Imagine you’re riding high as a server at a locally beloved and James Beard-nominated Chinese restaurant, saving your hard-earned cash in the hopes that someday you’ll be able to open your own restaurant. Then suddenly, COVID- 19 hits. The dining room goes dark, your tips dry up and paying rent and buying groceries means dipping into those precious savings.
This is the reality for 36-year-old Hemanth Arcot, a Fairfax resident who arrived here from Hyderabad in southern India six years ago. He previously worked at Spice Route in Fairfax and has been part of the Mama Chang team since it opened last March. Legendary Chinese chef Peter Chang’s most recent restaurant— which honors the culinary talent of his wife, Lisa—is now serving carryout only, and Arcot’s 50 to 60 hours a week have been reduced to about 20.
“Most of the staff were told to stay home, be safe rather than come to work,” Arcot says of the days following Gov. Northam’s closure of Virginia restaurants. “My manager was telling them how to apply for unemployment, and it’s like life is totally changed from what it used to be.”
Arcot understands why others would apply for unemployment but ultimately feels it’s not the right path for him. He’s a proud man who views it as charity. All he wants is to keep working and saving for his dream, plus he now has to send money back to India to help family members who have been hit hard financially by the pandemic. In addition, he worries that the unemployment money will run out eventually.
“But normally, nobody wants to apply for unemployment,” he says of those who choose to apply. “Everybody wants to work. And it’s like everybody is forced to not work. That’s a sad story.”
He’s served shift meals at the restaurant but wonders what will happen if it becomes tougher to get groceries. And then there’s the rent. Living in an apartment complex a few blocks from the restaurant has its perks, but he frets that landlords in his big building are flooded with requests for rent breaks and might not be able to handle yet another.
“This is one of a kind—even my forefathers haven’t seen it,” he says of the pandemic. “When it was a depression, it was a lack of work. Here, the situation is entirely different. It is like you’re told not to work, that’s the difference. So this is new to me, and it has affected me in every possible way.”
Arcot appreciates that his manager has to juggle a schedule that takes into account who can work and who can’t due to filing for unemployment, and not giving anyone too many hours to protect their health.
“It’s a big headache for everybody,” he says. “It’s a financial hardship that I’m going through, that’s the truth.”