebration in New York happens in a restaurant. Every birthday, every good grade, every good report card, it all happens in restaurants,” Kimmel said. “I mean, most people don’t have the ability to have six or seven people in their living room.”
“Clearly we’re seeing what happens when you remove that now, because this has never happened before,” she said.
Sage Redman, a 27-year-old independent music producer and server at Ops, a Bushwick pizzeria, said she is focussing her attention toward cooking, reading and making music, as an effort to stay busy and avoid “spiraling down.”
“I still feel numb to the whole thing, and in a weird way, it hasn’t really sunk in,” said Redman, who had left an office job in the music business in Seattle to work in restaurants last year in hopes of breaking into the wine industry.
“This whole industry is kind of the heartbeat of the city,” she said. “New York City is so diverse, and for that reason, the service industry is so diverse.”
Many of Brooklyn’s undocumented immigrants rely on the restaurant industry, according to Kosta, and shutdowns have put them in an even more difficult situation than their coworkers.
“They are part of our team, part of our families, and now they are in complete limbo because they don’t know when their jobs are coming back, and they can’t apply for government assistance,” Kosta said.
Grassroots initiatives are on the rise
While a federal stimulus package may help small restaurants in Brooklyn, the industry is, in a way, building its own bailout.
Grassroot campaigns for Brooklyn’s service workers are springing up across the borough, with one of the most prominent, the Service Workers Coalition, raising over $40,000 since it launched a little over a week ago.
The coalition received an “overwhelming” number of emails from undocumented people who lost their jobs and need money or assistance, many of whom can’t afford groceries or are scared of losing their apartment, according to Buzzfeed.
A “North Brooklyn Mutual Aid” Google spreadsheet, listing volunteers, resources, and an updated list of restaurants closed or open for delivery, has circulated on social media for more than a week. Over 450 volunteers have signed up to help others with cooking, errand running, pet care and child care services.
Dozens of Brooklyn restaurants, like Chez Ma Tante and Five Leaves in Greenpoint, and other businesses like Bed-Vyne in Bed-Stuy and Faro in Bushwick, are running GoFundMe pages to raise money and help keep their staff and establishment afloat.
Kimmel donated money from her savings to the Service Workers Coalition, and Redman gave a portion of proceeds she made from releasing music to the organization.
“We all need to take care of eachother right now,” said Kimmel.
Other Brooklyn neighborhoods that have formed mutual aid groups include Bushwick, Carroll Gardens, Crown Heights, Ditmas Park/Flatbush/Prospect Park, Kensington, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Red Hook and South Brooklyn.