COVID-19: How Philadelphia Restaurant Workers are Dealing With Unemployment

Brian Chapman is a 34-year-old Chinatown resident, who used to work as a server at Double Knot, a popular sushi-based Schulson Collective restaurant located in Center City. 

Like most restaurant employees, Chapman’s last day was March 15, when Double Knot was no longer able to open its doors to customers. 

“I was disappointed but not surprised,” Chapman said. “I know that we’re only going to pass this if we adhere to all of the precautions—social distancing, heavy sanitizing—and try to take better care of ourselves.” 

COVID-19 has taken a toll on most businesses, but restaurant and hospitality workers have been hit particularly hard.

Waiters, cooks, hostesses, and hotel staff have all found themselves struggling without employment, searching for ways to not only pass the time but to also pay their bills. As Pennsylvania unemployment claims approach the 2 million mark, more service industry employees are fearful of the future of their jobs.

The Delaware Valley’s restaurant and bar scene supported over 330,000 jobs before the pandemic shut businesses down, with 79,000 of those jobs centered within the city limits, according to a report from the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia. The food economy generates $66.3 million in annual wage tax revenue, more than retail, processing, and distribution employment. 

Bartender and event promoter Andrew Tobin had multiple jobs in the service industry. Working at Live Nation’s Punchline Philly venue and 2Street Pub, located on South Street, Tobin found himself out of a job when they both closed due to the pandemic. 

Punchline’s last date was also March 15. 

“The shift felt far longer than normal, and I was initially very angry that I wouldn’t be working for the next month,” Tobin said. 

Tobin was lucky enough to still get a paycheck from Live Nation for a few weeks, but was recently informed he will have to file for unemployment because Live Nation will soon stop issuing paychecks to non-working employees. 

After his manager suggested filing for unemployment, Chapman applied on March 16 and his experience with the unemployment process is still ongoing. As of April 21, Chapman had yet to receive any funds from the unemployment office. He said that though the process is easy, he is frustrated with how slow it is. 

“It’s been stressful but also eye-opening,” he said

Though Chapman worries about his future financial security, support within the service industry has helped him stay optimistic. 

“Restaurants are making care packages for fellow industry folk just because,” he said. “People are donating to relief funds for industry workers even though they don’t have much coming in themselves.” 

Darian Pearlmutter is one of those people trying to help out. A healthcare worker who has worked as a graphic designer, a television events planner, and a server in Center City, she is currently raising money to support service industry workers through the Hope For Hospitality: Serving One Philly fundraising campaign. Though the American Hotel and Lodging Association is running a similarly named campaign, Pearlmutter is not affiliated with the AHLA.

Pearlmutter’s goal has been to help offset the financial burdens which employees are currently facing. Hope for Hospitality provides a one-time $400 gift to as many applicants as possible, which Pearlmutter said is the amount an employee in the industry would take home in an average week. 

As of the end of April, the fundraiser has raised $11,104 for Philadelphia service industry workers, with 22 applicants receiving a $400 gift so far. Currently, Philadelphia’s Hope for Hospitality fund has 84 applicants with the application process now closed, pending the organization’s ability to send gifts. 

“Reduced patronage and cancelled bookings made it fairly easy to see the writing on the wall,” Pearlmutter said.  “Those of us working in hospitality were going to need a lot of help, and that’s sooner rather than later.” 

Entertainment industry organizers have also been searching for ways to raise funds to support service industry workers, hosting virtual events like Humor for Hospitality, a virtual show for Philadelphia comedians to stand up comedy for charity. Held on April 24, the show drew in 164 viewers over Zoom. Between ticket sales and donations, the event raised $2,471 for Hope for Hospitality, funding six gifts. 

Mae Casem, comedian and full-time server, set up the comedy show with the help of Lauren Rosenburg, a New York comic and friend with experience planning virtual events. They executed the event together, recruiting Philadelphia comedians for the show.

“In a time like this, it’s really essential that people band together in order to support one another,” Casem said. “When I see people supporting each other it really restores my faith in humanity in such a crazy world.” 

Pearlmutter said there are no follow-up Hope for Hospitality shows to date, “but we are certainly open to collaboration ideas for future events!”

Pearlmutter has set-up Facebook and GoFundMe fundraiser pages, and promotes Hospitality for Hope across a variety of social media platforms. She has also designed Hope for Hospitality apparel, sales of which support the ongoing donations to hospitality workers.

“All of the designs are my own, and draw upon my ‘former-life’ experience as a graphic designer,” she said. “For those that wish to go the extra mile, there’s a ‘leave a tip’ option at the purchase checkout.” 

But a person doesn’t have to wait for an organized fundraiser to help out. 

“We can all support our family and friends who aren’t faring as well,” Tobin said. “If you can afford to buy a struggling friends’ groceries for the week, do it! Venmo them some money, or drop bags on their doorstep.” 

Pearlmutter has seen a lot of people take initiative, contributing to those who lost jobs. 

The level of community support has been absolutely tremendous and does a lot to make one feel better about the future in a general sense,” she said. “Even though it seems we’re constantly bombarded by things that would fly in the face of that.”

For Chapman, he is not sure how safe everyone will feel going out after the quarantine is lifted. And that will have lingering effects for people like him, who make their living as serving food in crowded spaces.

“How can we know for sure that we can be safe in a confined space with strangers?” he said.I know that I, as a consumer, will definitely be cautious for the first month or so before I just dive back into being shoulder to shoulder with randoms for a happy hour at a bar.” 

Tobin said the biggest business obstacles for entertainment, hospitality and service spaces will be getting potential customers and audiences to trust that they can safely enjoy public spaces again. 

“People will definitely have a hard time adjusting to new ‘personal space’ norms when this is all over,” he said. “I can’t wait to create spaces for myself and others to perform in front of an audience again.”

The economic uncertainty that has come with the coronavirus is not likely to fade even after dining rooms open back up. 

“There needs to be a more concrete acknowledgement that our industry in particular is being dealt some serious body-blows,” Pearlmutter said. “I think it’s even more important to continue to do the work we, and others like us, are doing.”

Still, the willingness of regular customers and the general community to keep supporting restaurant and hospital workers gives Pearlmutter reasons to be optimistic.  

“We have received so many wonderful donations from local residents who know us, and see what we do every day, and understand the work we put in to making their visits pleasant and memorable ones,” she said.

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