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A New Documentary Shows the Pandemic’s Toll on One City’s Restaurants

The documentary One Long Shift in the Weeds captures the devastation of Pittsburgh’s culinary industry since the pandemic began. But it also shows the life-changing effect of enhanced unemployment benefits, which offered millions a temporary respite from life on the edge of financial ruin.

In an industry where benefits are nearly nonexistent and vacation days largely unheard of, the government’s brief pandemic-induced generosity was life-changing. (Unsplash)

“At first, we thought maybe it would be a short-term thing,” says Hal B. Klein, a food critic for Pittsburgh magazine, of the first time that Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf shut down indoor dining in the state’s restaurants and bars. The measure went into effect at 12:01 AM on March 16, 2020, shortly after the coronavirus began spreading across the United States.

He’s not the only one who, in the pandemic’s early days, couldn’t imagine how long the measures would persist, nor how lasting the damage would be to the restaurant industry. In One Long Shift in the Weeds: Covid’s Impact on Pittsburgh’s Service Industry, a documentary made available free online on November 24, interviewees from across the industry make it clear how unimaginable it was that they might face a long-term shutdown. (For those familiar with Pittsburgh’s restaurants: there are interviews with Jamilka Borges of Wild Child, Sean Enright of Spork, Spencer Warren of the Warren, Liz Boyd of Station, Sarah Powers of the Forge, Cat Cannon and Cecil Usher of Mindful Hospitality Group, and Jason Mottillo of Restaurant Depot.)

“They kept saying two weeks — we’re just going to be closed for two weeks,” says a former bartender. Establishments shuttered as instructed, but many didn’t think to begin transforming themselves for the long haul — they simply hunkered down, waiting it out. Eventually, some restaurants would turn themselves into high-end grocery stores or purveyors of to-go meals, while others would close, many permanently.

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) kept some businesses afloat, but the money was spent quickly, with mandates that the majority of it be directed to those hurt more than restaurant owners: restaurant workers.

“If you’re a lifer in this industry, you don’t have anywhere to go,” says Matthew Huggins, who, along with Kyle Battenburg, produced and edited One Long Shift in the Weeds. He’s a lifer himself, having worked in Pittsburgh-area kitchens for years — now thirty-five years old, he’s been making a living in restaurants since he was fifteen.

Over the phone, Huggins tells me that he knows servers and bartenders who still haven’t received unemployment benefits after being laid off during the pandemic (and the layoffs were devastating: by March 20, mere days after Governor Wolf’s ban on indoor dining, some ten thousand Pittsburgh-area hospitality workers had been laid off). Many of those workers will never receive unemployment, as the subminimum wage for tipped workers is frequently deemed too low to qualify for the benefit.

When we lose a restaurant, we don’t just lose our favorite spot to go out — we lose the livelihoods of dozens of people. Those people are now facing destitution, with no relief in sight. In Pittsburgh, chefs teamed up with local restaurants to distribute thousands of free meals to out-of-work service workers. The owner of the Warren recalls the generosity that flooded into his establishment once he began giving out meals: other restaurants donated whatever they had, from staple foods to 150 lbs of muscles.

But while One Long Shift in the Weeds emphasizes the hardships endured by restaurant workers during the past few months, it also shows the upside of the pandemic’s onetime check combined with enhanced unemployment benefits, at least for those lucky enough to qualify for both.

After receiving unemployment, says Liz Plank, a cook at Station, “I realized that I had all the resources that I’d been wanting for such a long time.” As spring turned into summer with no sign of the pandemic letting up, Plank went on a road trip, visiting sixteen states.

“I’ve gotten the opportunity to be more creative: I’ve been writing, I’ve been hiking,” says a former restaurant manager. “I don’t want to go back to the same old of working fifty or sixty hours a week, busting my ass, running around, not getting home until 3 in the morning, being exhausted until 1 or 2 the next day, and then having to do it again.”

It’s no coincidence that the possibilities afforded by state support were experienced as a liberation by restaurant workers: in an industry where benefits are nearly nonexistent and vacation days largely unheard of, the government’s brief pandemic-induced generosity was life-changing.

Huggins himself says he never took a vacation while working in restaurants. Indeed, his current move to filmmaking came thanks to the pandemic. His employer, a Pittsburgh restaurant group, had brought him back on the payroll during the summer, tasking him with opening a new restaurant. But when his coworkers started getting sick — he believes one of them contracted COVID-19, and was pressured by management not to tell others at the restaurant about the diagnosis — he decided he’d had enough and left the job. This film is the result of that newfound free time.

“I wanted to show people that we aren’t alone,” he says. He hopes the movie reminds service workers that no matter where they live, they have a community of people that are trying to support one another, even if the state fails to do so. “It’s the nature of hospitality — it’s why we all do this, to be a provider,” he adds. “While we aren’t providing for other people now, we’re providing for each other.”

While Huggins had hoped to take his time on the documentary, he felt obligated to release it as quickly as possible when he saw that a new surge of the pandemic was looming. Sure enough, weeks after he uploaded it, Pennsylvania restaurants and bars were once again barred from offering indoor dining: the new order went into effect at 12:01 AM on December 12 and will last at least until 8 AM on January 4, 2021.