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Servers were hurting before restaurants, bars ordered to close

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Many workers in the food and beverage industry were not surprised when they suddenly lost their jobs. Business had been dwindling, and by the time Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered all restaurants, breweries and bars to close to dine-in customers last Wednesday, servers had already seen a sharp decrease in pay and customers, several Albuquerque servers said.

“After the first weekend in March, we started to see a lot less people. We’d have quite a few servers on, and we’d have to cut down on quite a few each day,” said Isaiah Alexander, who until last week had been working as a server at a winery and bistro north of Old Town.

Tens of thousands of people work in the food and beverage industry in New Mexico. According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, around 83,000 New Mexicans worked in jobs relating to food preparation and serving, with around 17,000 waiters and waitresses and 2,500 bartenders.

Last week, about 11,000 people filed for unemployment benefits through the Department of Workforce Solutions. The occupational breakdown of those filing for unemployment has not been released.

Around 50,000 jobs in the service and hospitality industry could be lost in the next few months, said Jim Peach, a New Mexico State University economist.

Peach said he thinks those jobs will be lost for at least a couple of months.

Alexander, who is pursuing his master’s degree at Anderson School of Management at the University of New Mexico, had been working at D.H. Lescombes Winery & Bistro.

“When the serving industry is hit like this, there’s not really much you can do if people are not coming in, because that’s exactly how you make your money … by helping people out,” Alexander said.

Alexander said he worked as a server because it paid more than most other hourly jobs. He said that before the COVID-19 outbreak, he earned between $100 and $200 each shift.

“Everyone is hard-hit, and everyone is sort of trying to make do at the time,” he said.

He said his employer provided information about unemployment benefits and helped guide him through the process.

Like Alexander, Mason Junchaya, a server at Chili’s, said the effects of COVID-19 started before he was laid off.

Junchaya said that two weeks ago the few customers he had in the restaurant were bringing in tissues and hand sanitizer.

“It was an eerie mood,” he said.

By that time, Junchaya, said he and his co-workers had started seeing a huge decline in income. He estimated that his income dropped around 50% before he was laid off last week.

“We all have bills to pay, and a lot of my co-workers have children,” Junchaya said. “We didn’t know if we should be getting another job or if we should quit this one, and then we all talked and decided not to quit because then we could file for unemployment.”

He has since filed for unemployment benefits and relief aid provided for his work, and he is considering applying at grocery stores.

“It’s hard, especially for servers who work on tips,” he said.

While not a server, Hotel Chaco chef Steven Schneider said he also saw a drop-off in customers before being furloughed last week – with more customers requesting room service.

“I was already waiting for this to happen,” Schneider said, adding that it allowed him to plan to file for unemployment and prepare to temporarily lose his job.

In the meantime, Schneider said, it’s important to “take care of the people that you work with even though you’re not working with them anymore.”

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