Jul 13, 2020 - COVID

What it’s like to be a server during the coronavirus pandemic

noble smoke 1300

noble smoke 1300

Working as a server in the restaurant industry has always been a gamble. On a good shift, you could make a few hundred dollars. On a bad shift, you might leave with just enough to pay for a tank of gas.

Coronavirus and the associated risks and restrictions have stacked the cards against servers, bartenders, and other restaurant workers reliant on tips.

Slow nights mean fewer tips, but busy nights can mean increased risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Late Sunday and into Monday, a video circulated around social media of Ink N Ivy’s crowded patio with little social distancing. “Wanna see why we could be shut down pretty soon? Look right there,” the person recording says. According to 3-1-1 records, a public gathering complaint was filed against the Uptown restaurant on Sunday night. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police told WSOC no citations were issued.

Capacity restrictions: Since restaurants reopened in late May, they’ve been capped at 50 percent capacity. This, paired with the rise in coronavirus cases, has kept many establishments emptier and tip jars lighter than normal.

“There’s no sugarcoating it,” says Lynn Minges, the president and CEO of North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association (NCRLA). “All restaurants are in trouble.”

[Related Agenda story: Coronavirus is ‘uncharted territory’ for Charlotte restaurants]

Decrease in tips: Emily Holtzclaw has been a server at Mimosa Grill for a little more than two years. She’s been in the industry for 21 years total, working in other local restaurants such as Crêpe Cellar and the now-closed Passion8 and Lulu.

Before coronavirus, she says, Mimosa’s Uptown business lunch crowd could mean as much as $150 in tips.

Now, a good lunch shift is about $50. With most bank employees working from home and holding business meetings over Zoom instead of over lunch, Holtzclaw says tourism — especially visitors in Uptown to see the Black Lives Matter mural — makes up the bulk of the diners.

Employers filling in the gaps: Holtzclaw says she’s lucky. Burke Hospitality Group, the restaurant group that owns Mimosa Grill, helps make up the difference to keep her salary comparable to what it was pre-coronavirus.

Andrew Schultz, a server at Fin & Fino, says the restaurant’s ownership group, Rare Roots Hospitality, has also been supportive. While the restaurant was closed, the group gave away meals and produce boxes to staff for free.

[Related Agenda guide: The 20 best restaurants in Charlotte, right now]

The NCRLA also set up the NC Restaurant Workers Relief Fund, which has received $1.1 million in donations ($1.5 in total pledges), which it has then directed toward restaurant employees in need. Minges says it has distributed $500 grants to approximately 2,000 workers so far and money is still coming in.

With the state’s mask mandate, all restaurant employees are required to wear masks. Diners must wear them, too, but they’re allowed to take them off once seated.

High risk: Interactions between an unmasked diner and a masked server is where the risk of exposure lies.

Face coverings can “help prevent respiratory droplets from traveling into the air and onto other people,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But they’re much less effective at blocking respiratory droplets from others. That’s why a mask mandate matters.

Covid cases on staff: Some restaurant owners say it’s “inevitable” that a staff member will contract coronavirus even while following best practices in disinfecting and social distancing. A number of restaurants — including The Waterman and Stagioni — have publicly disclosed that it’s already happened, but they’re not required to by law.

“Just the way it’s going, a lot of us will catch Covid at some point,” restauranteur Frank Scibelli explained in a recent interview with the Agenda. He’s the owner of FS Food Group, which includes Mama Ricotta’s, Little Mama’s, Yafo, Midwood Smokehouse, and Paco’s Tacos.

Owners and managers also aren’t required to tell their staffs about a case of coronavirus, though the CDC recommends it.

“We all signed up for this industry. It’s the luck of the draw,” says Bri Del Valle, a former server at Noble Smoke. “But now it’s more high risk than ever.”

Before the pandemic, Del Valle made about $800 to $900 per week, working full-time at the Wesley Heights barbecue restaurant owned by restauranteur Jim Noble. Before she quit in early July, she was bringing in less than half that — about $300 a week. That’s $1,200 a month, around the same as the average rent in Charlotte.

Related Agenda story: Restaurants’ responses to COVID-19 cases vary greatly — from closures and press releases to discreet cleanings

Del Valle didn’t quit because of the inconsistent tips or $2.13 hourly wage. She quit because she says she didn’t feel safe at work.

She put in her notice after learning that a staff member who works in the on-site smokehouse had tested positive for COVID-19. The employees that had been in close contact had been informed, but no staff-wide email went out, a representative for Noble Smoke confirmed. The employee had not been at work since learning they had been exposed to a carrier, the representative said, and did not have contact with front-of-house employees or guests.

Unemployment benefits: Del Valle isn’t sure if she’s eligible for unemployment benefits, and after “three or four” calls and one email to North Carolina’s Division of Employment Security (DES), she hasn’t gotten a clear answer.

Her situation falls into a gray area during the pandemic.

In non-coronavirus times, she wouldn’t qualify for benefits since she had a job and chose to leave. But during coronavirus times, there are a few exceptions. For example, if you’re in a high-risk category (65+, pre-existing medical condition, etc.).

There’s also this exception: “You reasonably believe there is … significant risk of exposure or infection to COVID-19 at your employer’s place of business due to a failure of the employer to comply with guidelines as set out by the CDC …”

CDC recommends: In its guidelines, the CDC says, “In accordance with state and local laws, restaurant and bar operators should notify local health officials and staff immediately of any case of COVID-19 among employees, while maintaining confidentiality in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

But there are no North Carolina or local county laws requiring a positive case be communicated to staff members.

In fairness to Noble Smoke, Del Valle says, “No one knows how to deal with this.”

After hours spent on hold with DES, Del Valle has largely given up on getting unemployment benefits and is instead focusing on finding a new job — in restaurants or elsewhere.

This story was last edited at 6:50 a.m. to include more details about the employee who tested positive for COVID-19 at Noble Smoke.

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