When Ontario went into lockdown in mid-March 2020 due to the pandemic, bartender Marko Yovanovich lost his full-time job. He had worked at Trinity Common in Toronto’s Kensington Market for a year. The next day, Yovanovich started his own business: Food Group Catering.
“I called my grandmother, I borrowed $500 bucks and I went to Costco and I basically stocked up on as much food as possible,” said Yovanovich, 31. “We started making menus and started posting them on Facebook at first, just to sort of try and make some money during this time.”
Yovanovich remembers having to wait about five weeks before he received the government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit or Employment Insurance following the lockdown.
“At first, all of us were starving those first five weeks, it was tough day-to-day. We were really praying for customers,” he said.
He started his business with his roommate and their best friend, who were also laid off from their jobs in the service industry. The three entrepreneurs now operate out of a fully functioning licensed kitchen in Toronto, changing their menus weekly and offering contactless delivery in the Toronto area.
The restaurant industry, which had to shut down in March and April, still had 250,000 people out of work in October, 2020 according to a recent study. Ontario and Quebec were impacted most drastically.
“This decline in employment represents the largest job loss of any industry in October and reverses five consecutive months of job creation,” according to Restaurant Canada’s website.
While some restaurant workers are choosing to stay in the restaurant industry, others have taken matters into their own hands by reuniting with their old passions or creating new ones altogether.
Financial insecurity for manager
In January 2020, Arianne Persaud, 32, who has been working in the restaurant business since the age of 16, started a full-time managing position at Trattoria Milano in Toronto.
“For two months, [I] went just so intensely in at restaurant management and building a team from the ground up. Then [we] very abruptly got shutdown and laid off, and now I’m jobless,” Persaud said.
Persaud always identified as an artist, creating poetry and documentary films, but a career in the restaurant industry always came first.
Now, thanks to financial assistance from the government, Persaud is privileged enough to focus on this passion as a full-time career.
Persaud is currently working on a documentary, Behind, which tackles the flawed infrastructure of the restaurant industry before the pandemic.
Persaud’s partner, Stefhan Iwaskow, also worked in the restaurant industry before the shutdown in March. The two are now thinking about moving out of the city for a balanced lifestyle due to financial strain that the pandemic has brought on for many Canadians.
Persaud said it’s been hard to navigate being a full-time artist while technically being unemployed.
“It’s been a drastic lifestyle change in terms of what we’re able to afford,” Persaud said. “Something that comes with working as a freelancer artist is financial instability.”
Hours cut in half
After the province shutdown mid-March, many restaurants remained opened for takeout and contactless delivery. Shannon Brown, 32, a full-time bartender at St. Louis Bar and Grill in Bradford, Ont., has been working throughout the pandemic.
“I had two weeks off and then I went back full-time to do takeout,” Brown said. “We got a wage-subsidy increase, so I made $18 an hour.”
However, since restaurants in her town, north of Toronto reopened in July, Brown said she hasn’t been receiving full-time hours and her paycheques have been cut in half.
“When we first opened, we made crazy money because everybody was happy that restaurants were open again, but that only lasted a month. There was two months where nobody came at all,” Brown said.
She’s now working part-time at the bar and part-time at a group home in Barrie. Brown recently completed her certification in social service work. Due to the pandemic, she took the opportunity to look for work in the field she went to school for.
Although eligible for CERB, some restaurant workers had to return back to work in July. Being his grandmother’s point of contact and being immunocompromised himself, Yovanovich didn’t return back to his bartending position.
From making $1,000 a week in just tips before the pandemic, Yovanovich said that Food Group Catering’s earnings alone aren’t enough for him to support himself financially. While running his new business, Yovanovich is still receiving financial assistance from the government.
“I was making very good money working in the market. Whereas now we’re still behind on rent,” he said. “Certainly, the government support that eventually came in made it so we can thrive a little bit more.”
Health risks for restaurant workers
According to both Yovanovich and Persaud, many of their friends who work in the restaurant industry felt that the choice of going back to work was between life and death, interacting with some customers who don’t believe in COVID-19.
“There is a huge portion of the population that straight up doesn’t believe that anything is going on. They don’t believe in the virus,” Yovanovich said. “You add those idiotic thoughts with alcohol, and you get some really belligerent people that are willing to get into your face and put you and everyone in your workplace in danger.”
Persaud doesn’t have a job to go back to and admits to being in a privileged position sharing expenses with their partner. They said plenty of their friends are financially struggling and behind on rent because CERB isn’t enough for a single-income household.
“My partner and I had a front row seat to all of the different types of need that existed that weren’t met by CERB,” Persaud said.
In March, Persaud and Iwaskow started a non-profit organization, the Toronto Restaurant Workers Relief Fund, aiding people with gift cards for groceries and access to two free counselling sessions for those who can’t afford it.
“This has been a traumatic event even for us, especially for people who liked doing this work. So, it’s kind of messed up that you’re forced to feel as though you need to pivot,” said Persaud. “Peoples’ lives are truly changed forever.”