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For South Florida Restaurant Workers, A New Uncertain Reality

Like other South Florida restaurants, Eating House in Coral Gables is offering take-out along with raw ingredients and instructions for making food at home.
Jenny Staletovich
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

As businesses shut indefinitely to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, thousands of workers around South Florida are facing an uncertain future.

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Unite Here, the union representing the hospitality industry, estimates that 90 percent of its workforce has been laid off. That includes concession workers like Duane Thwaites, 51, who began working at Marlins Park for its opening season nine years ago, and Jalani Jacobs, a 37-year-old rapper and line cook at the Diplomat Resort in Hollywood.

Restaurants that once regularly filled dining rooms have been converted to take-out only, with some places like Coral Gables’ Eating House and Taquiza now delivering raw ingredients with instructions for cooking.

At Taquiza, where 70 workers were laid off last week, owner John Burnett is hoping for federal and state effort to help workers and small businesses.

“It just has to be an all-of-the-above approach,” he said. “This thing is so massive that the domino effect of, basically, economic calamity needs to be addressed holistically. Otherwise, there's too many points of failure at the moment.”

Unite Here has started an education and support fund to help restaurant workers. The United Way of Miami has also opened a fund to provide money for housing and utilities. The United States Bartenders Guild is also providing money. Grove Bay Hospitality Group, which includes Red Rooster in Overtown and Stiltsville Fish House on Miami Beach has also sharted a petition demanding Gov. Ron DeSantis provide relief for workers, including abating rents and loans.

What follow are edited conversations workers had with WLRN reporters Sherrilyn Cabrera and Jenny Staletovich.

Duane Thwaites, concession workers, Marlins Park, Miami:

“We were actually in the process of going through trainings Usually a couple of weeks before the season starts, we do the basic training — alcohol training, food service training, customer service training and other training going over the menu. Stuff like that.

We were two days into the training and on the second day, we got an email saying that the [next] day would be canceled. It was canceled kind of indefinite because of the coronavirus. At that point, we have no idea what's gonna happen.

You could have kind of seen the writing on the wall as it was happening. When the NBA suspended this season, it just became real. I just knew it was a matter of time. I just didn't think it was gonna happen that quick.

Everyone is scared. Everyone's living paycheck to paycheck. And I know many of the workers that are, for all practical terms, considered homeless. I myself am considered homeless. I live in a warehouse. I sleep on the floor in the warehouse of a friend. And at that I'm doing a lot better than many others I work with.”

Jalani Jacobs, line cook, Diplomat Resort, Hollywood:

“I've been everything from a kitchen manager for an aftercare program to a prep cook for the East Hotel. I did my mom and pops restaurants. Cooking has been like a passion of mine since my childhood, since I was about 11, 12 years old.

But I've favored the hotel industry a little bit more. We're able to actually get some health coverage. We can get dental. We have free parking, which has always been an issue with anyone working in hospitality here in South Florida. Parking has always been a big issue.

I'm already taking care [of child support] for one kid of mine and then on top of that, I have rent. I have phone bills that I'm terrified about right now because I really don't have the money to cover all of the bills.

We face natural disasters all the time. I’m from the Virgin Islands. We face natural disasters the same as Florida. I thought this was more, like, along the lines of a natural disaster. 'OK, we're gonna get through this. It’ll be a couple of days. Maybe a couple months. But hey, it's not the end of the world.' This now? This pandemic? Seems like it's about to be the end of the world."

Cristina Quinlan, waitress, Blue Collar restaurant, Miami:

I honestly did not take the coronavirus very seriously, you know? We heard about it maybe a week or two ago and everybody was almost joking like, ‘Oh, it's a Corona. You gotta get a little lime.’ You know? Until they started talking about wearing gloves at work and washing our hands extra, more than we already do. That's when it started to get pretty serious.

It didn't really come as any surprise when the manager called and told us everybody is laid off. The whole entire staff was cleaning out the fridge and they let us take any perishable food that we needed to sustain ourselves. But no money for payroll or paid time off.

I have a little tiny backyard at my house. I put some cinder blocks there about a year ago and made a little box. I grow lettuce, peppers and herbs, chives and tomatoes. Just little things. I'm a community master gardener.

I’m trying not to be too nervous, and just not hoarding too many things. Because it's really gonna be alright. We just gotta learn how to not spend money."

John Burnett, owner of Taquiza Tacos in Miami Beach and Miami:

“Basically, we had to layoff over 70 people at all three locations. I mean, it is definitely not something you want to ever have to do. In an emergency situation, though, you're really forced to make a choice of how quickly do you stop the bleeding. And for us, the priority is to look forward and say how can we be in the best position, or at least a position, to be able to reopen and then give jobs again. That's going to be the most important factor, is how quickly can things recover.

If small businesses cannot provide jobs again, then there will be lasting economic impacts. Much longer than otherwise.

We are doing delivery from our North Beach location and we are also offering basically a different format. We will sell — at basically cost to us — the products that we use to execute our menus. People can basically take that food and cook it at home. That's very important for a couple of reasons. For one, people will need it. I think this supply chain is going to get very hampered over the next few weeks. And also, we simply don't want the product that we had on hand to go to waste.

We're in the same boat as everybody else. We have families. We don't have a lot of economic cushion personally. So, you know we feel for everybody and we're in the same boat. All we can do is try to take care of each other and kind of get to the other side of this thing. I think the only silver lining is maybe there will be real change and a better society on the other side.”

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

For South Florida Restaurant Workers, A New Uncertain Reality

Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.
During her time at Florida International University, where she recently graduated from with a Bachelors in Journalism, Sherrilyn Cabrera interned for the South Florida News Service - a digital journalism platform where stories are written, shot and edited by FIU students. As part of her senior project, she reported on the influx of Puerto Ricans who migrated to Florida after Hurricane Maria, and the impact it could have had on the November 2018 midterm elections.