Belabored is a labor podcast hosted by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen. Belabored Stories, a new feature, will present short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send us your stories at email@example.com
As the coronavirus crisis loomed over New Jersey in March, just before the state went into an economic lockdown, business started dwindling at the IHOP where “Pamela” had worked for twelve years.
The manager initially tried to keep the restaurant open on a skeleton staff. “They split the schedule between all of the servers,” Pamela (who wanted her name withheld when speaking about her former employer) recalled. “So, some servers were working two days, some servers were working one day, some were working three days, and he was paying us minimum wage, which is $11 an hour in Jersey.”
Pamela scraped by until March 20, when the restaurant shuttered. She ultimately took home just a few hundred dollars during the final two weeks: first she got a paycheck of about $140, after taxes, for eighteen hours of work, followed by a paycheck of $0, plus $160 in tips. (It’s not unusual for tipped employees to receive $0 paychecks along with cash tips while their bosses withhold a certain amount required for taxes on their regular wages.)
Her boss advised the staff to file for unemployment. But Pamela and other workers at the restaurants of Dine Brands, the corporation that controls IHOP and Applebee’s, want the multibillion restaurant giant to help tide workers over during the crisis.
Pamela’s normal benefits are just $344 a week, but under the stimulus, she is receiving an added $600, so she is earning close to what she made waiting tables. But she worries about how she and her partner, a construction worker who is now also jobless, will stay afloat. What she really wants is some recognition of all the years she put into that restaurant. Her boss could have supported the workers more by allowing her to redeem the paid sick time she had accrued, for example. Or the owner could have applied for funds under the Paycheck Protection Program, a provision in the stimulus package passed in late March that offers supplemental loans to “small businesses” (including chain restaurant franchisees) to help keep workers on the payroll.
“I just feel like he could’ve stepped up as an owner,” she said. “I know he can only do what IHOP corporation is going to allow him to do, but from watching the news and all these press conferences that the president and secretary of treasury were holding, he [could receive] kickbacks [for retaining workers]. He would’ve benefited, if he had kept us on the payroll.”
Pamela said that her boss even continued to withhold a paycheck, refusing to let her cash out unless she opted to return her uniform and officially quit.
“He’s like, ‘If you want, you can hand in your uniform, and I can give you that paycheck, but just know that you quit.’ So when all this is over, I would have to reapply for the job all over again. . . . I was, like, wow, I’ve been here for twelve years, literally worked my butt off . . . and that’s how you’re going to come at me?”
The Restaurant Opportunities Center has been organizing distressed and laid-off workers of Dine restaurants to demand “comprehensive paid sick leave, paid family and medical leave, and income relief to all its workers affected by this public health crisis.” So far the organization says that, under the banner of the “Applebee’s Is Rotten” campaign, more than a quarter million employees of the two chains have petitioned the corporation for paid sick leave across all its restaurants. In response to the coronavirus crisis, Dine has offered temporary leave, but only at corporate-owned restaurants, not the franchisees that make up the vast majority of its outlets.
For laid-off employees like Pamela, the group demands financial relief directly from the company to support families living on meager unemployment benefits.
But Pamela does not have much faith in her former employer. She said the way she was treated in her final days there was “like a big punch in the gut.” Her job had previously felt secure to her, but when the economic and public-health crises subside, she is unsure whether she would return. “If I go back to work for them,” she said, “let’s just say in ten, fifteen years, if I’m still there [and] something like this, or worse, happens, and I’m out of work again, are they going to do this? Is this going to happen all over again? Am I going to be protected?”
Michelle Chen is a member of Dissent‘s editorial board and co-host of its Belabored podcast.