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Minnesota bar/restaurant workers prepare for the worst

Minneapolis bartender Jennifer Schellenberg thinks things are going to get worse for food service workers like her before they get better.

Minneapolis bartender Jennifer Schellenberg thinks things are going to get worse for food service workers like her before they get better. YouTube

Coronavirus sucks for older people, who are the most at risk from the disease itself.

It sucks for young people, who can no longer go to school because of the quarantine. It sucks for their teachers, who have to worry about doing their jobs anyway. It sucks for artists, museum workers, small business owners, policymakers, activists, health care professionals, homeless folks, parents, children, grandchildren—everyone.

Servers, bartenders, and other restaurant employees represent some 16 million or so workers nationwide. This week, Minnesota and a handful of other states shut down all dine-in restaurants, bars, cafes, and coffee shops in an attempt to curb the spread of coronavirus.

It’s hard to argue with that logic. In fact, many food service workers agree that’s sound policy -- even those who think they have coronavirus. But that doesn't pay the bills.

Restaurant Workers of America, an advocacy group for food service workers, has created a YouTube playlist compiling short videos of bartenders, servers, and other service workers talking about how this epidemic has affected their livelihoods. There are messages from single moms in Arizona who don’t know how they’re going to feed their kids, servers who don’t know how they’re going to live on $245 a week in New Orleans—even a few faces from Minneapolis.

“We could use some protections,” Norm, who tends a hotel bar in Bloomington, says. “The state’s been really good with that, but I think when it comes down to the federal, we could use the help.”

In her testimonial, bartender Jennifer Schellenberg from Minneapolis explains Minnesota’s unique situation. Restaurants and bars have all been shut down. Workers have been left to apply for unemployment insurance from a “backed-up” system that won’t pay them nearly enough to cover their expenses. Benefits usually amount to half the applicant’s weekly income, not including tips.

“We’re not high school students,” she says. “We have mortgages. We have families. And we’re scared.”

Schellenberg is also the president of Restaurant Workers of America, and has been bartending in the Twin Cities for years. Her latest endeavor has been helping to open Pillbox Tavern in St. Paul, which welcomed its first visitors in early March. Coronavirus brought that to a screeching halt.

“It’s like blowing up a really big balloon and having someone just come over and pop it,” she says.

She also tends bar at Palmer’s, a beloved dive in Minneapolis. They don’t do food there, so transitioning to takeout isn’t an option.

So, what do Schellenberg and her fellow service workers want us and their representatives to do? They don’t know yet. All they know is they need help. Gavin Kaysen, chef/owner at Spoon and Stable, Demi, and Bellecour in Wayzata, said much the same thing in an Instagram video addressed to Gov. Tim Walz and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey.

“Our businesses are notoriously low-margin, and many of us are living paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “Many of us are going above and beyond the benefits program to make sure our employees have health insurance. We need help from the city and the state to stay afloat.”

That could mean an assistance program, or letting restaurants redistribute money that would otherwise be collected by the state as part of the sales and use tax, or simply putting rent or loans on hold, as Schellenberg suggests.

“In my opinion, everyone in the country needs all loans of all kinds deferred,” Schellenberg says.

On Wednesday, Governor Walz granted one of the industry's wishes, issuing an executive order that delays sales and use taxes due today (March 20) for 30 days.

While service industry folks wait for state and/or federal support to materialize, some Twin Cities servers are going the direct route and seeking donations from the general public.