What the American Families First Act Means for Restaurant Workers

Editor's Note: Plate is making coverage of the coronavirus available to all readers. Find more articles here.

As Americans wait for Congress to vote on the stimulus package, here's a look at what is already in place. On March 18, Congress passed the American Families First Act to bolster workers’ sick leave benefits and fight food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill’s sick leave provisions are aimed at keeping workers with COVID-19 at home to prevent the spread of the virus and flatten the curve.

Seemingly overnight, though, hundreds of thousands of restaurant workers became ineligible for the paid leave provisions in the bill when they were laid off.


If you’ve been laid off, the fastest way to receive aid is by applying for unemployment benefits with your state. The American Families First Act allocated $1 billion to unemployment and will disperse it to states in the coming weeks.

One in six restaurant workers already lived in poverty before the crisis, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and mass lay-offs will surely exacerbate the problem. If you’re now unemployed, and especially if you have a family, you may be eligible for SNAP benefits to help pay for groceries.

Plate spoke with Eileen Applebaum, an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic Policy Research, about what the American Families First Act means for restaurant owners and workers. We’ve broken the bill down by its three core benefits: Paid Sick Leave, Emergency Family and Medical Leave, and SNAP assistance. Leave benefits will kick in on April 2, or 30 days after the bill was signed into law.

Paid Sick Leave

Generally speaking, the bill extends 10 days of paid sick leave to COVID-19-affected workers, who:

  • Have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
  • Are quarantined at the instruction of a health care provider, employer, or government official.
  • Are caring for another person who has COVID-19 or who is under a quarantine related to COVID-19.
  • Are caring for a child who is unable to care for themself due to the COVID-19-related closing of schools, childcare facilities, or other care programs

The 10 days built into the bill is given on top of sick paid leave (that relatively few) restaurant employers offer. If your employer offers you five days of paid sick leave, you now have 15.

Who does the bill cover?

Businesses with 500 or more workers (e.g., big restaurant groups and chains) are exempt from extending COVID-19-related sick leave. Workers in these big groups do not benefit from the legislation’s sick leave policies.

Workers at restaurants with 500 or fewer employees are covered by the bill.

There’s a hitch though: Restaurants with fewer than 50 employees can ask for waiver from the Department of Labor if paying for sick leave “jeopardizes the viability” of the business. If that waiver is approved, that means owners don’t have to pay workers for COVID-19-related sick leave.

You might also be covered by state and city laws. Many parts of the country already have mandated paid sick leave policies in place. The National Partnership for Women & Families has a list of all cities and states with existing sick leave laws, in addition to policy specifics and state-by-state agencies you call if you have questions (search for “Enforcement Agency & Mechanisms” in the document). In the past few days, a handful of states also have passed emergency sick leave measures, so be sure to check with your state’s website or your local restaurant association to see if you or your workers have extra benefits.

Who pays for the leave?

Restaurant owners pay employees for their sick days, and the government will reimburse owners for 100% of the cost through payroll taxes. Applebaum says that business owners likely won’t even have to wait to collect the reimbursement. Regulations being written now will allow employers to estimate the cost of paid sick leave and get the payroll tax credit in advance.

How much will I take home?

The maximum pay-out for COVID-19-related sick leave is $511 per day, which is based on a $132,860 salary. On a sliding scale, most restaurant workers would receive much less. Applebaum also says that the bill makes no mention of tipped workers, though, and she’s unsure how regulators will determine pay rates for front-of-house workers who rely on gratuity. It could be based on a national minimum wage or various state minimum wages or an individual’s take-home pay that includes tips. Tipped workers will get paid retroactively once those calculations are finalized, which could be weeks.

Emergency Family and Medical Leave Act

In normal times, the Family Medical Leave Act gives eligible employees the ability to take 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for family and medical reasons—without losing their job or healthcare coverage. During the COVID-19 pandemic, those benefits have been amended so that workers are paid during their leave.

Who does the bill cover?

Only parents of children whose school or care center has closed, and who don’t have alternative childcare, are eligible.

From there, you must have worked in your current job for at least 30 days.

Finally, it depends on the size of the company you work for. As for paid sick leave benefits, if you work for a company with 500 or more employees, you are not covered. If you work for a restaurant with fewer than 500 employees, you get coverage—unless the restaurant has fewer than 50 employees and is granted a waiver.

How does it work?

If your child’s school has closed, and you can’t telecommute (because you work in a restaurant), you must first take 10 days of unpaid leave. (Some states have mandatory family paid leave time that might help fill in the gap.) After 10 days, you can apply through the Social Security Administration for extended leave, up to 10 additional weeks. This program is set to kick in on April 2.

Who pays for the leave?

Again, restaurant owners are responsible for paying employees for the leave, but owners will be refunded 100% of the cost via payroll tax credits.

How much will I take home?

Restaurant workers who qualify will receive two-thirds of their pay, up to $200 a week with a maximum payout of $10,000.

Food Assistance: SNAP & WIC

In good times, restaurant workers rely on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), also known as food stamps, to help feed their families. In fact, of all industries, workers in restaurants and food service make up the largest group of workers reliant on SNAP with an estimated 1,771,000 industry professionals in the program, according to the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities.

The American Families First Act did two things for SNAP. First, it removed work and work training requirements for SNAP during the crisis—a boon for recently laid-off restaurant workers.

Second, it freed up additional SNAP funding for states to pass on to families with children who usually receive free or reduced-price meals at school.

The bill also increased funding for WIC (Women Infants and Children), to help women who are pregnant or mothers of young children and were laid-off because of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are at least 1 million single moms in the restaurant industry, and 40 percent of those women live in poverty. If you’re a mom and recently have been laid-off, contact your state’s WIC agency to see if you’re eligible for benefits.

Who does the bill cover?

Most of the provisions in the bill are aimed at families with children. However, if you’ve recently been laid off and need help paying for groceries you may be eligible for SNAP.

How do I apply?

Each state has different SNAP benefits and criteria. Learn more about benefits in your state here.