Morini Osteria restaurant in the Yards Park area of D.C. on March 16, 2020.

Morini Osteria restaurant in the Yards Park area of D.C. on March 16, 2020.

Restaurants and bars have been closed for nearly a month now, and their employees’ fears have come to pass.

Many are living without paychecks and health insurance. And they’re looking for help from unemployment insurance — which often provides only a fraction of their former incomes, if they can apply for it at all.

Then there are those who are still working, often under conditions which place them and their families at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

And what about undocumented restaurant workers, who have almost no safety net?

Help is available — from employers, family, government, unions and fund drives.

But will it be enough?

Produced by Lauren Markoe

This is the second time The Kojo Nnamdi Show has looked into the plight of restaurant workers since the beginning of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Listen to our first segment on the topic here.


  • Natasha Romero Riddle Former server, Elle; @quienesnatasha
  • Candace Cunningham Organizer, Restaurant Opportunities Center DC; @ROCDC
  • Alaina Dyne Former wine director, Emilie's


  • 12:00:04

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. I'm broadcasting from home. So welcome. Later in the broadcast how local businesses are trying to survive the pandemic. But first the restaurant sector is among the very hardest hit. Locally thousands of chefs, servers, dish washers and bartenders are out of work. Those that remain employed are often working fewer shifts and takeout operations. Jobs were they may put themselves at higher risk to contract the Coronavirus.

  • 12:00:33

    KOJO NNAMDIIt's been nearly a month since D.C. and Maryland closed dine-in restaurants to protect the public from COVID-19. Virginia soon followed. We wanted to check in on restaurant workers. Are they making ends meet? And who is trying to help them? Joining me now is Alaina Dyne, Former Wine Director at Emilie's. Alaina Dyne, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:55

    ALAINA DYNEThank you for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:00:57

    NNAMDIAlaina, you've been laid off from your job at Emilie's for nearly a month. Tell us about the restaurant and ...

  • 12:01:02

    DYNEA month today.

  • 12:01:03

    NNAMDIA month today. Tell us about the restaurant and what you used to do there.

  • 12:01:07

    DYNEYes, absolutely. So I was part of a management team of about 10 people that Kevin employed to help flesh out his creative contact of Emilie's on Capitol Hill, which is, you know, 11th and Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast.

  • 12:01:26

    NNAMDIYou say you were scared to lose your job, but also nervous that Emilie's would not close. Can you explain those apparently conflicting feelings?

  • 12:01:35

    DYNESure. I mean, it was an experience that all of us had. In the beginning it felt like health concerns and financial concerns were in direct opposition to one another in terms of, you know, what were we to do. As many people know the margins in restaurants are so thin that even closed operations for one or two days can have a tremendous impact on business operations.

  • 12:02:02

    NNAMDISo on the one hand, you were concerned about the restaurant closing. On the other you were concerned about it staying open.

  • 12:02:12

    DYNEAbsolutely. I mean, at that point in time we didn't have enough information or any kind of clear messaging on the best way to stay safe. So we were following the little information that we had in terms of how to handle this as a public health issue. You know, in the same breath we all had to consider and balance financial concerns, because, you know, getting sick was not the only concern that we had for our employees. We were also extremely concerned about their financial wellbeing.

  • 12:02:43

    NNAMDIJoining us now is Candace Cunningham, an Organizer with the D.C. Chapter of the Restaurant Opportunities Center. Candace, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:02:51

    CANDACE CUNNINGHAMThank you for having me.

  • 12:02:53

    NNAMDIWhat is the Restaurant Opportunity Center and who do you try to help?

  • 12:02:58

    CUNNINGHAMSo the Restaurant Opportunity Center is a -- like you said it's a local non-profit worker's center that seeks to improve wages and working conditions in restaurants and in general in the hospitality industry in the D.C. area. And so we're an organization that provides support and resources and a community space for restaurant workers all across the DMV. So we provide legal support. We also provide, like I said, a community in organizing space as well as supporting other coalitions of local organizations as well as supporting some of our own advocacy and legislative's campaign efforts.

  • 12:03:42

    NNAMDICandace, what are you hearing from restaurant workers? What are they struggling with most?

  • 12:03:48

    CUNNINGHAMThe biggest struggle, I think for a lot has been applying for unemployment. So understandably there's been an onslaught of requests and applications being sent. And I'm sure the Department of Employment Services is doing all they can to handle each request and to process things. But I think that's probably been the biggest challenge given that we've been here for about a month now and there's still some people, who either haven't applied yet or who are still waiting to receive some type of determination. And if they did apply at the beginning of this process are still waiting to hear things. So I think that's probably one of the larger challenges that a lot of people are dealing with.

