This weekend, restaurant workers across LA County faced one challenge after another. The first came on Friday, when the county abruptly announced restaurants could reopen dining rooms that same night if they met some very basic criteria — details that were released hours after the initial announcement. The next came as armored police violently clashed with demonstrators who had assembled to protest police brutality in locations throughout the city, with peripheral acts of looting and vandalism affecting many restaurants near the hot areas. In response, local governments issued haphazard localized and then county-wide curfews as well as public transit shutdowns, often with little notice or guidance tailored to workers who found themself on the job over the weekend.
The sudden and confusing rollout of curfew orders hit a restaurant industry still reeling from months of interruption in the wake of COVID-19, and made for a painful double whammy for restaurant workers who have born the brunt of the calamity. Those scheduled to work this weekend found themselves learning about curfew alerts while on the job, and without clear guidelines for how curfews impacted restaurants specifically. Workers were largely at the mercy of managers to make the call about when to send them home and how to keep them safe. Since the government relied on alerts sent directly to phones and on social media announcements, learning about the alert required access — or at least proximity to someone with access — to a phone. And it didn’t help matters that the curfews were (and still are) a moving target, with times and geographic restrictions changing by the minute.
The chaos in a snapshot: On Saturday, some cities including Santa Monica, Pasadena, and Culver City joined Los Angeles in announcing 8 p.m. curfews (the LA curfew originally affected Downtown only, but by 7 p.m. it was expanded to the entire city). On Sunday, LA County issued a curfew to go into effect at 6 p.m., though Santa Monica issued an additional curfew order of 4 p.m. as the situation on the ground escalated. Curfew orders from the county remain in place now, with Santa Monica and Beverly Hills enforcing a 1 p.m. curfew today, Culver City at 4 p.m., Burbank at 5 p.m. and the countywide order being amended from 6 p.m. to 5 p.m. in a series of phone alerts sent three minutes apart from each other this afternoon. There’s no specific carve-out for restaurants or restaurant workers anywhere in the county curfew order, but it does stipulate that workers traveling to and from work are not subject to the order.
“It felt like there was no centralized plan for curfew,” says Devine Johnson, executive chef of the Santa Monica restaurant Margo’s. “I think they should institute curfew once they know a protest is planned.” When Johnson got Saturday’s first curfew notice, to begin at 8 p.m., via an alert on his phone, he immediately told staff not to allow any more guests into the restaurant, but did allow the customers that were partaking in the restaurant’s first day of in-person dining in months to finish out their meals. Johnson ended up getting a ride home from a friend in the community.
The next day, Sunday, the protests came to Santa Monica. As soon as the 4 p.m. curfew phone alert came, Johnson called off the night crew and had the morning crew do the closing routine and leave early. He stayed behind at the restaurant, planting himself outside to protect the building from any potential looting threats. “Me, knowing I’m African-American, I stayed and sat in front of the door. Nobody came. But this restaurant is my investment and my life.”
Not every restaurant followed local curfew orders. Eater spoke with a delivery driver for a Pizza Hut in Huntington Park which was subject to the county curfew. Workers learned about the curfew via social media. The driver says that management did not formulate a plan to let workers go home early or communicate much to workers about curfew at all — and that customers flooded the store with delivery orders, creating a chaotic situation in which pizza-making was not keeping up with demand. Despite the curfew, this employee stayed at work assisting with getting pizzas boxed.
Remaining in the store to help with the production issues ate into the delivery driver’s take-home pay, which mostly consists of tips (stuck inside the store for much of the shift, fewer tips were earned). “We didn’t get hazard pay,” the worker says. “We’ve been complaining about that [in the pandemic]. It’s the same with working through curfew; no pay difference.”
Eventually, because of the inability for the location to meet demand, the manager closed the shop just after 8 p.m. and had workers call delivery customers to let them know orders would not be fulfilled. “It took being crazy-busy to allow us to close,” the driver says. “The excuse [our manager] gave us was that they were waiting to hear from corporate. But Jack in the Box was closed, Starbucks was closed. I don’t understand why we had an issue closing.”
Camilo Hernandez worked Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in his role as kitchen manager of Tacos 1986’s downtown LA location. He recalls Friday starting off as another normal (or as normal as things have been during the pandemic) day — protests had been taking place since Wednesday, but since they were peaceful, life at the restaurant was relatively stable. Customers could come in for pickup, bringing tacos home or eating them outside on the restaurant’s outdoor high-top tables. Things for Hernandez changed that night around 9 p.m., as he and the working staff started hearing more police vehicles, more helicopters, and saw people running down the street. “The crowd was getting hectic,” he recalled.” After a call with owner Victor Delgado, Hernandez and the team closed the restaurant early, at 10:30 p.m.
The restaurant remained open on Saturday and Sunday. Following an alert on his phone announcing the 8 p.m. curfew on Saturday and a call with Delgado, Hernandez learned that Tacos 1986 would follow suit with an early closure at 6 p.m. The hope was to allow employees to get home safely, well in advance of curfew starting. However, with LA Metro’s decision to suddenly suspend public transit on Saturday night, Hernandez’s own four-mile commute to Boyle Heights happened on foot. “I spent an hour waiting for the bus, and then a person on the street told me there was no public transport in and out of downtown LA. I was walking home and around 7:30 things were getting crazy. It was a long walk to Boyle Heights. It took a while, but I got home safely.”
Even for workers with their own transportation, driving on the roads after curfew was anxiety-provoking. The Huntington Park Pizza Hut worker recalls being worried about road closures and police activity. “Thankfully the freeways were open,” they said of their Sunday night commute. “But I was really worried about getting pulled over. My friend tried to go to Wingstop and got pulled over and accused of stealing.”
The disparate experiences speak to the lack of organized communication from the city and the county when it came to implementing the curfews — and how restaurant workers often shoulder much of the ultimate burden of such sudden decision making. Once again, workers on the ground are left scrambling because the government was neither prepared in advance nor up for the challenge of protecting them. “Staff lost money coming into work and then not working the full shift,” says Margo’s Johnson. “It affects everyone.”