Jessica Williams had just started her new job at Sea Worthy Fish + Bar in Tierra Verde when she found out she was out of a job. Again.
The 28-year-old bartender was just coming off unemployment. