Friday, April 17, marked one month since Gov. Roy Cooper’s shutdown of all bars and restaurants went into effect. The order has helped to decrease the spread of coronavirus, but nothing can change the fact that the food industry is hurting more than ever. According to the N.C. Department of Commerce, the largest spike in unemployment claims during the coronavirus pandemic came directly after the March 17 order. This is no doubt a reaction from food industry workers desperate for needed aid. However, the uncertainty of the food industry has been ongoing even before the pandemic.
With a minimum wage that has stayed stagnant for 11 years and employer-based health insurance nearly inaccessible, it was only a matter of time that this business model would crash. Right now, restaurant workers are without pay and health insurance for the foreseeable future. It is the local government’s responsibility to provide economic assistance and healthcare benefits now and for the future to the thousands that are suffering.
There is no economic safety net for the food industry. The minimum wage for an employee in North Carolina is $7.25 per hour, but according to the Winston-Salem Journal, over 50,000 make less than that. This is hardly enough to save money for the future, let alone stay afloat in a pandemic. When a restaurant employee is sick and can’t go to work, they are unable to make wages for the day. Since a massive amount of non-essential workers in the food industry are being laid off, unemployment claims have skyrocketed, which has brought to light massive economic uncertainties. However, many of these laid off employees have already been experiencing this uncertainty for years.
With coronavirus cases on the rise every day, it is more important than ever to have health insurance in case the worst arrives. However, a 2019 Restaurant Success Report by Toast says that only 31% of restaurants provide health insurance. Many restaurants with a small number of employees can’t even pay for health insurance. When an employee gets sick, proper medical care isn’t accessible and they are left without wages for the day — a food industry double-whammy. At this moment in time, front-line employees without proper employer benefits illuminate a problem that’s existed all along. Every restaurant worker needs to have the ability to get health insurance for themselves and loved ones without fear of having nowhere to turn when they get sick.
With restaurants in Charlotte unable to provide economic certainty and health insurance, the responsibility falls on local government. Restaurants are left sinking in the uncertainty of when they might reopen, while the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County sits on $375 million in uncommitted savings. This needs to be used to provide health insurance to the thousands of unemployed restaurant workers to cover medical expenses and long-term care. Additionally, the local government must provide 14 days of protected, paid sick leave and three months of family medical leave for all service industry workers regardless of the size of the employers. Lawmakers must ensure the economic stability of those whose hours have been slashed because of the pandemic.
Thousands of restaurant workers who have been laid off in Charlotte have no way of knowing when they will likely get back to serving the community. One sure thing is that the system they operated in — with low, stagnant wages and no health care — will never be enough to provide a sense of security. Paid sick and medical leave, government provided health care, and a raise in minimum wage needs to be a priority for the future of the food industry in Charlotte.
Anthony Sulva is a local restaurant worker who was laid off from his job on March 22.