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The Last Best Option for Restaurant Staff


Amanda McNamaraAuthor

Last Updated: March 18, 2020

The American food and beverage space has gone into free fall as an ever-growing list of localities batten down the hatches and urge the public to self-quarantine and practice social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Sunday, March 15, 2020, The CDC issued a statement recommending the public forego gatherings of 50 or more people over the next eight weeks. In the shadow of this announcement, local governments around the country enacted restrictions on the operations of businesses typically responsible for gatherings of 50 or more: Restaurants, bars, breweries, wineries, and nightclubs. 

The following day, in a White House briefing President Trump and members of his administration "urged all Americans to avoid restaurants, bars (sic)" ABC News reported.

For the 15.3 million restaurant workers in this country, the decision to restrict or suspend restaurant operations has caused significant financial hardship and strain, especially on front-of-house staff members including cashiers, bussers, hosts, servers, and bartenders.

Many restaurant workers have been placed on unpaid leave. Many more have been laid off. Restaurants of all persuasions and sizes have been forced to reevaluate and reduce their workforce, including Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group, who announced Wednesday morning that they'd laid off 2,000 employees – approximately 80% of their company – in light of the COVID-19 restaurant closures. 

It's no secret that many in the restaurant industry live paycheck to paycheck. Front-of-house employees who work for restaurants using a tipped-wage employment model are paid a meager base rate under the the assumption that their earned tips will either equal or surpass what they would have made in a shift if paid the state's hourly minimum wage. As all FOH staff know, one bad shift can have a size-able dent on your ability to pay your weekly living expenses. Now, imagine having 4 weeks worth of bad shifts. 

This financial stress felt week in and week out by restaurant workers has only been exacerbated by the current COVID-19 crisis. With restaurant patronage dwindling since COVID-19 fears began to permeate in February, front-of-house restaurant staff have had fewer opportunities to earn an income that sustains themselves or their families. Now, without a paycheck and no signs of when the industry will resume business as usual, restaurant workers are turning to their state unemployment insurance agencies for financial relief. 

The following content is for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal, accounting, tax, HR, or other professional advice. You are responsible for your own compliance with laws and regulations. Contact your attorney or other relevant advisor for advice specific to your circumstances.

Unemployment assistance exists to support members of the workforce who have found themselves out of a job due to factors outside their control, like a world-wide pandemic.

The preventative measures enacted by state and federal agencies to curtail the spread of COVID-19 have largely targeted the food and beverage space in the form of restrictions on operating hours and on-premise dining, slashed capacity limits, or forced closures.

These are the states – including Puerto Rico and District of Columbia – with an active restriction or ban on restaurant operations in response to COVID-19. 

  • California

  • Colorado

  • Connecticut

  • District of Columbia

  • Indiana

  • Iowa

  • Illinois

  • Kentucky

  • Louisiana

  • Maryland

  • Massachusetts

  • Michigan

  • Minnesota

  • New Hampshire

  • New Jersey

  • New York

  • North Carolina

  • Ohio

  • Puerto Rico

  • Pennsylvania

  • Rhode Island

  • Vermont

  • Washington

Additionally, New York City, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, and Milwaukee have enacted city-wide restrictions or bans on restaurant operations and on-premise dining. Many of these cities' actions predate those taken by their home state.

Food & Wine is keeping an updated list of cities, states, and districts with mandated restrictions or closures affecting eating and drinking establishments. You can check it out here

If you're a restaurant owner who has been forced to lay off your staff or a restaurant worker who has found yourself out of a job and in need of financial assistance in the wake of COVID-19 precautions, read on to learn more about the process of filing for unemployment assistance. 

For real-time updates about the COVID-19 crisis, its impact on restaurants, and tips for navigating the uncertainty, bookmark this resource page by Toast.

What is unemployment assistance?

Unemployment insurance – sometimes referred to as unemployment assistance – is a federally funded program that offers financial support to qualified individuals who have become unemployed through no fault of their own.

What does this assistance look like? If approved, a claimant – the government’s name for anyone who has successfully filed and receives unemployment benefits – receives unemployment benefits in the form of a weekly check. The amount a claimant receives in unemployment benefits is based on a variety of factors determined by the state, including a percentage of their prior earnings over 52 weeks. 

