Servers and bartenders bet their futures on getting out the vote

Woman holds 2020 pin to her jacket. October 2020

iStock / LPETTET

Woman holds 2020 pin to her jacket. October 2020

iStock / LPETTET

Record unemployment in the hospitality industry has left nearly 4 million workers with time on their hands. So they’re text-banking, holding rallies, and fundraising for the candidates they believe can send them back to work.

For the first time since he graduated from high school, Jeremy Richardson isn’t working in a restaurant. The career server and bartender hasn’t set foot in Gigglewaters, the Safety Harbor, Florida bar and movie theater where he used to work, since July. With indoor seating limited to 50 percent capacity, and no drink service at the bar, there just isn’t enough work for him to do.

He’s picked up odd jobs, like shopping for the online grocery delivery service Instacart, but mostly, he’s been text banking for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. He estimates he’s contacting 3,000 to 4,000 Florida voters a week. Between texting and writing postcards to voters in other swing states, Richards is spending at least 20 hours a week volunteering to get out the vote. That’s time he’s never had before.

“I have a hard time turning it off,” Richardson said of his efforts, “knowing there’s only a month left.”

“There’s been a long history of unemployed people, or underemployed people, turning to political action in the United States,” said William Brucher, a Rutgers labor professor and former organizer. “That this pandemic happened during an election year—the circumstances are almost too perfect for it.”

The National Restaurant Association, an industry trade group, estimates that nearly 100,000 restaurants are closed permanently or will be long-term. Even after a hiring surge in May and June, employment in the leisure and hospitality sector is down 23 percent since February, with nearly 4 million jobs lost, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the largest such drop in any industry this year.

“There’s been a long history of unemployed people, or underemployed people, turning to political action in the United States.”

And the downward spiral isn’t going to stop spiraling anytime soon. In a recent survey of 3,500 restaurant operators, 38 percent of respondents said they expect to close in the next six months if business conditions stay the same.

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The activism is robust for both parties, up and down the ticket. Dani Ritchie said she was “never super involved in politics.” But that changed this spring, when North Country Brewing Company, a brewpub in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, had to shut down. Ritchie, who bartended there, started volunteering for Sean Parnell, a Republican trying to oust Democrat Conor Lamb in the state’s 17th congressional district, by collecting small donations.

The restaurant has since reopened, but Ritchie only works one 11-hour shift every other week. She blames the state’s Democratic leadership for the business restrictions—like limited indoor occupancy, and no bar seating—that cost her the tips she relies on for income.

“There are so many restaurants in my area that have had to close permanently, that have been there for so many years, and it’s sad,” Ritchie said. “Sean Parnell is a candidate who cares to do something about that.”

Last spring, furloughed hospitality workers in New Orleans, Louisiana held a rally to demand cash assistance from a municipal “rainy day” funds. And laid-off restaurant and bar workers in Chicago, Illinois and Denver, Colorado marched and protested to demand an extension of federal unemployment benefits.

As the election nears, the focus has expanded from issues that affect daily life in a given state to party solidarity. In Florida, over 700 laid-off housekeepers, cooks, servers, and dishwashers are knocking on doors and calling and texting voters for an election canvass organized by UNITE HERE, a hospitality union that regularly stumps for Democrats. In 2016 and 2018, said MJ Leira, a union spokeswoman, just 30 members participated in Florida canvasses.

“We’ve never participated in a national election to this magnitude,” said Leira, who estimates that over 15,000 of the union’s 34,000 members statewide are still furloughed.  

The burst of political activity reminds Ian Greer, a Cornell University labor researcher, of the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the unemployment rate may have reached 25 percent. In major cities across the country, workers created “unemployment councils” and demanded opportunities for relief work. Ultimately, that led to the creation of unemployment insurance, and contributed to the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“There were millions of people whose lives were totally disrupted, and their daily routines were disorganized, by the experience of unemployment,” Greer said. “That made them mobilize.”

Hospitality workers are well-suited to political action because they’re good at talking to people, said Allan Creasy, a Memphis bartender who has twice run as a Democrat for the Tennessee House of Representatives. After he was furloughed from a bartending job at Celtic Crossing, an Irish pub, he became a full-time political consultant who fundraises for progressive candidates running for the statehouse.

“There were millions of people whose lives were totally disrupted by the experience of unemployment. That made them mobilize.”

“What you do as a bartender is, you listen to peoples’ problems, and you try to talk to them about it,” Creasy said. “I got tired of being told those problems, and not being able to do anything about it. That’s what made me start volunteering for campaigns, and then made me become a candidate myself.”

Ritchie, the Pennsylvania bartender, believes Parnell will win the congressional seat, and that President Trump will be re-elected. “I’m very hopeful,” she said, noting all the Republican lawn signs in her town.

If Democrats take power in Washington, Ritchie worries they will pass a $15 minimum wage that could worsen the economic pain of the pandemic. The way she sees it, menu prices will skyrocket, more patrons will stay home, and more people will lose their jobs.

Richardson, the Florida server, agrees that the stakes are high. He just thinks that the Democrats are the right ones to fix things.

“The Covid response from the Trump administration has been abysmal, to the point where I have lost my way of living,” he said. “I’m trying to get someone in there who has the competency to handle a Covid response, and to get myself and the people who are closest to me back to work.”

Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.