For Two Furloughed Bartenders, HR Support Made the Difference

By Sarah Dolezal April 9, 2020
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bartender pours ice

​Boston bartenders Susana Gutierrez and Jessica Martinez were among the 10 million workers who applied for unemployment insurance in the last two weeks of March due to the worldwide spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. Although they are both industry professionals with more than 12 years in the business, the two experienced their sudden unemployment very differently because of the role HR played at work.

Gutierrez, who bartends at an upscale restaurant inside a national chain hotel in Boston's financial district, said she's lucky compared to her peers because she can count on HR support while she waits to return to work. At her workplace, an administrative assistant handles HR tasks such as overseeing payroll and resolving workplace grievances, she said.

Gutierrez also noted that she learned about the pandemic's effect on business directly from her employer. "My general manager sent everyone an e-mail saying we are closing for now and then provided details on applying for unemployment insurance."

In contrast, Martinez, who tends bar at a locally owned bar and restaurant, said the final few days before her workplace closed were chaotic. "It was the blind leading the blind," she said. "The owners did not know how to help us file for unemployment insurance. I had to refile my claim because I overlooked a part-time bartending job I worked at a few months ago."

Her last bartending shift fell on the day before St. Patrick's Day. As she waits for her first unemployment check, she now rotates takeout duties with the other seven servers and bartenders.

In the second quarter of 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that there were 652,648 food-service and drinking establishments across the U.S. Within these establishments, according to BLS Occupational and Employment Services data, roughly 8 percent of employees, or approximately 51,850 workers, may have been involved in functions related to HR. (Approximately 700 SHRM members work in the restaurant industry.)

The relatively small percentage of HR staff is unsurprising to many who work in the service industry. In restaurants and bars, duties such as handling and answering employees' questions about payroll, health care benefits or unemployment insurance or resolving workplace conflicts are often handled by the managers or owners.

Amy Carrick, founder of Mindful HR, a consultancy in Madison, Wis., started her business two years ago after spending nearly18 years as an HR professional in the hospitality business. For 11 of those 18 years, Carrick oversaw human resources for 20 locally owned and operated restaurants in Madison.

Carrick launched her business because she saw a need for HR expertise in the Madison restaurant industry. Madison is a very "food-centric city," Carrick says. Many restaurants have opened there within the last six years. Carrick recommended that restaurant owners join a state restaurant association or hire an HR expert if they are seeking HR help.

"I've found, in my experience, that it's probably rare for restaurants to have their own HR person unless they are in a bigger restaurant group," Carrick says. "The bigger chains obviously have HR departments, but your smaller owner-operators, they don't have an HR person on staff. And so it's usually a manager or somebody else wearing that hat."

Victoria James, a sommelier who has worked in New York City since 2008, said that having an HR presence at restaurants is "quite necessary, especially to have a third party that's not biased. For small mom-and-pop restaurants, that might be more difficult, but I do believe it's incredibly necessary."

Sarah Dolezal is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va.

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