Nobody would believe three months ago that restaurant workers in May would be on the frontline, masked and gloved, risking their lives serving food in take-out lines as a pandemic raged around them.

Yet this is what happened, said U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., at a virtual roundtable discussion Friday about changes the food-service industry must undergo as states across the country plan to reopen businesses.

At a time when restaurants in the four-county GLOW Region are normally gearing up to welcome back tourists, pack their patios and offer happy hour specials, this year is much different. Bars and restaurant dining rooms across the state were closed due to health concerns from the coronavirus. Restaurants capable of making the transition to take-out and delivery menus did so. But many closed completely.

Up to 30% of the nation’s restaurants are not expected to return in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Eater, a restaurant trade journal.

Saying restaurant workers don’t get their due is an understatement. Studies show that a majority of tipped workers cannot obtain unemployment benefits because they received a subminimum wage, plus tips, that did not total enough income to qualify for benefits, according to the research group Data for Progress.

Before the public-health crisis, nearly 1 in 10 workers in New York were employed in food service. About half of working Americans have been employed in the food-service industry at some point in their lives.

Yet the federal minimum hourly wage for tipped employees is $2.13, based on the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Gillibrand said small businesses such as restaurants are the lifeblood of the economy.

Because the food-service industry will not be the same as it was before, Gillibrand said now is the time to decide what the future should look like.

“ ‘Normal’ wasn’t working for most working people before the crisis, and it’s not going to work after,” Gillibrand said. “This is the time for bold, transformative policies that reshape our workplaces and our country. We cannot ask people to go back to work for as little as $2.13 an hour.”

Gillibrand called for eliminating the tipped minimum wage and increasing the minimum wage to $15, which she said will be good for all workers, their families and for the health of the economy.

Food-service workers are risking their health, and possibly their lives, dealing with hungry members of the public for hours each day. They should earn what they deserve without delay.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1