What It’s Like Being a Restaurant Server Who Lost Her Job During the Pandemic
Mariana Lárez Matheus was laid off in mid-March, right before restaurants were ordered to close dine-in services.
Editor’s Note: For our July issue of HONOLULU, we searched for stories from people all around O‘ahu about the moment COVID-19 became real to them. We spoke with a critical care nurse, care home operators, a mail carrier, a hotel worker who lost her job, a police captain and more back in April and May about the ways their lives at work and at home suddenly changed. Check back on honolulumagazine.com every week for a new story. Pick up the issue on newsstands in late June, subscribe or visit our online store.
Here’s the full version of Mariana Lárez Matheus’ story in her own words, as told to James Charisma. The 32-year-old restaurant server lives in Kaimukī.
I work at a restaurant in Waikīkī, right on Kalākaua Avenue. Originally, I’m from Venezuela; I’ve been in Hawai‘i for four years and this past January was my third anniversary with the restaurant. It’s great to be a server there. The job is fun, you’re exposed to so many other people from different countries and, most of the time, they’re on vacation or celebrating their anniversaries or honeymoons and they’re really happy. You’d think that so many people coming from different countries and cultures might clash but overall, people are in good spirits most of the time.
I was concerned since the beginning when I first heard about the virus in early January. News programs would show, for example, a hospital in China and talk about the efficiency of the doctors, how they were working hard. But the news didn’t talk much about the urgency of the fact that things were not going well there [and] how that same hospital might be completely full in two hours.
The first time management at the restaurant made an announcement about COVID-19, it was basically just to let us know that we needed to wash our hands more often. “Spread aloha, not coronavirus.” The chefs and other servers and I all wash our hands often anyway. But right around late January, my hands became like rocks because anytime we picked up a plate or menu or anything, we were washing our hands like crazy afterward, especially so once we heard COVID-19 was already here in the United States.
One of my co-workers at my second job went to China for Lunar New Year and when she came back, it was an ordeal. She had to be quarantined and couldn’t do anything for two weeks. When I heard the news that the virus was in California, I knew it had to be in Hawai‘i. Most of the time, our tourists are either visiting from Asia or the West Coast. There was no way it had reached both sides of the Pacific and not here.
March 13 was the last day I worked at my restaurant. I was getting ready for work when I got a message from my boss telling me that, although I was scheduled to work, the restaurant was closing down indefinitely. It was amazing how quickly the message went from, “Spread aloha, everything’s going to be OK,” to “We’re just not going to allow team members to come back to work right away,” to “We’re closing down as of today. Don’t come.” The only communication we’ve gotten so far from the company is from HR, which has given instructions about how to apply for unemployment.
I tried to file for unemployment a few times but the website kept crashing. Many of my co-workers shared their frustration on social media, because maybe this was their only job, they have no savings, or have kids to feed. Personally, I’ve been living off my savings and am trying to live frugally. I’m grateful that I don’t have major debt, like car or student loans, or responsibilities, like children or parents to care for here. This is the first week of May and I actually only today just received that stimulus check. So that’ll go toward my rent.
I wanted my mom to visit me, even before the virus, but that’s a whole other situation now because she’s in Venezuela. They say there are less than 500 cases there [when Mariana spoke with us in early May] but keep in mind, Venezuela is about the size of Florida and it’s a dictatorship, so you can’t trust the government to get official counts because they’re obviously going to say that everything is OK. In that country, there are power outages, limited medical equipment and limited access to gasoline. Sometimes even water is not available. I would love to bring my mom here, just to see her, but I think that’s going to take a while longer than I would want.
My biggest concern now is the future. What is the future of employment going to look like? Will it be more competitive to get a job because restaurants are hurting? How long is it going to take to get the economy restarted? Especially here on this island, because I’m assuming people will be scared of traveling for a while. Maybe I’m wrong and all these people that are finally out of quarantine will want to travel and the first place they’ll want to go is Hawai‘i. But I doubt it. I’m also worried about what the “new normal” will look like, if we’ll have to start wearing masks more regularly or changing the way we socialize. This will change the way we build relationships with one another.