I would like to preface this statement by saying that if I could go back in time and modify anything to change my life trajectory, I would end up exactly where I am. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t change anything. Not a damn thing.
It has been 127 days since I last walked into my former job. Almost a third of year out of work with constant lingering feelings of doubt, stress, and anxiety. It’s hard to believe how someone like me, a constant busy body- who is always reaching for the next step could have adjusted to an enormous containing wall, slowly surrounding all sides of me. It’s been 113 days since my health insurance was cancelled in the middle of the largest worldwide pandemic any living person has ever seen. ‘Stay safe’ they said. The part they left out was ‘because you’re fucked if you don’t.’
Now, I realize that I live in California whose state government last week issued a statewide re-shut down of indoor dining, gyms, salons, and several other businesses. Many people have been innovative and made their business model work with to go options and make-shift patios and more power to you. Unfortunately, what many people don’t see or don’t try to see, is that this is simply not enough. It’s not even close. Most restaurants could probably operate with less than 25% of their original staff with only to go options. They honestly can’t afford to operate with a full staff in the long term with revenues dramatically lower and the ambiguity of when/if they can return to ‘normal’. This means 3 out of 4 restaurant employees are on the chopping block in the next quarter without the federally backed $600 unemployment payment and a limited job market. But hey, “that’s California and other states are reopening and things are going well for the places that have indoor dining again.” Well, not necessarily.
In some other states, if your restaurant asks you to come back to work and you turn them down due to fears of COVID 19, you actually risk losing your unemployment benefits because ‘You are not actively looking for work’. Okay, so you go back to work because you know, you have to eat. Next, you find out that employees are testing POSITIVE for COVID. It’s a highly infectious virus and you are constantly working with close proximity to other employees and customer so naturally a week back into working, you test positive. Benched. No pay (unless you’re willing to use whatever vacation pay you may have left). Oh and good news, after next week, you’re unemployment benefits are being cut by 50 – 85% so now you have a choice. A choice all too familiar for industry professions.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt personally victimized by our industry’s expectations.
Go to work sick or stay home and forgo 1/10 or more of your income? Oh, not to mention the guilt and passive attitude you, most certainly, will receive when you decide you’re healthy enough to come back. I hope with something as dangerous as COVID 19, this will change the culture of this, but with pressures mounting for businesses and individuals during this pandemic and recession, I can only assume it will be worse. How do you force someone to choose when they really are left with no options?
All of this, you might be aware of and empathize with. Maybe you know someone in the industry or worked in it for a few years in college. I’m here to tell you that empathy is great, but it is not enough. It isn’t going to pay anyone’s mortgage or medical debt because their insurance was cancelled. Going to support your favorite restaurant is great, but it isn’t going to protect them from this virus. If there ever was a case for government provided health care, this is it. (But that isn’t the point of this, so I’ll try and stay focused here). Unemployed and employed restaurant workers need protection just like everyone else, so please don’t throw a fit about wearing a mask around them, understand that 20% tips are the norm and have been for several years now, and for goodness sake, don’t play the card that ‘they just don’t want to go back to work’ as a reason to not continue supplemental federal unemployment. Until you’ve been without a job or insurance during a global pandemic with the lingering suspicion there isn’t a job to go back to, how about you take a seat?
“Find something new” our ‘first daughter’ and ‘presidential advisor’ suggested to the MILLIONS of Americans out of work. Question: how do pay to you learn a new skill when you do not know how you will afford rent next month? This simplified idea is impractical and unattainable for most people. It is also entirely out of touch and obtuse. That being said, for many wine professions, including myself, this was our ‘Something new’. Now this might surprise those who don’t work in the hospitality industry or those who have predisposed opinions about the socioeconomic status of those who work in restaurants. For many, it is a choice. It is a passion. Most people I have worked with in my eleven years of hospitality have some sort of trade or four year degree. Some even have further education. Those studying for wine exams – past or present- are some of the most intelligent individuals I have ever met in my life. (Seriously, have a conversation with them about terpenes or soil structures of the Rhone and you will be amazed.) For myself and for others, wine is a never-ending education journey. It’s constantly evolving in every element possible – from the places where grapes are grown to how they are vinified to how they are shipped, sold and consumed. It is inspiring watching our community – as cheesy as it sounds, that’s exactly what it is, a community – fight to survive during these times. So please, don’t tell people who have worked for 10, 20, 60 years in this industry to ‘Find Something New’. To take from our favorite childhood Captain Jack Sparrow; It isn’t the industry that’s the problem, the problem is your attitudes about the industry.
For those importers, distributors, restaurants, hotels, cafes, winebars, shops, etc. who do manage to survive this and make it out on the other side, our government continues to throw us curveballs. Let’s take a second and roll it back to October of 2019. Our wine and spirits industry got hit with a 25% tariff on most imported beverages (among other things you may not have been aware of). Trump’s attempt in this plan was to stick to the EU, but, as expected and as forewarned, it wasn’t the EU that paid for these pricing changes – it’s the American businesses and people.
In February 2020, we fought the new notion of the President to increase tariffs 100%. Let me say that again in case you missed it. ONE. HUNDRED. PERCENT. The devastation and economic costs that this would cause isn’t even comprehensible. Thousands would have been out of work, businesses would die, and only the large conglomerates would be able to survive those sorts of expenses. Furthermore, this is also not ideal for American winemakers, especially the smaller or more boutique wineries because now their exposure might be at risk. Their smaller distributor might go under and they could lose their entire platform in a city or state. Perhaps they may not be able to cover the cost of switching over to a larger distribution chain. Not to mention the trickle-down effect. It doesn’t just stop at our little 179-billion-dollar restaurant industry or 47.9 billion domestic winery industry. It hits transportation services, shipping services, warehouse supervisors, and on and on down the line. After months of emails, letters, phone calls to politicians -local and state, and protests, the 100% proposed tariff did not go through.
Now, this same 100% tariff is up for debate again. Only now, it is being presented in the new COVID world, already filled with so much sacrifice, suffering, and uncertainty for the same people and businesses whom you pushed to reopen. The same people who brought you creative and innovative meal kits, gave you a break from cooking one night, organized to go promotions, completely changed pricing modules to make sense, and freaking built patios for you to enjoy. This is yet another threat to their livelihood. So please don’t look the other way on this because it’s not ‘your fight’ or ‘it doesn’t really affect you’. I assure you, Karen, it does. (I will also note that this same tariff applies to cheese, olive oil, cashmere sweaters, handbags, and cosmetics. So even if you don’t drink alcohol or could care less about the millions of other people affected by this, I’m sure it will apply to you in some way or another). While there is a lot of ‘I’s in this post, this is not a ‘me’ problem. It is a collective ‘I’. It is an entire industry on the verge of collapse. An industry that built and shaped this country. An industry that has taken care of you and your loved ones on a special occasion or brought you complimentary desserts on your birthday or anniversary. An industry that was there on your first date, your wedding day, the days you just needed a night away. It’s your favorite go to spot with the girls for brunch. It’s where your baby screamed so loud you had to have the server box everything up and eat it at home. It’s your favorite happy hour spot or pub down the street.
You may not realize it now, but it will soon be an ‘us’ problem if these inadequacies aren’t addressed soon. This is something that binds us all and I implore everyone – in whatever industry you are in- to not look the other way on this one. The post COVID world will be different – we are already seeing it- but I assure you the post tariff world will only add to the bleakness. www.endwinetariffs.com Written By: Morgan Gray; Advanced Sommelier