I’m a Pa. restaurant worker. And thanks to COVID-19, I’m out of work | Hannah McDonald

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On Monday, I lost my job, as many Pennsylvania restaurant workers did, due to COVID-19. 

As the situation has ramped up in recent months, those in the food service industry like myself have faced economic hardships. 

Just a few weeks ago, co-workers were comforting others. “It’s just a slow season! It will get busy soon,” we told one another, but as we all already know, that time did not come before the announcement that we were out of work.

We’ve watched announcements from companies saying employees could work from home if they wished, turn into pleas that employees stay home, and self-isolate in an effort to flatten the curve of this virus. 

This weekend we waited, while Ohio and Illinois closed bars and restaurants across the state.

Just after 9 a.m., my coworkers and I got the announcement that our restaurant was closed.

The language used gave no indication that a re-opening date was in sight. This was confirmed during a staff-wide meeting at 2 p.m., which was conducted via teleconference as to adhere to social distancing guidelines established by the CDC earlier this month. 

“We knew the walls of government would be closing in and we wanted to give you as much time as possible to file for unemployment assistance,” the owners said during a conference call.

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Less than five minutes after the call, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that Pennsylvania would be the next state to shut down serve-in bars and restaurants amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

This order does not come as a shock. Restaurant workers across the state — myself included — have been talking about it for the past week. Though we knew it was only a matter of time, the blow still lands hard. 

And while we saw this coming, we have had no way to prepare for it. 

In Pennsylvania, restaurant servers make $2.83 an hour. In a 40-hour work week, that comes out to just $113, which is taken in taxes. Rarely does a server in this state receive a paycheck. We rely entirely on our tips, but since the coronavirus outbreak began, business has declined drastically, leaving us no safety net. 

We were hopeful that this past weekend would be our last chance to make as much money as possible before we were laid off. On Saturday, I brought home just 10 percent of my expected earnings. And while I don’t know for sure, I’m convinced my fellow servers had the same experience. 

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With no cushion to fall back on, I write this with an uncertain mind. Uncertainty about my own life, as well as that of my co-workers, plagues me as I count the last of my cash tips to fill my car with gas. And as I prepare for whatever is coming next. 

As this progresses, I know that those in the service industry, whether they have been laid off yet or not, are going to be faced with hard decisions; 

Decisions like paying debts so as to not destroy credit scores over what may be a simple two-week hiatus, or buying supplies for what could be an 8-week quarantine. 

Everything is unsure. Our very livelihood rests in this unknowing space. 

Is this the time when we are finally allowed to be scared? 

Capital-Star Correspondent Hannah McDonald covers Erie and northwestern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow her on Twitter, @HannahMcD0nald.