Despite temperatures hovering near freezing, dedicated diners huddle up on the Mackey’s Steakhouse patio, using blankets passed out by the servers. Unlike many local restaurants that would need to buy outdoor heaters and equipment, Mackey’s already had a fully equipped deck because of its yearly St. Patrick’s Day festivities which usually spill onto the patio. (Liliana Frankel/The Enterprise)

ONTARIO - Each school day, Heather Johnson gets her 7-year-old daughter ready and drives the two of them to work at Mackey’s Steakhouse and Pub in Ontario.

While Johnson, the restaurant’s administrative assistant, does her “work-work,” her daughter attends school online on the office connection. Then, her daughter goes to her grandparents’ house, and Johnson readies herself for the six-hour lunch shift, during which she serves as bar manager to a quiet house.

Johnson still has her job, but is working fewer hours. She is one of six with reduced hours while another 19 of Mackey’s employees have been laid off.

Current Covid safety mandates have capped the number of customers allowed to gather on the patio at 50, and since Gov. Kate Brown’s latest restrictions took hold, restaurants throughout the county have cut back staffing.

Interviews with staff at Mackey’s reveals a workplace where the workers feel necessary and valued, “like a family.”

Having to cut their hours, according to owner Angie Grove, was “probably one of the worst feelings in the world.” But according to public health officials, the recent measures to limit restaurant service are necessary to slow the spread of Covid. Now restaurant workers like Johnson are struggling. 

Dana Hughes is one of those recently laid off from her job as a server. Despite the loss of her hours, she much prefers to think of herself as a working person.

“I’d never had to file for unemployment before,” she said. “If I don’t have a job, I go get another job, you know what I mean?”

But without her normal hours at Mackey’s, Hughes has had to look for economic help. She’s one of the wage earners in her family, supporting an ailing mother and uncle. After one failed attempt to get on unemployment this spring, when Mackey’s was closed for more than two months, Hughes has now successfully signed up for the program.

Still, money is tight. 

“It’s kind of hard to go to the grocery store and be like ‘Okay. This and this and this is what I need - just the essentials, because we don’t know how long this is gonna last,” Hughes said.

For servers in particular, unemployment can be a hard bargain because although the program is designed to replace lost wages, it doesn’t make up for tips - sometimes half their earnings. 

“The Oregon unemployment office doesn't see gratuity as lost wages, but yet the gratuity is taxed and added to my pay stubs every pay period,” said Kelsey Peterson, a server who’s currently working a reduced schedule. “And because of the hours I am currently working I have been denied any benefits.”

That leaves her feeling “that my lost income is irrelevant.”

In Hughes’ case, she is thinking about getting a part-time job. But all of her work history is in customer service, a sector which has been hit hard by the pandemic. Recent numbers from Oregon’s Employment Department showed that the leisure and hospitality sector in Malheur County lost 10 more jobs between September and October of this year, for a total of 60 jobs lost since last October.

Some service work is available in the retail industry, where grocery stores, for example, are thriving as people eat in, but Hughes still hasn’t found work.

Johnson may be working now, but earlier this year, she lived through two periods of unemployment: the first when Mackey’s was closed from March to May, and the second in July, when she contracted the coronavirus. 

“The first time I got [unemployment] it took about a month to get it,” she said. “So that’s kind of rough, because you’re out of work for a month and you’ve got a kid and you’ve got to pay rent and you’ve still got to buy food.”

Johnson missed about a month of work in the summer when she was sick with coronavirus, but she got unemployment through a special pandemic assistance program. Not everyone who gets sick is so lucky; Hughes also contracted the coronavirus and went through two additional quarantines when she was exposed to the sickness in her family, forcing her to take a cumulative six weeks off of work. She was never compensated for her lost hours.

Grove said that right now, there’s not much she can do to insulate her staff besides trying to keep the restaurant open.

“My job right now is to keep this place alive so [those laid off] have a job to come back to,” she said.

Not that it’s easy. 

The latest restrictions, again clamping down on indoor dining, “are decapitating us,” said Grove. “It’s ugly.”

Despite Grove’s frustration with the state government, which she said was looking at “the wrong numbers,” she urged restaurant-goers to comply with the guidelines set by the governor. 

“Don’t make it harder on the people that are just trying to make it,” she said, referring to her staff, who sometimes deal with complaints from customers about Mackey’s’ new policies. “There are just certain things that no matter what you believe personally, we have to follow.”

Grove’s staff echoed her frustrations with the situation they’re in.

“How can you label any operating business as non-essential?” asked Peterson. “In the eyes of our government we are just a tiny speck they see on their map of survival, but here it is a hard reality that we will always be non-essential to them.”

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.

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