My entire working life has been in the service industry. Other than the summer internship I had at Bill Graham Presents when I was 21, I’ve literally never worked in an office. In high school, I slung ice cream at Baskin-Robbins (still one of the best jobs I’ve ever had — I sold happiness for $1 a scoop!). Throughout college, it was coffee shops and restaurants. In my 20s, I worked at places like Woodhouse Fish Company and Cha Cha Cha while I was slowly building BrokeAssStuart.com. And in my 30s, I’ve bartended all over San Francisco. I’m still behind the stick once a week to this day.
While at this point in my career I make most of my meager living from a combination of freelance writing and running BrokeAssStuart.com, I know what it’s like to live off tips in one of the most expensive cities in the world. It’s a career path where you honestly don’t know how much money you’ll make in a given month. There is no salary, or bonuses or paid time off. You live by the vagaries of the economy and the fickle whims of the tipping public. When the rest of the world is making money and people are going out, you can make a decent living. Other times — hell, even months like January, even when the economy is good — you worry that if things don’t pick up soon, you won’t be able to pay rent.
People in the service industry aren’t even living paycheck to paycheck, they’re living tip to tip.
Given the insane way that coronavirus is threatening to disrupt our lives, I can’t imagine how terrified hourly, low-wage and service workers must be, not to mention the business owners who employ them. It seems every week another beloved local place is closing because of how hard things are in San Francisco. How are they going to stay open when there’s literally no one walking through the door?
It’s important to support these businesses and workers as much as you can right now. Last week, given the way people had been avoiding Chinatown for xenophobic reasons, my fiancé and I made a point of dining out at the Oriental Pearl Restaurant. Besides two other tables, the place was empty, which obviously meant it was easy to get in, but also that “social distancing” was a natural part of the dining experience. Being painfully aware of the circumstances, the waitstaff was meticulous with everything they did. We made a point of tipping extra because we were worried about when their next table would walk through the door.
Earlier this week, the Washington Post published an article titled “Here’s what you need to know about dining out in the age of coronavirus.” Writers Emily Heil and Tim Carman talk to a number of health and business professionals and lay out the best procedures and precautions for eating out. They are as follows:
1) Stay flexible: This means keeping tabs on coronavirus updates and deciding whether or not to dine out right as you plan to do so.
2) Eateries are taking extra precautions: People running and working at these places are seeing all the news you are. They’re making sure employees wash their hands often and that disinfectants are used. Many are putting out hand sanitizers for their customers.
3) It’s not the food, it’s the people: Health officials say there’s no indication that coronavirus is being transmitted on food. So workers should stay home if they aren’t feeling well, and we should all be washing our hands and sanitizing them after we touch things like menus and ketchup bottles.
4) Use common sense and ask questions: If you feel uncertain about what a place is doing to minimize risk, ask your server or the manager.
5) Tip extra big: OK, this one is mine, but it’s really important. People’s livelihoods are being ravaged. Tip extra so these folks can pay their rent; some people might end up homeless.
Right now, there’s movement in our local governments to step up and help keep people from losing their housing. On Tuesday, San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston introduced legislation that would put a moratorium on all evictions in San Francisco during the coronavirus outbreak. The mayor of San Jose has announced plans to do the same.
There’s also an open letter asking San Franicsco Mayor London Breed and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf to put “a moratorium on evictions and enact plans to forgive rent for wage workers who will be unable to make the income needed to pay rent for the month of April.”
The letter was written by Rupa Marya, a doctor and professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco. The more people who sign it, the more likely the mayors will listen. You can find it on BrokeAssStuart.com.
What sticks out most to me about this crisis is that it’s the best imaginable argument for Medicare For All and Universal Basic Income.
If every American had affordable health care, then people wouldn’t be hesitant to see the doctor if they were sick — thus helping stop the virus from spreading — and they wouldn’t end up with crippling debt if they land in the hospital. Also, if we had UBI, hourly, low-wage and service workers wouldn’t be worrying about becoming homeless from lack of income. They’d be able to at least pay most of their rent and bills because it would be guaranteed.
Unfortunately, this is the United States, where there are no social safety nets. So please, stay safe, stay healthy, wash your hands, support your local businesses and tip really well. Otherwise be ready to see a lot of GoFundMe campaigns.
Stuart Schuffman is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com and join his mailing list at http://bit.ly/BrokeAssList. His column appears every other Thursday. He is a guest columnist and his point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner.