Job losses in the Charleston-area food and beverage industry continue to mount, with additional restaurant groups laying off hundreds of employees. Charleston Hospitality Group on Thursday announced it had laid off 330 people, or 95 percent of its workforce. Home Team BBQ on Wednesday laid off 400 employees.
While smoked meat lends itself to carryout, Home Team owner Aaron Siegel says if his restaurants remained open, “We’d hemorrhage money. It doesn’t make sense for us to prolong certain situations.”
Siegel said total closure isn’t the solution for every restaurant operation, but it’s the rare restaurant which won’t shed some or most of its employees in the wake of an executive order prohibiting dine-in service across South Carolina.
And since hospitality in the Lowcountry has long been an employees’ market, with workers having their pick of positions amid a widespread staff shortage, many of the laid-off workers will be filing for unemployment benefits for the first time.
The S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce on Wednesday announced it had created a new online hub for workers whose employment was affected by COVID-19. “We have seen an exponential increase in the number of filings for unemployment insurance claims as well as call volume,” S.C. DEW Executive Director Dan Ellzey said in a news release announcing the site’s launch.
According to the release, the site will be updated continuously to reflect any changes implemented at the state or federal level to speed the application process and to help workers deal with procedural challenges “in this unprecedented time.”
In the meantime, though, agency representatives and local labor lawyers have provided the following answers to questions which are sure to arise in coming days:
Q: I own a restaurant. Do I have to lay off my employees so they can file for unemployment or can I just cut back their hours?
A: “The cornerstone for an employer is to do what their business situation dictates,” says attorney William Floyd, a partner at Nexsen Pruet in Columbia.
A worker does not have to be formally laid off in order to collect unemployment benefits, DEW spokeswoman Dorothy Weaver said. But she added that any hours worked figure into the overall benefits calculation, so “you might still be eligible, but you may not receive the maximum. It would just vary.”
In South Carolina, the maximum is $326, payable for 20 weeks.
Q: I’m a bartender at a downtown Charleston restaurant. When I got laid off, my restaurant group said it would file a claim for me. Am I good to go?
A: No, Weaver said emphatically.
“If employers are able to file, it helps reduce fraud and it helps with the process of keeping up with claims,” Weaver said. “But the one thing about it is it doesn’t take everything off the employee.”
Laid-off workers have to log on to dew.sc.gov to certify any claims filed on their behalf. Otherwise, they will not receive benefits.
Q: My boss warned all of us not to file for unemployment. He said he was going to say he fired us for using drugs. What should I do?
A: Crooked restaurant owners will sometimes contest unemployment claims because they’re worried about their insurance payments going up, said Charleston employment attorney Marybeth Mullaney. While federal intervention may ultimately provide relief on this score, Mullaney wouldn’t rule out the possibility of anxious business owners reflexively contesting claims.
But she clarified that employers don’t have the last word.
“If they contest it, then you can appeal it,” she said.
Q: There is no way I can pay rent without a job, so I’m going to move back in with my parents in Charlotte. Do I file for unemployment here or North Carolina?
A: “You are filing to receive benefits from where your employer paid taxes,” Weaver said. If your job was in South Carolina, you should file for unemployment in South Carolina.
Q: I heard you have to keep looking for a job if you get unemployment, but that’s dumb, because I’m a line cook and every restaurant is basically closed.
A: State law has long dictated that recipients of unemployment benefits be "actively looking for work," which has in recent years been interpreted as two online job searches. As of Thursday afternoon, though, that requirement is lifted for claims filed through Apr. 18.
"We are temporarily waiving this requirement to make it easier for claimants to receive benefits," DEW explained in a press release announcing the temporary change.
Q: I’m still not clear on whether I qualify for unemployment. What should I do?
A: Apply. Everyone interviewed for this story agreed it’s better to have filed and not received benefits than never to have filed at all.