Pandemic Perspectives: Bar Maven on Shuttering Ops and Unemployment Issues

How COVID-19 Is Impacting Careers

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 Joyce Chan @ The Balance

Every unemployment filing, furlough, and closed business reflects a personal experience. As the statistics pile up, we’re committed to sharing stories of how COVID-19 continues to shape people’s lives and livelihoods—how they’ve coped, what they’ve learned during the crisis, and how they’re moving forward. 

Among the industries hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic have been hospitality and serviceparticularly in New York City, where hundreds—if not thousands—of beloved bars have temporarily or permanently closed. One of those industry veterans directly impacted by COVID-19 was Aubrey Slater, a bartender and beverage director for Derossi Global who witnessed not one, but multiple businesses she worked at restructure operations or close for good. Speaking to The Balance in July and September, the 45-year-old East Village mainstay discusses the shutdown and its impact, unpredictable income, and how she’s getting by. 

Aubrey Slater
Aubrey Slater.  Photo courtesy of Aubrey Slater

What was life like before the pandemic?

I went from head bartender at HoneyBee's and Mother of Pearl, which are Polynesian-inspired Tiki bars, to beverage director/general manager. I was running all bar programs. The first thing I really noticed that affected me was that in our Tiki bar, we use paper straws. Each cocktail had a combination of two different straws, like for example, one would have pineapples, and one would have flamingos. 

I ordered these straws in bulk from China, and it was the first real-world experience of dealing with the virus, because it usually took about three weeks to get my straws and we were running desperately low. Then, I started getting emails that things were taking a little bit longer to ship. I was more concerned about getting the product at first, like we're going to run out of straws for cocktails! The bane of my existence used to be the paper straws. And then all of a sudden, it turns from, “Am I going to get the straws” to, “When I do get the straws, what's going to come in the box with it?”

A month later, we started seeing business start to decline. We started putting more of a skeleton ship together. Instead of running with three cocktail servers and two bartenders, we're now running with two bartenders, one cocktail server, and a barback/busser instead of having a full staff. There was just this chipping away of our staff to the point where it was just management and eventually, it was literally just me and the chef. 

How did you have to readjust operations? 

We didn't really grasp the scope of what was happening at this point. I had a bunch of these little mason jars that we got from one of my liquor distributors. One day, I decided to make all these boozy lemonades. I had one with vodka with watermelon and hibiscus and one with whiskey and ginger, one with brandy and sour cherry. I took one of our long tables, put it in front of the door, filled a cooler with all these jars of mixed cocktails, put all of our Tiki decorations outside, and sat there with the mask on and my coat at the end of March just yelling, "Boozy lemonade! Get your adult beverages here!" like a kid selling lemonade.

You showed some ingenuity. What other actions did you take? 

For two to three weeks, it was just me and the chef. I got us on Grubhub, Seamless, DoorDash, Uber Eats—whatever delivery outlet website I could find. We were offering 20% discounts to people in the neighborhood and we had our own delivery guy for cocktails and food locally. And then the chef was like, "Listen, I can't do this anymore." He said, "I don't want to get sick. I don't want to get my girlfriend sick. This is going to be my last week." Then, it was just me by myself in all the bars.

But I have certain health issues. I have a compromised immune system, and I was terrified, because I live in the Bronx. I'm taking the train to and from work everyday and I'm just looking around, watching, and the train's emptier and emptier.

Being immunocompromised had to be challenging.

I finally told the owner, "I can't. This has got to be my last week. I am fearing for my life."

He's just like, "Don't worry about it. We have no food. We're just going to shut the compound down and see what happens." This kept going on for a couple of weeks, until finally he was like, "Look, we're not reopening anymore.” In the meantime, I had started a GoFundMe page for the staff to try and get them whatever I could. I was still trying to work for the company, and it was just like polishing brass on the Titanic at that point.

Did you initially file for unemployment?

Oh yeah, I filed. I got extremely lucky. It took me a couple of days, because the website for unemployment kept crashing. One day, I got up early and just kept refreshing the page and finally I got through. Some people got messages saying that they had to call the unemployment office on top of filing online. Luckily, for some reason, I did not, and I got my unemployment within two weeks of filing.

Now that the $600 a week benefit is no longer in play, what about the $300 state benefit? Where are you at in terms of unemployment? 

Well, I'm at the point where I'm just watching all my savings drain like sand through an hourglass. Recently, they gave us the extra $900 that they owed us for the back pay. But I think the worst part of it all is just not knowing. I can't make any solid financial decisions because I don't know what I'm going to be making dollar-wise from week to week. One week it might be $362, the next week it might be $662, or they might make us wait another month and a half and then give us back pay. So it’s like, "Can I afford takeout tonight?" Even though restaurants are reopening, I don't have the money to go out and eat anymore.

It's a catch-22. Before, I had the money, but there was nowhere to spend it. Now, they've cut the money, but things are opening up. 

There doesn’t seem to be a linear path when it comes to unemployment. 

Exactly. They should have held out and they should have given the $300 in bonus in the beginning when no one had anywhere to go or spend it on. And now that things are opening back up, when you need that money to stimulate the economy, they cut it. It's really confusing. A few weeks ago, I got $900 all in one lump. Then this past week, I got $300 on Wednesday, $300 on Thursday, and $300 on Friday. So, you don't know when it's going to come. And, I'm using the official unemployment debit card that they sent me through KeyBank. 

With the instability of unemployment benefits, have you saved up anything? 

I had a decent amount of money saved up. I have friends during the pandemic who were taking that extra $600 a week and buying a new Peloton bike or they're taking trips. I was squirreling stuff away. I went and I saw my Mom twice, but that really didn't cost me much. But now it's hard because I can still make enough money to pay my rent off of just the basic unemployment. But then I don't have enough money to wash clothes, or buy cleaning products. I'll be able to keep [expenses] very minimal, like pay the rent, and maybe my phone bill.

How have you been coping with stress or anxiety? 

I'm trying to get outside as much as possible. I'm outside in the parks, going hiking, or playing catch or doing something outdoors as much as I can. Because you know, with fall being here and cooler weather setting in, I'm just like, what's going to happen? All these people are unemployed and they can't go out and do anything. It's going to be a sad, sad winter. 

Now that New York City is doing 25% indoor capacity for restaurants, would you go back into the business if the opportunity arises?

From what I've gathered from people who are still working, some of them are making just the same amount of money. I think it's because with the lower capacity of customers, they have a smaller staff. So for like bartenders, that's now cut down to just a service bartender because no one can sit at the bar. So, the tips that are coming in aren't spread out over as many employees, and I think people are able to make a little bit more money that way. 

Honestly, I've put out feelers, but I just keep getting the same story from everybody: They’re riding with a skeleton crew, and even if a position does open up in a restaurant, they're all obligated to bring back their old staff, of course. As somebody who's trying to get a position in a place as a new person, it's damn near impossible. But if the opportunity presents itself, yes, absolutely, I would take the job. I've been working in the restaurant industry for over 20 years and it's my career. It's my passion. And I think that's what hurts the most right now is that I can't do what I love.

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