Laid-Off Bar And Restaurant Workers Band Together

Mar 23, 2020

While the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on American society are readily apparent, there’s often a hidden side with a human toll.

Last week, BPR’s Cory Vaillancourt told us how Haywood County educators are stepping up for kids who usually rely on meals from their now-shuttered schools.  Now, he takes us back to Waynesville, where the impact of an order to close North Carolina bars and restaurants is now being felt by workers in the food and beverage industry.

In the heart of Waynesville’s downtown tourist district sits the Sweet Onion, an upscale restaurant that’s has drawn luminaries the likes of Laura Bush and Zack Galifianakis. Last Tuesday, St. Patrick’s Day, owner Dan Elliot was forced to make a startling announcement to his staff.  “We told them that we're going to have to close for an indefinite amount of time and that there's no longer employment here for them unfortunately,” said Elliot. “I guess they would have to go down and file for unemployment if they can, or do what they can do.”

Earlier that day, Gov. Roy Cooper announced that bars and restaurants would have to close by 5 p.m. except for takeout and delivery service.  Just like that, 34 workers at the Sweet Onion lost their jobs, along with thousands of others across North Carolina.  The first thing many of them did was join a group on Facebook started by Crystal Gandolfo, a longtime bartender at Waynesville’s “Water’n Hole.”

“I wanted to make sure that everybody stayed connected,” Gandolfo said. “I think that we all feel like we do have a sense of community because the service industry kind of is a community, especially in this town.”

Take-out and delivery service only is a model that isn’t sustainable in the long term, as it doesn’t require many workers says Gandolfo, who adds said that people are using the Facebook group as a way to share resources and information as well as to maintain that sense of community through what are sure to be tough times.  “Some people have asked questions about unemployment, how to apply,” she said. “Other people are just sharing their stories of their business closures, lots of memes, lots of people laughing.”

Applying for unemployment wasn’t too difficult, according to Gandolfo, despite heavy volume on the state’s website. And like many, she’s skeptical of promises of aid from Raleigh and from Washington.  “There is no outlook for this,” said Gabdolfo. “Everything's changing day by day. None of us know. There's a lot of uncertainty. So I think that the main goal and the main thing is if you work in the service industry, take care of your fellow service industry employee as much as you can.”

Gandolfo said she’d be monitoring the situation for further developments.