  • 12:04:31

    NNAMDIWhat about those restaurant workers who are still on the job? What are you hearing from them?

  • 12:04:36

    CUNNINGHAMFrom them, I think, they're happy to be able to support their restaurants in the ways that they can. And I'm sure having the opportunity to make some extra money that they, you know, otherwise would not be able to make I think is something that they are, you know, grateful for and are, you know, happy to do. But I think, of course, they are concerned about their risk and the risk that, you know, they put other folks that they're working with in. I think anybody would be. But I think those who do have the opportunity to continue to work are happy that they have that opportunity.

  • 12:05:15

    NNAMDIAlaina, have you applied for unemployment insurance? If so what was that like and what have you received?

  • 12:05:23

    DYNEYes. So actually as of today I'm finally all caught up, but it is definitely a frightening process to go through. The system was certainly overwhelmed in the beginning and, again, not a lot of clear information initially. I actually had to write directly to councilmembers to finally start to get a little bit of clarity about, you know, what I should expect. So many many of my peers have been on hold for countless hours. I know last week I spent about three and half hours on hold with the Department of Unemployment Services just kind of trying to get some sort of information. And I think that the issue has been that, you know, that fear of what if we just get lost in the shuffle. I think a lot of people have been grappling with that fear and the uncertainty.

  • 12:06:14

    NNAMDICandace, have you also been hearing that from restaurant workers seeking unemployment insurance?

  • 12:06:20

    CUNNINGHAMAbsolutely. The same, you know, issues. You know, having to wait for hours and hoping to be able to talk to someone. And I think the fear also, I completely agree with, being unsure given that there've been so many people who have needed to apply. And so there's obviously an overload on the system, and, again, just not wanting to be lost given that there's such a need for that compensation.

  • 12:06:47

    NNAMDIJoining us now is Natasha Romero Riddle, Former Server at Elle. Natasha, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:06:56

    NATASHA ROMERO RIDDLEThanks for having me.

  • 12:06:58

    NNAMDIYou were a server at Elle's at Mouth Pleasant for only five weeks before you lost your job. Have you applied for unemployment insurance? If so, what have you received?

  • 12:07:08

    RIDDLEYes. I applied the minute that I found out that the restaurant was closing. Luckily as of today I received everything that I was supposed to receive, but it did take a long time. It did took over three and a half weeks. And then I also had to go through the same process of waiting on the phone and getting my calls dropped, etcetera.

  • 12:07:29

    NNAMDIAnd you won't get your calls dropped if you're calling in to this broadcast to tell us how you're fairing with your employment insurance 800-433-8850 is the number to call. Candace, the D.C. Council two weeks ago passed a measure to alleviate some of the financial hardship inflicted by the Coronavirus pandemic. Did that bill help restaurant workers, Candace Cunningham? Oh--oh, there seems to be a delay on Candace Cunningham's response. We'll try to fix that and we'll get back to Candace very shortly. Natasha, you're not the only one in your Petworth group house, who is not unemployed. How many in your home are jobless thanks to the pandemic?

  • 12:08:11

    RIDDLEThree out of five housemates, so most of us.

  • 12:08:15


  • 12:08:16

    RIDDLEWe are all service workers.

  • 12:08:18

    NNAMDIAnd have you guys tried to get a break on rent?

  • 12:08:22

    RIDDLEWe have tried negotiating with our landlords. They've been--they haven't been that flexible. They've told us that they have to pay their mortgage. So we should also help them out by paying our rent, but we ended up just paying a portion of our rent for April, which was all we could afford, because at the time none of us had had unemployment kick in yet. So right now we're in a situation where two of my housemates still haven't received unemployment. And yes, we're receiving our stimulus checks and things like that slowly, but we don't know how that's going to look in a few weeks from May.

  • 12:09:03

    NNAMDIHow about utilities? Are you paying those?

  • 12:09:06

    RIDDLEWell, I've decided to pay part of the utilities, because I don't want to be accruing a huge debt in the future. And that is a big problem for us, because we also don't want to be put in a financial bind in the future when we have to pay all this back.

  • 12:09:24

    NNAMDICandace Cunningham, are you back with us?

  • 12:09:27

    CUNNINGHAMYes. I'm sorry.

  • 12:09:29

    NNAMDICandace, the D.C. Council two weeks ago passed a measure to alleviate some of the financial hardship inflicted by the Coronavirus pandemic. Did that bill help restaurant workers?

  • 12:09:40

    CUNNINGHAMWe were hoping that it would. We were hoping that it would include measures to support workers that will be--that have been excluded from unemployment and other government stimulus. And so unfortunately those acts, those measures were taken out of the bill proposed unfortunately. And it was horrified amongst lots of organizations and other coalitions fighting on behalf of undocumented workers and immigrants that are ineligible for certain payments.

