Guest Viewpoints

Government Must Help Restaurants Survive Coronavirus

March 21, 2020
Joanna James

Greeks are one of the largest ethnicities to own restaurants in the United States. Everyone has their favorite estiatorio, cafe, bar, and bakery that they frequent and couldn’t imagine life without them… that day may be upon us.

With a health epidemic of global proportions, self-quarantines and restaurant closings for undisclosed amounts of time, the urgency for both states and federal government to provide emergency aid for small business is crucial. A national paid leave policy is just as vital for scores of workers in the culinary and hospitality industry who will be out of work, but how it should be paid for will determine if the restaurants providing it will survive beyond COVID-19 to hire back those employees.

The House passed a Coronavirus emergency response bill striking a deal with the White House last week, which included temporary paid sick leave for millions of workers, but unlike the bailout in 2008 for the automotive and banking industries, Congress is now requiring small business to pay for it out-of-pocket. Meanwhile restaurants, bakeries, cafes, and bars have either had to shut down entirely or significantly scale down business to take-out and delivery and many businesses are scared they won’t be able to sustain themselves.

For government to think restaurateurs who already faced extremely narrow profit margins and now with hardly any revenues will be able to afford to pay this benefit and get reimbursed through tax credits on a future undisclosed date is irresponsible. Small business needs immediate emergency aid from government to survive, such as tax credits and deferrals, rent and loan abatement. The government must also immediately support emergency unemployment benefits to hourly workers.

But for businesses to do the right thing and be able to provide paid sick leave to their employees they need the federal government to step it up and provide that relief.

Over the past five years, while making the award-winning documentary A Fine Line, which explores why less than seven percent of head chefs and restaurant owners are women. I have had the great privilege to engage directly with chefs, restaurateurs, and multinational food companies learning what can be done to help them thrive and create more equitable workplaces. And I premiered A Fine Line in New York through the Hellenic Film Society last year.

One of the greatest challenges the hospitality and culinary industries face is recruiting and retaining labor, and especially increasing women in the leadership pipeline. That is why we developed the MAPP impact campaign to empower women to lead through mentorship and advocacy. We joined the National Partnership for Women and Families in a mutual mission to get federal paid leave legislation passed by educating the business community as to how it would work, ultimately saving them significant costs while increasing their likelihood to retain labor and spur business growth.

But I cannot in good measure support this legislation as it is currently proposed. This is very hard for me to speak against this emergency bill considering this bipartisan support is long overdue and I myself am a working mother of three daughters – but it will put restaurants out of business. I have been committed to helping get paid family leave passed through the Family Act (H.R. 1185/S. 463), which is co-sponsored by Senator Kirstin Gillibrand and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, as that is a responsible piece of legislation that is sustainable and does not expect small business to bear the brunt of it.

There are many justifications for a national paid leave policy, and that is why some large corporations already offer it even though they are not required to do so by law. Currently, only eight states have passed legislation for paid leave, and only 19 percent of the country’s workforce receives some form of paid leave. New York is one of the eight states that does offer paid family and sick leave. Other than it is good for businesses’ bottom line, it is also the right thing to do, as is ever more evident today with scores of employees out of work from COVID-19 and compassionate employers wanting to support their staff.

I know firsthand as I was raised in the restaurant industry by my mother’s side, Valerie James, who owns Val’s Restaurant (for 30-years this month) in Holden, Massachusetts. Many of my mother’s employees have been with her anywhere from five to twenty-five years, and that is why even though she is losing significant business not only today but over the next month with all her large functions cancelled, her first concern is how to pay her staff when she has to shut down the restaurant.

As a working, single mother she knew the necessity for flexible scheduling and offering paid leave well before Massachusetts became the seventh state to pass paid leave two years ago. My mother was the inspiration in making A Fine Line as she put her whole heart and soul into her restaurant doing whatever was right to stand by her ethics as a boss, and it is that commitment and passion I see from many restaurateurs and chefs.

The restaurant industry is the backbone of many communities, not only as a gathering place for families and friends to share a meal. They support their cities and states and we cannot afford to let them down. Their survival as an industry nation-wide past the Coronavirus is depending on us to urge both state and federal governments to come to the rescue of small business through tax credits, rent forgiveness, no-interest loans, and other measures that could prevent many restaurants, bakeries, cafes and bars from closing down indefinitely.

Absolutely the United States should finally join every other industrialized country in providing a permanent national paid leave policy, but given these dire times affecting the restaurant industry, government should provide the aid to ensure restaurants stick around and employees will have a job to go back to.



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