May 18, 2020
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Workers are being called back to restaurants around Maine. Their choice can be a hard one.

Lauren Abbate | BDN
Lauren Abbate | BDN
Hedda Campbell stands outside a friend's house in Rockland. Campbell worked as a server at Portland's Central Provisions before the pandemic, and is weighing the possibility of returning to work.

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PORTLAND, Maine — Hedda Campbell was a server at one of Maine’s most popular restaurants. Her job might be offered back soon. She wonders if returning is worth it.

“I can’t control what every customer is doing outside of the restaurant,” said Campbell, who worked at Central Provisions in Portland’s Old Port. “What’s the point of opening right now?”

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

Restaurant owners around the state are beginning to offer jobs back to servers, bartenders and cashiers laid off at the outset of the pandemic. The state cleared restaurants to reopen to limited dine-in service in 12 mostly rural counties on Monday. Eateries in Cumberland, Penobscot, York and Androscoggin will be able to open on June 1 under strict health guidelines.

While most are seeking a return to normalcy, many restaurateurs also have financial incentives. Nearly two-thirds of Maine businesses have received loans under the federal Paycheck Protection Program, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The program stipulates that staff whose salary was covered under the loans must be rehired by June 30 for loans to be forgiven.

The motivations for servers, bartenders and cashiers have in returning to their jobs are not as clear. Facing a compromised tourist season, many believe their old jobs will fundamentally change, with fewer hours, more busywork and less business.

That would bring fewer tips, a problem among workers who rely on them to supplement a subminimum wage. Most of them, like Campbell, are also receiving unemployment benefits beefed up by a bonus of $600 weekly from the federal government that will last through July.

Others are in tighter spots. Before losing full-time work to the virus, Chrissy Vining could make a decent amount of money waiting tables at her old restaurant job. The Auburn mother of three would check in near dawn and leave at 2 p.m., going home with between $150 and $200 in tips along with her $5 per hour base wage.

Last week, the owner of Vining’s restaurant called her to offer her job back. Vining declined. Her husband works late hours in an essential industry and childcare is costly to find. She compared the push to restore the economy to “stopping your antibiotics as soon as you feel better.”

Though Vining reported to the Maine Department of Labor that she had turned down work, her application was accepted because she has been unable to find adequate childcare. She began receiving $131 per week in unemployment benefits last week, plus the $600 bonus. But when July comes, she doesn’t know what she will do.

In contrast, Landyn Severino is ready to return to work. The bar manager at Sportsman’s Kitchen and Keg, a bistro her family owns in Sebago, has been helping out with the restaurant’s limited takeout capacity, but is ready to return to full operations come June.

Severino, a single mother of a 3-year-old from Windham, struggled to get benefits for weeks, finally securing them last week. But she has no problem coming off unemployment to go back to full-time work. In June, Severino plans to be behind the bar.

“I’ll take the risk of maybe losing some income to start life again,” Severino said, adding that she’s invested in the wellbeing of her family’s business.

Managing transmission of the virus is a “personal choice for people,” Severino said. The restaurant plans to remove bar seats, allowing patrons to establish distance. It does plan to regulate masks as long as customers “respect other people and their decisions,” she said.

Campbell doesn’t have expenses like childcare or mortgage to worry about. She recognizes that her situation might not be as dire as others in the industry, but she’s pretty stressed about what happens next.

She sees the moment as a chance for the industry to adapt their business models to make sure everyone gets what they need — and safely. She hoped the pandemic would incentivize restaurants to close the pay gaps between different kinds of workers.

“Maybe this means that everybody that works at a restaurant makes the same amount of money,” she said. “That would mean that I’d make less, but overall I think it would be a positive change.”

Watch: The risks associated with reopening rural parts of the state

 

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the hourly base wage for tipped workers.

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