Bartenders can work from home, but the dog isn’t a very good tipper…

Jester's Food & Spirits, Brewer ME, photo by author

Crista Grace
March 18, 2020

According to 2018 U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, there are over 13 million people employed in the food and beverage industry. Over 600,000 of those people are bartenders. In my state, there are about 3,000 of us. California has the highest number, at over 60,000 bartenders.

But the numbers by state don’t really matter at the moment; hundreds of thousands of us are now out of a job.

While COVID-19 shuts down business after business, owners and employees in food services are scrambling to make ends meet. Restaurants and bars have been faced with a decision they never imagined: Do they prioritize social responsibility and close down, or the livelihood of their business and employees and stay open?

Many have made the difficult decision to shut down, while some have chosen to continue operating until they are mandated to close. In several states, that measure has already been put in place. Michigan, California, Ohio, Illinois, among others, have ordered the closing of all bars and restaurants. Almost all of New England has conducted a coordinated “social life shut down.” My state of Maine is the latest to join the trend.

In most states, restaurants are still allowed to operate at a minimal capacity by offering take-out, delivery, and curb-side service. This option affords many businesses a slow but steady income, and provides countless customers with continued service. It also allows for a few staff members to remain employed, but likely in diminished capacity and earnings. But small businesses who had a very slim profit margin to begin with are not very hopeful. My place of employment, for example, is closing completely due to the state mandate. The owner’s major source of income was from the alcohol sales, not food. It would cost her money to try and stay open for take-out.

And staying open for delivery and take-out doesn’t help us drink slingers.

We (obviously) don’t have the leisure of working from home. Bartending from home is tough, I’ve tried; my dog and I just kept getting drunk. And he’s not a very good tipper.

Most of us do not belong to unions, and the majority of us are employed part time. Which, as you can guess, means we have no benefits like sick leave, PTO, or vacation time.

“Apply for the emergency unemployment,” people say. And of course, we will. This might be revealing a bit of an industry secret here (or maybe not), but because this is a cash lucrative profession, many of us don’t claim everything we make. I know, shame on us. We claim enough to show an income so we can do things like apply for credit, car loans, mortgages, etc. We claim most, but not all. And so, the 2/3 of what we earn that we will receive from unemployment, will amount to more like 1/3 of what we actually earn.  Are we ungrateful for that? No. Is something better than nothing? Sure it is. But it is nowhere near enough for our families to survive.

I turn on the evening news and I hear talk about how this affects food service workers in Vegas, or how it affects bartenders at the Mariott. But what about the “little guys?” What about those mom and pop owned neighborhood bars? These small businesses are equally as important to their staff and customers as The Ritz Carlton, and these are the ones that will suffer the most.

Businesses like the one I work for operate on a shoe-string budget, many years just breaking even. The reality for many small change bars, is that this is not a temporary shutdown. This is the death of their business, of their livelihood, and the livelihood of their employees.

If you are in an area where the bars are still open, or if you are ordering take-out or delivery from your favorite watering hole, or if you just happen to be friends with your out-of-work bartender… Now more than ever, tip your server.