Late last week, the state of Washington released recent unemployment data — and it’s one illustration of the extent to which COVID-19 containment measures have impacted restaurant industry workers. This chart from the state’s Employment Security Department (ESD) shows that “accommodation and food service” unemployment claims in Washington rose more than seven times over the previous week for the week ending March 14. That was right before Gov. Jay Inslee ordered all restaurants and bars to temporarily shut down for dine-in service to try to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. It also shows that unemployment claims for King County rose about four times over the previous week.
But it’s likely that the rise in claims will be exponentially higher as the month goes on. All the local and statewide unemployment data hasn’t been released yet for the period after Inslee’s order was put in place, which resulted in mass layoffs across the restaurant industry. Last Tuesday, the ESD received 19,000 calls, an increase of 827 percent over the previous week. The department’s commissioner, Suzan LeVine, said, “The new claims we are receiving are at the level of the peak weeks during the 2008/2009 recession.”
There have been so many claims flooding the state’s unemployment system that many laid-off workers are finding it difficult to get their applications through.
“The website is incredibly clunky,” says Tiffany Schindler, who worked as a server at the Port Orchard, Washington’s farm-to-table bistro Farmer Rosie until it had to close temporarily early last week. Schindler applied for a standby claim, which is meant for employees who have been laid off temporarily. She was given a tentative return date (April 24), which is required for such claims. But given that so many factors remain unknown at this point, numerous restaurants are likely unable to provide a certain return date, or are otherwise putting forward a best guess, which may make filing even more complicated.
Jesse Tiamson, who leads the front of house staff at Musang in Beacon Hill, also had to put in a standby claim, along with other employees, since the Filipino restaurant temporarily closed for regular dine-in service. “We tried calling to the unemployment office through the automated system and eventually reached a point where it essentially said ‘we are busy, please call back later,’” he says.
To make matters worse, workers like Schindler and Tiamson were initially denied standby claims from the state due to a glitch in the system, as the Seattle Times reported. The Employment Securities Department said the error occurred because part-time employees who weren’t previously eligible for standby claims are now eligible, and the computer system hadn’t caught up with the new rules. The department said it fixed the error and would reach out to anyone who received a denial by mistake. Still, Schindler spent the better part of a whole day online trying to figure out what to do and what she was eligible for — and still hasn’t received assurances that she will get any benefits or pay.
Were you denied for standby? Please file your weekly claims anyway. Our computer system has been updated to reflect emergency rules that went into effect recently.— Washington State ESD (@ESDwaWorks) March 22, 2020
Learn more about filing weekly claims: https://t.co/nyZdz4Czuj pic.twitter.com/7KDWZmiLrc
It’s unclear when things will get easier for those looking for answers. Inslee recently waived the state’s one-week waiting period for unemployment eligibility, which should expedite help to those who need it. But the move will also likely lead to a spike in the number of claims being filed, overloading an already-taxed system. Kary Wayson, who was among the hundreds laid off when chef Tom Douglas closed 12 out of his 13 Seattle restaurants, applied before the big rush that followed Inslee’s order to close last week. But even then, she says, she had to wait “for hours on hold.”
Even if the technical glitches that have come with filing unemployment claims are solved, it seems that long-term hardship in the restaurant industry will be inevitable unless more drastic measures are taken. The National Restaurant Association recently predicted that restaurants across the country will lose $225 billion in business over the next three months, and that five to seven million service and kitchen jobs could be lost over the same period.
And for many former wait staff, cooks, and bartenders, the notion of looking elsewhere for work isn’t so simple. While many grocery stores have been hiring more workers recently due to a surge in demand, Schindler says that being “on the frontlines” when there’s a pandemic isn’t so appealing, especially since she could potentially put at-risk family members in danger.
“I don’t want a new job,” she says. “I want my old job.”