The following is part of an essay series from Memphis workers affected by COVID-19. The series is produced by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism in partnership with High Ground News.
An Essay Of uncertainty amid COVID-19
By Epiphany Jones
I loved my job. I worked as a server at one of the best bagel places in Memphis for six months.
That ended March 16 with an email saying the shop would be doing only curbside delivery and to-go orders. Since there were designated to-go employees, that meant that I was out of a job until further notice.
Even though I didn’t make a lot, even for a 21-year-old, I was able to afford a place to live and healthcare. That was all that mattered. I needed that job.
Our customers were generally an older crowd; people who go to church on Sundays and take their grandkids out for brunch, or groups of guy friends in their 60s getting together every Friday for an early breakfast. The rest were families, people with kids in nearby schools.
When the coronavirus pandemic worsened, I worried about our patrons as well as my family and myself. My partner and I weren’t living very comfortably to begin with, making just enough to cover our bills.
During the second week of March, we moved into what we thought was an affordable apartment. Still, we could barely pay for groceries and I was eating most of my meals at my job.
Around that time as well, I found out my health insurance through my mom (TennCare) was cutting me off. I scrambled in search of semi-affordable insurance and signed up for a plan through the Affordable Care Act marketplace
My world began to change shortly after that. Business at the restaurant slowed by more than half, a reaction to the March 8 announcement of the first confirmed case of COVID-19
in Shelby County.
On a slow day, I usually could count on $50 to $70 in tips (my hourly pay was about $3.25). But by Thursday of that week, when Shelby County Schools
announced an extended break, I was lucky to see $30. This wasn’t because no one was tipping; no one was coming in to eat.
People were scared. There weren’t any answers, and parents were scrambling for childcare. I watched as a few parents got emails about it while grabbing a quick lunch. However, I still worked a full schedule that week, around 30 hours.
The next week, I came in at 7 a.m. on Tuesday as usual and knew that something was different. None of our regulars who were usually there when the doors opened had shown up, my coworker had brewed only one pot of coffee instead of three, and the surrounding traffic was almost nonexistent.
I wasn’t surprised when my manager gave me Friday off, but I was when he gave me Saturday off, too. Weekends were our busy days, when I could earn up to $100 in tips.
That Sunday, March 15, I went in, ready to work, believing that we still had a chance of recovery, since our customers came for brunch religiously. They didn’t that day.
We ended up closing shop at 1 p.m., though our usual Sunday hours were 7 a.m.-3 p.m. From that moment, I figured things were bad.
The next day I got the lay-off email.
It’s a locally owned restaurant, one that will hopefully survive this because so many people love it, and so do I. We have amazing customers, who I believe will return when the pandemic is over.
I’ve been fortunate to form meaningful relationships with a few of our regulars who have been so awesome and helpful to me. For instance, one of my regulars has made me the family’s regular babysitter.
I was texting with a member of the family and she asked me how I was doing. I told her not great, but expressed that I would be okay. I told her if she ever needed a babysitter, I was ready anytime. Instead, she sent me some money and some very kind words.
I wasn’t expecting that but I couldn’t pretend I didn’t need that money. My partner and I are both out of work because of this virus.
My partner worked at a mall in a tattoo shop and had a second job delivering coffee around the city.
However, our bills still need to be paid. Automatic payment for my new health insurance, which is effective April 1, was withdrawn from my bank account the same week I lost my job. I didn’t try to stop it, knowing insurance would come in handy during a pandemic. If I get sick before April 1, I’m not sure what I’ll do.
I also have to pay for medications that I’m dependent on. These medications run upwards of $1,000 each without insurance.
As for rent, we don’t know how we’re going to pay it yet. I hope there’s a rent freeze.
I’m grateful for unemployment and other help I might receive, but I’m even more grateful for the people in my life who have been making this easier! The daily FaceTime calls from family and friends, the home workout groups, and the determination by local business owners to persevere are incredibly refreshing.
As for what to do if this keeps going? We don’t really have a plan. My partner and I have little savings, only enough to last about two weeks, and both our families are offering as much help as possible but what they can do is limited.
We may try to find work at a grocery store, but we’re hoping to avoid that so we don’t risk causing harm to our vulnerable friends and family members because of contact with so many people. I would like to follow the advice of doctors and scientists by staying indoors but that might not be possible.
I hope nothing like this pandemic ever happens again, but if it does, I hope our government is more prepared. And I hope we are ready to support those who need it the most because we’re all only as strong and as healthy as our weakest.
If you’re a worker in the Memphis area whose income has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, MLK50 wants to hear from you. Answer a few questions on this form; selected workers will be compensated $200 for published essays.