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Restaurants Fueled U.S. Recovery. Now Workers Are Devastated.

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When the Labor Department reported Thursday that nearly 3.3 million people filed for unemployment for the first time last week, it put numbers behind an unprecedented, deliberate shutdown of America’s economy to rein in the 2019 novel coronavirus.

But one industry was hit harder than most.

“The layoffs in restaurants swamp anything we have ever seen,” said Dean Baker, senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a progressive think tank. “In several large states, restaurants are being forced to shut down. Most are laying off their staff. This is probably two orders of magnitude larger than the worst weeks in the Great Recession.”

It also represented the near-instantaneous devastation of an industry that led the slow-but-steady economic recovery over the past decade. Between December 2009 and February 2020, the U.S. added 3.9 million leisure and hospitality jobs. That represented a 30 percent growth rate, compared with an 18 percent increase in overall employment. In terms of raw numbers, only health care added more jobs over that time. Baker said that not only was the industry growing fast, but, thanks to tight labor markets and state minimum wage hikes, its generally low wages were heading upward.

Still, average weekly earnings in the leisure and hospitality industry are just $435, and many restaurant workers didn’t have reliable, permanent full-time jobs even before the pandemic struck. That means some of the more precarious workers in what was already a deeply unequal economy are facing both short-term pain and long-term fear. 

“It’s already an unstable industry to be in, and this is not helping,” said Carver Shields, 32, who’s been working in various bar and restaurant jobs in the Midwest for several years.

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