Benefits are generally a percentage of your income over the past year, up to a certain maximum, but some states are more generous than others. Typically, though, unemployment replaces about 45 percent of your lost income. States have their own eligibility rules about how many hours you must have worked or how much you must have earned, and over what time span. That so-called base period is usually the first four of the previous five calendar quarters. The hour and pay requirements vary, but in some states only full-time workers are eligible.

Tara Sigel
Tara Siegel Bernard, Personal Finance Reporter for The New York Times
What You Need to Know About Unemployment Insurance | March 17, 2020

Can I file for unemployment?

Any American who is able to legally work in this country and is unemployed through, and I stress, no fault of their own, is able to file for unemployment assistance.

The specific qualifications an unemployed American must meet to be considered eligible for unemployment assistance will differ from state to state, so it’s important to check with the department responsible for employment-related matters in your state. 

Here’s what The U.S Department of Labor has to say about eligibility requirements for individuals interested in filing for unemployment assistance:

“Each state sets its own unemployment insurance benefits eligibility guidelines, but you usually qualify if you:

  • Are unemployed through no fault of your own. In most states, this means you have to have separated from your last job due to a lack of available work.
  • Meet work and wage requirements. You must meet your state’s requirements for wages earned or time worked during an established period of time referred to as a "base period." (In most states, this is usually the first four out of the last five completed calendar quarters before the time that your claim is filed.)
  • Meet any additional state requirements." adds, “In order to qualify for this benefit program, you must have worked during a specified period, usually in the past 12 to 18 months, and earned a minimum amount of wages as set by each state.” 

Like The Department of Labor, reiterates that interested parties ought to check with their local unemployment insurance agency to learn the specifics around how an individual is deemed eligible and what benefits they are afforded.

In light of the Coronavirus outbreak and the widespread precautionary closures affecting businesses, The Department of Labor and state level unemployment insurance agencies have amended their eligibility requirements to meet the immediate needs of those who are out of work. 

"COVID-19 (coronavirus) update from The Department of Labor: The federal government is allowing new options for states to amend their laws to provide unemployment insurance benefits related to COVID-19. For example, federal law allows states to pay benefits where:

  • An employer temporarily ceases operations due to COVID-19, preventing employees from coming to work;
  • An individual is quarantined with the expectation of returning to work after the quarantine is over; and
  • An individual leaves employment due to a risk of exposure or infection or to care for a family member."


Again, it’s important to check with the office that handles unemployment insurance in your state to be sure of the amended eligibility requirements in light of COVID-19. 

Says, “Some states provide extended benefits when there's high unemployment. Extended unemployment insurance benefits last for 13 weeks. You can apply for extended benefits only once you've run out of regular benefits. Check with your state; not everyone qualifies.”

Check out this resource page about unemployment insurance from The Department of Labor to learn more about unemployment insurance on the federal level.

How do I file for unemployment?

If, after reviewing the above information as well as the federal and state level resources related to filing for unemployment insurance, you have decided to go forward with the process, here’s what you’ll need to get started.

How long do you have to file for unemployment after losing your job? 

The Department of Labor advises that individuals seeking unemployment insurance file as soon as possible after losing their job. A good rule of thumb is to file for unemployment within the first week after you have lost your job or have seen your hours cut.

You should contact your state's unemployment insurance program as soon as possible after becoming unemployed. Generally, you should file your claim with the state where you worked. If you worked in a state other than the one where you now live or if you worked in multiple states, the state unemployment insurance agency where you now live can provide information about how to file your claim with other states.

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What do I need to file for unemployment?

Generally, you will need to provide personal information about yourself – like your social security number – and information about your previous employer – like their business address, your start and end dates, your previous supervisor, and why you are no longer employed at that company. Check with the unemployment insurance agency in your state to find out the specific information eligible claimants need in order to file.

Where do I file for unemployment?

Interested and eligible claimants can file for unemployment in person, online, or over the phone, though it is important to note the options available to file will differ from state to state.

The US Government has created this interactive map to guide claimants to the website of their state’s online unemployment assistance department, agency, or bureau. Use this map to find more information about how to file for unemployment in person, how to file for unemployment online, or to find the number to file for unemployment in your state. 

For your convenience, we’ve combed through the above map and linked the unemployment insurance agency information for each state, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia in the following list. 

*claims must be filed in person in West Virginia

How has COVID-19 impacted your life as a member of the restaurant industry? To share your story with the On the Line team, shoot us a message at

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