A dilemma for restaurants and workers in New York: what to do with Omicron?

After Nikolas Vagenas, bartender at Apothecary in Chinatown and Meridian bar in Brooklyn, testing positive for the virus in mid-December, he tried to apply for unemployment benefits both by phone and online. The website “was super complicated,” he said. “I called them and waited on the phone, and they said I didn’t qualify.”

Asked if restaurant workers who test positive for the virus are eligible for unemployment, a New York State spokesperson said, “Unemployment determinations are made on a case-by-case basis, but Restaurant workers are eligible for unemployment under the same standards as every other worker.

But Ms. Jayaraman noted that the state eligibility criteria for unemployment include being “ready, willing and able” to work, according to the New York Department of Labor website, and specify that “you cannot deposit for a week when you work more than 30 hours or earn more than $504 in gross pay between Monday and Sunday.” That would make it difficult for anyone in isolation for just about a week to qualify as “able” to work, or even deem it worth applying, she said.

Getting information on unemployment benefits and best practices for restaurants can be a challenge. A New York Times reporter who reached out to city and state officials to clarify their health guidelines was directed back and forth between multiple departments for two days, and several specific questions went unanswered.

Olivia Sternberg, waitress at The crocodile, a French bistro in Williamsburg, tested positive shortly before Christmas, and the restaurant granted her two weeks of paid sick leave. Managers and owners checked on her regularly, she said, to see how she was doing.

Feeling supported by her employer has relieved her, but she still has concerns: will customers want to dine indoors during a new wave, in the middle of winter? Will vaccination requirements change, and if they do, how will customers react?

“Here we go again,” she said.


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