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Out of Work in America: A career in hospitality under threat

Out of Work in America: A career in hospitality under threat

From the Out of Work in America: Following Americans who found themselves out of work series

Restaurant server has never had problems finding work - until now

  • Updated

Editor's note: Americans have endured economic crises before but none quite like this. To capture the depths of the suffering, The New York Times teamed up with local news organizations across the country, including the Arizona Daily Star, to document the lives of a dozen Americans who found themselves out of work. Find the entire project here.

Kalyn Fiorella Burns, a 35-year-old single mother of two, has spent all of her adult life in the food and beverage industry. In March, she lost her job as a bartender at a TGI Friday’s. It took three months to find another job -- but it is only part time. Six months of unemployment benefits have been exhausted and Ms. Burns is still waiting for the 13 weeks of additional benefits under the federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program to begin. We first spoke with her in July, as she was beginning to wonder whether she would ever work again.

OWENSBORO, Ky. — I became a server at Cracker Barrel when I was 18. When I was 20, I became a bartender at Red Lobster. I couldn't sit at the bar until I was 21, but I could tend bar.

I've worked in management, but I got out of management because I could make more money as a bartender.

I heard in late March that there was a possibility that the governor might close restaurants. I didn't think they would shut us down completely. But I started making plans for bringing home less money.

I struggled in the beginning. It took me a month to get my first unemployment check. That was a headache. I spent nine hours a day on hold for a week before I got my first check. I was used to bringing home cash every day. Going without that for a month is really stressful. I'd make from $700 to $900 a week, but I worked my tail off for it.

There are a bunch of people like me. I'm not a college kid working to make money for college. This is my career. I like to be in this industry. But right now, this industry is shot. I have a great resume. I've never had a hard time getting a job. Until now. I don't know what the industry will look like when this is over.

I've put in 20 to 25 applications. Restaurants aren't hiring. With only being able to seat 20 percent of capacity, they’re lucky if they can keep all their current employees. I've had one response.

I've always lived in Owensboro. I love it here. But my rent is almost $1,000 a month. I've been busting my butt to save money to build a house out in the country, where I can have animals and room. It hurts my soul to have to dip into that money now.

I found out in an email that the restaurant was closing permanently.

There is a silver lining to this though. I get up, spend time with my kids, go to my mom's to swim. We've gone on a couple of camping trips. We've hiked and done other outdoor activities.

My daughter will be a sophomore this year. It won't be that long till she's gone off to college. I'm spending time with her and my little guy.

I used to see my daughter between the time she got home from school and I left at 4 to go to work. I love to cook and now I'm able to cook for them. I'm spending time with my little guy that I never got to spend with my daughter. It's not all bad.

But I wish I knew when it would end and I'll be back at work.

August: ‘It’s just part time … but it’s a job.’

I got the job. It felt really good to know that I could be working again.

It’s just part time, working two nights a week. I work Wednesday and Saturday nights.

But it's a job and it gets me out of the house a little bit. Our business is primarily with farmers, and it's harvest season now. That should be a good time for us.

But because of the Covid, we can't stay open as long as we could before. We have to have last call at 9 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on Saturdays. But they tell me when the harvest is over, I might get more shifts.

I hope so.

I've been drawing partial unemployment benefits since I started working part time. But my funds ran out after six months and I have to reapply for the extra 13 weeks they added because of Covid. I haven't gotten anything in about three weeks.

I'm not sure when I'll get another unemployment check. It took me a month to get my first one.

September: ‘I’ve got it on cruise control now.’

I got ordained in July. That's something I've always wanted to do — just in case I ever need it. Now I can perform weddings, baptisms and even bless your home.

I haven't done any of that yet. But I hope to.

I've been able to spend more time with my kids. I've baked a lot of cookies. We've been able to swim a lot this summer.

We've been camping and we went to Kentucky Kingdom (an amusement park in Louisville) once and to Kentucky Down Under (an Australia-based theme park near Mammoth Cave). 

The pandemic has not changed my views, but has definitely heightened my interest in politics. I am hopeful it will be a successful election for the Democrats and this nation can begin to heal from the division caused by the current president.

My main concern right now is finding some kind of normalcy again. I'm hoping some kind of cure is found soon. A lot of people are staying home all the time. And that's good.

But when you're in the food and beverage business, you need people coming out and enjoying themselves. After seven months, I guess I've got it on cruise control now.

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