5 O’Clock Nowhere

When COVID-19 shuttered Philadelphia’s restaurants, the industry’s tipped workers were hung out to dry.

By Suzannah Cavanaugh

Restaurant work has supported my family for four generations. It put me and my sister and my mom through college. And for 1/10th of Philadelphia’s working population it offers the same support. It’s decent money, degree-optional, plus flexible hours and the promise of cash in pocket at the end of each shift. 

I left the industry last summer when I started grad school. But for the rest of my friends and family in Philadelphia, the shutdown of all essential businesses in mid-March meant their jobs and financial security disappeared in an afternoon.

Restaurant owners can promise tipped workers good money, but the buck stops there. When layoffs swept the industry, workers found they couldn’t pull in adequate unemployment because they’d underreported their tips. Most owners couldn’t offer severance pay and irregular cash payments incentivize living hand-to-mouth.

The coronavirus pandemic revealed that tipped workers were living without a safety net while owners profited on their cheap labor. The fallout begs the question: When restaurants reopen in the future, is this the standard we want them to uphold?

Suzannah Cavanaugh takes her shift break. (Shelby Alexander)