Laid-off eatery workers face health-insurance crisis amid coronavirus



It’s going to be a tough spring for people who used to work at restaurants.

After abruptly losing their jobs because of the coronavirus crisis, former waitstaff and kitchen workers at thousands of closed eateries citywide face a dismal job market, spotty health coverage and uncertain hopes for government handouts.

“My biggest concern is for the people making $15 an hour after the final paychecks come in,” said Brian Flodmand, chief executive of Great Dane, which operates the upscale Danish eatery Agern in Grand Central Terminal as well as the Great Northern Food Hall there.

Flodmand, like the 174 employees he had to lay off last Monday, lost his job too. He’s hoping he gets it back, along with his workers, once the virus ebbs.

“I’m more worried about the people who have a couple of weeks of cash on hand,” Flodmand added. “I don’t know what it looks like for them.”

For those scrambling for a fresh source of income, among the few places hiring are grocery stores, or warehouses operated by Amazon, which have been getting slammed with orders from holed-up customers nationwide.

In the meantime, the only safety net for many is unemployment insurance. While the ranks seeking the government benefit soared by 70,000 a week ago, Goldman Sachs projects that last week’s jobless claims will come in at a staggering 2.25 million.

Last week, Congress passed a coronavirus bill that expands unemployment insurance and food stamps. It also calls for companies with fewer than 500 employees to give two weeks of paid leave under certain conditions.

The bill also beefs up Medicaid funding. Last week, President Trump loosened requirements for signing up for government health insurance.

Still, for many restaurant workers in New York, not much is changing when it comes to health coverage. That’s despite US laws that require companies with 50 workers or more to offer health insurance.

“For many restaurant workers, the cost of health insurance when it’s provided is prohibitive, and small restaurants don’t provide health insurance,” said labor attorney Louis Pechman, who runs a Web site for restaurant workers called Waiterpay.com.

Most restaurant workers who do have health benefits will lose them by the end of next month. Then will have to apply for coverage via pricey COBRA plans — or forego it altogether because they can’t afford it, industry experts said.

Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group — largely seen as the gold standard for employment practices in the industry —laid off 2,000 employees last week.

“We will cover employee premium contributions for medical insurance for those who are currently enrolled, for the next month,” Meyer told employees in a March 13 video. “We will continue to cover costs associated with the evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of coronavirus for any colleagues who don’t have health insurance. Finally, we are providing free mental health support for employees who need help.”

LDV Hospitality, which owns Scarpetta and other fine dining eateries in eight cities, has raised more than $7,000 for its employees via a Gofundme campaign.

ESquared Hospitality, which owns BLT steakhouses among other restaurants, is paying health insurance for its 850 employees through March and for its salaried employees through April. With restaurants closed citywide because of the coronavirus, thousands of laid-off waitstaff and kitchen workers are now facing uncertain options for health insurance.

Before closing down all of her restaurants this weekend, Cristina Castaneda laid off 105 employees on Thursday. She handed them their last paychecks and sent them home with two weeks’ worth of dry goods.

“We made 120 bags with two weeks’ worth of rice, pasta, beans, canned foods, tuna, powdered milk, canned soups, cereal, bread, cookies, canned peaches, nuts, a lot of stuff,” said Castaneda, owner of Upper West Side haunts Cafe Frida, El Mitote and Ella Social. “At least they don’t have to worry about food for a bit.”

Castaneda has vowed to pay for her laid-off employees’ health insurance for March and hopefully for April. “Then,” she said, “they can apply for COBRA, and they have to take care of it as soon as possible. I am bleeding my bank account to try to pay for April.”



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