Restaurant Workers Blacksheep

Brooke Blakely, a server for the last two years at Charleston’s Black Sheep Burrito and Brews, holds paperwork she’ll need to apply for unemployment. The restaurant, like others, has closed its dining room during the coronavirus outbreak.

Former employees started trickling in through a side door at Black Sheep Burrito and Brews’ Charleston location by mid-morning on Wednesday, with a grim task at hand: picking up the paperwork they will need to apply for unemployment benefits.

“They said just that we would be shut down for a little while, which I mean is awful because this is how I have to make money. Like, I have to pay bills, I have rent, I have stuff I have to take care of personally and, without an income, can’t really do that,” said Brooke Blakely, 22, who’s been a server at the normally bustling restaurant for two years.

Blakely said it is understandable, because of the coronavirus pandemic, but still not what she wanted to hear from her place of employment.

“I’m very much worried about not being able to pay my bills,” especially rent, she said. “It’s gonna have to be letting one bill go to pay another. Stuff like that. It’s gonna be very stressful.”

Along with scores of other area restaurants, Black Sheep laid off the majority of its staff this week in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the Tuesday decision by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice to close restaurants and bars for dine-in service.

“At the end of the day, the unemployment is kind of what I’m counting on, and, like everybody else in West Virginia who’s in my position, we live paycheck to paycheck,” said Cole Fleming, a 25-year-old now former line-cook manager.

Restaurant workers — and servers in particular — are seen as being especially vulnerable financially because they get a base wage of only $2.62 per hour, and rely heavily on tips. The tips and base wage together are used to determine the amount of unemployment compensation each worker is entitled to.

Some of his servers were making up to $650 per week in tips, general manager Kevin Madison said, and, during baseball season, could count on $100 or more per shift.

In West Virginia, unemployment compensation caps at $424 per week, before taxes.

“It’s a big gap,” Madison said.

On his way out the door, there was no handshake, but Fleming had a verbal hug of sorts for his old bosses — and a reminder about what’s most important.

“If we all make it, I hope to see you guys around at some point,” he said.

He wasn’t really joking.

“It’s not certain, you know what I mean, and people who aren’t taking it seriously need to start taking it seriously,” Fleming said.

If some of the numbers being tossed around are accurate, he said, “the odds of me seeing all of these [people] again are not there. It’s a scary thing.”

Reach Maria Young at, 304-348-5115 or follow

@mariapyoung on Twitter.