When Disney World announced it would be temporarily closing, they noted they would continue paying full-time Cast Members who were unable to go to work.
But what does this closure and the current restaurant restrictions mean for employees of third-party-owned businesses on property? This is certainly a tough time for the world, but for those in service industries, it will be downright devastating.
Making sure that everyone is doing what’s best for the staff and Cast Members around Disney World is of particular importance to us here at DFB, but what is “best?” Thousands of employees are out of a job for an indeterminate amount of time, not knowing where their next dollar is coming from or whether they’re going to be able to pay for rent, bills, healthcare, or food.
And restaurants are faced with difficult decisions affecting not only how to keep their businesses afloat during this tough time, but how to care for their employees as well.
Faced with tighter restrictions, many restaurants are seeing only a fraction of their normal patronage, leading some to have to make tough calls. So what does that mean for all of the restaurant workers at Disney (and the rest of the country!)?
Are Restaurants Really Just Firing Everyone?
The restaurant industry makes up 10% of the jobs in this country — roughly 15.1 million people. What’s happening to all of these people? Is everyone just out of a job?
With government restrictions, no one coming through the doors to help pay the bills, and a staff needing the money to survive, many restaurants have been faced with laying off the majority of their staff.
But it’s NOT as black and white, good-guy/bad-guy as you may think. No one disputes that we need to look out for the workers that have been uprooted, but the solutions are not as clear-cut as you may think.
Laying Off Staff Makes Them Eligible for Unemployment…
In the best of times, many restaurants work on very low margins. Trying to carry employees through an open-ended closure as well as paying rent and utilities for a restaurant that has stopped producing an income is a death sentence for many restaurants. And obviously if the restaurant goes out of business, this isn’t going to help the staff either.
By instituting lay-offs, restaurants are banking on the fact that many employees (both hourly and salaried) will qualify for government assistance through unemployment. While that’s likely not nearly as much compensation as they were making at their jobs, employees would make more this way than if their employers paid them the reduced salary they could manage during the closures.
Through unemployment, most restaurant workers in most states qualify for roughly half the income they were making. In Florida, it caps off at $275 a week. This varies on job title and a variety of other factors, but it’s better than nothing. And it means the restaurant might still be there to come back to once the pandemic subsides and places start opening up again.
Disney Springs’ Splitsville Luxury Lanes and Chef Art Smith’s Homecomin’ are two of many restaurants taking this tack. We reached out to these restaurants for comment and they very quickly responded with the following statement:
“In this unprecedented time and after much deliberation, we were faced with the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic will likely continue for several months. It was clear that we had to set a course that would allow Chef Art Smith’s Homecomin’ Kitchen and Splitsville Luxury Lanes to be resilient so that at the end of this uncertain road we would have a business for our employees to return to. Other well-known hospitality companies nationwide have chosen to follow similar paths. It is the hardest decision we have ever faced.
Our actions will allow our hourly teams to take advantage of their unemployment benefits and any other government assistance that will come available because of this crisis. In addition to their final checks, the company will continue to pay health insurance for employees who have elected to participate through April 30, 2020. Also, we are working on a plan to provide daily staff meals.
There is no playbook for this difficult time. Our employees are family and we have immense gratitude for each and every one of them. We pray that everyone stays safe and healthy.”
…But Is It Enough?
But that’s, unfortunately, not the end of this story. While most restaurants — including those in Disney World and Disneyland — are trying to do right by their employees and still save their businesses, we’re hearing from multiple sources that although terminated staff are now eligible for unemployment, the website to apply has been very glitchy — crashing multiple times per day. This adds insult to injury and delays potential benefits.
Also, while unemployment benefits may be an option for many out of work employees, will it be enough to live off of until the restaurant industry rights itself? In lots of high cost-of-living locations around the country, like New York City and San Francisco, the answer is a resounding no.
On top of that, looking nationwide of course, undocumented individuals in the U.S. likely make up a significant portion of the restaurant industry in this country. Due to their status, they don’t qualify for unemployment at all, leaving a portion of restaurant workers completely stranded. Regardless of the current laws, thousands of unemployed workers will put a huge drag on an economy already strained from the effects of the pandemic.
Relief Plans and Restaurant Assistance Programs
There’s no clear answer to the question of whose job it is to maintain a paycheck and/or health benefits for restaurant workers through this unexpected and debilitating time for the restaurant industry, and the fall-out is significant for them. But the federal government and private restaurant groups are instituting some relief plans at the moment.
The government’s new relief plan passed just days ago WILL provide paid sick leave for employees of qualified businesses with more than 50 employees or fewer than 500. This is great for small businesses, but it means if you work at a major food chain you could possibly not qualify for assistance. If you get sick, your options are to stay home and not get paid or go to work and potentially risk infecting countless others.
Restaurant Groups are Doing What They Can to Help
Many major food chains are stepping up to be included in the relief plan or opting to provide assistance themselves. For instance, Starbucks announced a plan to help employees in this difficult time. They’re implementing “catastrophe pay” for any worker who is found in close contact with or that contracts COVID-19. They’ll be allowed to stay home and receive pay for 14 days (the recommended 2 weeks of quarantine time) of sick time. In the event their condition continues, additional assistance can be given up to 26 weeks in some cases.
The massive Darden Restaurant Group, which runs Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse, among others, have shifted most of their operations around the country to primarily take-out and delivery options, requiring a significantly reduced staff. To compensate, they’ve begun offering their hourly employees, who previously didn’t qualify, paid sick leave to help take a bit of the burden off of reduced hours. They may implement a furlough program for employees to help them retain benefits through this time if it comes to having employees not come in at all.
Some restaurant groups that are able to do so, such as those run by chef José Andrés who runs Jaleo and Pepe in Disney Springs, have begun to offer discounted gift cards, with proceeds going directly to paying employees during this tough time.
Currently, Jaleo is taking things one step further by paying its Disney Springs employees and other affected personnel for two weeks while also extending their benefits. With the new e-gift card program, they’re hoping to keep providing for their staff beyond that time. They hope to welcome back employees as soon as this situation improves.
What’s To Come And What Can WE Do?
The one positive we’ve seen in this has been the almost unanimous response from restauranteurs that they wholeheartedly plan to bring back every employee once things start to get better. They’re not simply letting everyone go, they’re working out plans to ramp back up when things improve and to quickly reopen with their former staff members in place.
But this will be a long and arduous road for everyone in the hospitality industry — from restaurant workers to hotel employees to travel professionals. And following this unprecedented crash in profits, many companies and their employees will then have to weather an economic recession as well.
This is an incredibly trying time for the U.S. as well as the whole world. We’re facing a lot of people out of work. The best thing we can do right now to help the industry overall is follow CDC guidelines. Stay home. Stay quarantined. Stay isolated so that we can conquer the virus as quickly as possible, and the world can start functioning again. Only then will things have a chance to get better financially for the millions of displaced workers and all other domino effects.