Steady on: 8 tips for supporting your restaurant staff during COVID

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Many Americans would like nothing more in this stressful time than to enjoy a relaxing night out at their favorite restaurant. Of course, that won’t happen at most bars and eateries across the nation as would-be customers are urged and/or mandated to stay home to control the spread of COVID-19.

For some businesses, that’s meant temporarily closing their doors to the public. Other restaurants are staying at least somewhat open, and keeping some staff employed, by offering take-out, drive-through or delivery fare. Either way, the virus has had a profound effect on the livelihoods of restaurant employees nationwide.

Under more normal circumstances, the nation’s restaurants (more than one million in total) would have generated some $899 billion, supporting the wages of 15.6 million service workers. But now that many of those workers have been displaced, there’s no telling how many have been among the 78% of Americans reportedly living paycheck to paycheck.

“If health care workers are the first to sound the alarm on the grave threat the novel coronavirus presents to our health, restaurant workers are the first to warn us about the threat it presents to our economy,” writes Meghan McCarron on “This time, the money people aren’t feeling the blow first — the working people are.”

Strategies of support: Leading your team during the crisis

If you’re a restaurant owner struggling to help your staff (or recently laid-off staff) in any way possible during this ultra-challenging time, here are some suggestions that may help them cope.

Communicate well and frequently

Even if you’re just emailing them, your staff needs to know you’re facing the challenge head-on. Stay transparent and share anything you think could help, including updates on health precautions and info about accessing their benefits. “Lack of information can make some employees feel the employer has something to hide or isn't taking the situation seriously,” advises SHRM. “Let employees know what plans are in place, if committees have been formed, and any other notable actions.”

Adhere to CDC recommendations

If your business remains open, maximize safeguards by communicating and implementing CDC guidelines in regards to cleaning and sanitizing, washing hands, wearing gloves, guarding sneezes, working farther apart, etc.

Be lenient about sick leave

For those still on your payroll, be lenient about approving such leave in keeping with the Families First Coronavirus Response Act signed into law March 18. Some people may take advantage, but without paid leave sick workers may hide symptoms so they can keep working longer.

Follow the news like a hawk

Keep everyone apprised of ongoing federal, state and local government interventions that may help them. At the time of this publication, the government was regrouping following the Senate refusal of an economic stimulus package that could provide aid to businesses and workers, including funding for more paid sick leave. The U.S. HUD and many other regional governments have also temporarily banned foreclosures and evictions that may result from interrupted incomes during the crisis.

Point to professional advice

Resist offering medical advice and instead refer workers to their physicians or telemedicine providers.

Consider creative solutions

For example, you may be able to keep more people employed if you divide up available work into shorter shifts or alternate work weeks; that tactic will also lower everyone’s risk of exposure.

Ensure continual coverage

Facilitate a smooth transition to COBRA insurance for qualified employees subject to unavoidable layoffs.

Empathize and listen

Everyone reacts to crisis differently, and people want to feel their fears and concerns are being heard. “Make sure you listen openly and do not react defensively,” SHRM recommends. “Some employees just need to feel heard and not immediately be stonewalled with company policy language.”

While everyone is feeling stressed at this time, and no one has a lot of answers, your employees will long remember how you treat them in high-pressure situations. A calm, steady presence and kind words will go a long way toward making them see you as part of their team.