  • 12:10:18

    CUNNINGHAMBut Events D.C. has announced that they will be dedicating $15 million towards some of these efforts and $5 million will go towards undocumented workers. Another five will go towards restaurant relief, and another five toward hotels. So we're hoping that the will--that the process for that will be announced quickly so that we can continue to do our best to support workers who have otherwise been excluded from relief.

  • 12:10:46

    NNAMDINatasha, you also have student loans. How worried are you about those?

  • 12:10:51

    RIDDLEWell, luckily I was able to get the federal student loan deferred. The private loan is my biggest loan. So I still have to keep paying it. So obviously that's a big worry, because if I default on one of those loans then it's going to negatively affect my credit.

  • 12:11:09

    NNAMDISo that's going to be something that you have on your mind for a little while. We got a listener who called in and said, "My wife is self-employed. She was told she could apply for unemployment as a self-employed worker. But her claim keeps getting denied. What do people do if they're self-employed? And how can they receive benefits?" Do you know anything at all about that, Candace?

  • 12:11:33

    CUNNINGHAMSo I've heard about the Paycheck Protection Plan. I think that was supposed to be--I don't know if it's been completely rolled out or I think some people have already started to access it, but people who are self-employed are able to tap into that loan. And I think it provides the ability to cover payroll expenses as well as other business expenses. So that's one that I know off hand. That is available for folks that are self-employed.

  • 12:12:07

    NNAMDIOkay. Got to take a short break. When we come back we will continue this conversation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:29

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Later in the broadcast we'll be talking about how local small businesses are trying to survive the pandemic. Right now we're talking about what this pandemic Coronavirus has meant for restaurant workers. We're talking with Candace Cunningham, Organizer with the D.C. Chapter of the Restaurant Opportunity Center. Alaina Dyne is the Former Wine Director at Emilie's. And Natasha Romero Riddle is a Former Server at Elle's.

  • 12:12:55

    NNAMDINatasha, both you and Alaina wanted listeners to know that even though you are in tight financial situations there are many others in the restaurant industry that are worse off. You as a Salvadoran American and a fluent Spanish speaker tell us about some of the restaurant workers you're trying to help. What are they going through and what are you doing for them?

  • 12:13:16

    RIDDLESo through ROC, or ROC, we've been connecting undocumented immigrants towards relief especially rent relief and food assistance. So I've been trying to listen to people's experiences, direct them towards resources, help them setup PayPal accounts. Help them just navigate the wild system that they have to go through to get through -- get some assistance from people. So it's been tough on people, who are afraid of retaliation from their landlords. They want to be able to pay rent. They're afraid of reaching out for help fearing that they will be tracked down by ICE or other law enforcement. So it's a really precarious situation for a lot of people.

  • 12:14:18

    RIDDLEIt's also -- it's just a fearsome situation as well, because if you go out to work --if somebody who is undocumented goes out to work, because they have to pay their bills they are more likely to get the virus, spread it to their family and then they are also more likely to be uninsured. So it's just very frightening, I think for a lot of people.

  • 12:14:39

    NNAMDIAlaina, at Emilie's you work for a famous chef, Kevin Tien. Now you're jobless and your health insurance is going to lap soon. Is there anything that he could have done differently to make this situation easier on his employees?

  • 12:14:54

    DYNEWell, I think, Kojo, what we're really all realizing as we see some of the best and the brightest among our industry falling and, you know, many of their employees out of work is that this is actually a structural change that we need to address that goes beyond the individual owner operator. Right now the line between success and failure for restaurants is too thin. And that's because of the way things are setup in this town. Pay to play permitting, rents, the cost of bringing the best ingredients to the table, the cost of having highly trained staff, billed out expenses.

  • 12:15:28

    DYNEYou know, restaurants have about two to five percent profits if they're really doing well, if they're really getting butts in seats. At the end of the year, they have that small slice to takeaway. And so we were sitting ducks for this. I mean, what was Chef Kevin supposed to do?

  • 12:15:44

    NNAMDINatasha, your employer has started a fund for Elle's employees he laid off. Are you going to apply to that fund for assistance?

  • 12:15:53

    RIDDLENot yet. I think that that money should be going towards people who have been working there for a while and have more immediate needs. As I said before, I'm not in the worse situation. And as, you know, a person, who is making more money in the restaurant industry than a lot of people within the restaurant, I am in a lot better position. So I'm going to allow that money to go to people, who actually need.

  • 12:16:19

    NNAMDII want to go to Josh in Takoma Park, Maryland. Josh, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:16:24

    JOSHHey, Kojo. My name is Josh (unintelligible). How are you?

  • 12:16:28

    NNAMDII'm doing well.

  • 12:16:30

    JOSHGood. So me and my husband and my business partner, Rob, own the Girl in the Vine in Takoma Park, Maryland. And we have a little bit of a struggle at the moment. We've been able to continue operating with delivery and curbside pickup. And we are using a online sales platform, which we switched to on April 1st. And the issue that we're coming up against and were others are having the same problem is that all of our sales revenue since October -- sorry, not October. April 3rd is inaccessible to us because our account is quote on quote, under, on a hold with the credit card processor. And it's looking as though we're not going to have access to that money for potentially a really long time.

  • 12:17:32

    NNAMDIWhy is it on hold with the credit card processor?

  • 12:17:36

    JOSHWe're having a hard time getting ahold of a person to talk to the credit card processor. Basically what's happening is the funds are on hold until they can review our account basically. So for two weeks we've been selling products through the processor and now we are -- there's a considerable amount of money that we need access to and we are unable to.

  • 12:18:07

    NNAMDIThat's a huge problem. Not one I think we can help with. Do you know other small businesses, who are having that problem?

  • 12:18:13

    JOSHWell, that's what we're trying to figure out a little bit (unintelligible) and is that we are trying to figure out if this is a larger problem that we are a part of as well obviously, but, you know ...

  • 12:18:26

    NNAMDII don't know. Alaina Dyne, have you heard anything about similar problems?

  • 12:18:30

    DYNEI hadn't heard anything related to the credit card processing, but I know that people are also experiencing difficulty with accessing Go Fund Me. So I know that there was some reporting done about that recently as well.

  • 12:18:44

    NNAMDIYeah, I saw that reporting. And like I said, Josh, I'm not familiar with that problem. Sounds like it might be one that you have to deal with through the credit card processor. But good luck. Candace, your organization is also trying to raise money for restaurant workers. How are you doing that and how much have you raised?

  • 12:19:01

    CUNNINGHAMYes. We had also a Go Fund Me that we transferred over to our larger national organization. Our local fund raised $30,000 and we've already begun distributing that money. And ROC United also has a fund -- or had a fund where people could apply for anywhere from $100 to $300 to receive for relief in that those funds have already begun distributing. And we want to continue raising money, this time specifically for excluded workers.

  • 12:19:40

    CUNNINGHAMWe haven't started that yet, but we're hoping with the release of the process for money going towards undocumented workers through Events D.C. that will begin to start that process. And we've already been able to receive some funds from some of our grant -- from our funders that will help us to again provide direct cash assistance to excluded workers.

  • 12:20:06

    NNAMDIHere now is Diane in Beltsville, Maryland. Diane, you're on the air -- I'm sorry that was Josh. Here's Diane. Diane in Beltsville, Maryland. You're on the air, Diane. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:20:16

    DIANEHi, Kojo. I was listening to the young lady tell about her problems with her rent and such. I think these people have forgotten about a lot of these apps. I know they've heard of Uber Eats and stuff. But there's an app called Postmate and again it's called Postmate. It's instant fast cash. And you can do it walking. You can do it with a bike. You can do it with a motorcycle, a car, a van, whatever. You don't have to have a vehicle. And that would probably help out a lot of the people.

  • 12:20:54

    NNAMDII don't understand. Why are they giving you instant fast cash? What's the catch?

  • 12:20:57

    DIANEBecause you are running errands for these people.

  • 12:21:01

    NNAMDIOh, okay, okay.

  • 12:21:02

    DIANEYou are picking up food or you're picking up meds.

  • 12:21:05

    NNAMDIGot it. Got it.

  • 12:21:06

    DIANEOr you're even going to the grocery store and doing a little shopping.

  • 12:21:09

    NNAMDIGot it. Got it.

  • 12:21:10

    DIANEAnd you're delivering it.

  • 12:21:11

    NNAMDIGot it. I do understand that. Thank you very much for your call. Do you know of anyone, who is doing that, Candace Cunningham?

  • 12:21:19

    CUNNINGHAMNot with Postmates. I'm sure that there are some folks, who are currently working that are working through apps like Uber Eats and there's another one -- it's escaping me -- Uber Eats and DoorDash. But I don't know anyone personally who is working through these apps.

  • 12:21:40

    NNAMDINatasha, you're 25 years old with a college degree in literature and cinema, do you want to stay in this industry? You only have about 30 seconds left.

  • 12:21:48

    RIDDLEFor now it gives me the flexibility to do what I like to do, so, yes.

  • 12:21:54

    NNAMDIOkay. We'll have to see what happens and how long this all lasts. Natasha Romero Riddle, Alaina Dyne and Candace Cunningham, thank you all for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talking about how local businesses, small businesses are trying to survive the pandemic. If you're one such a small business, you can start calling now. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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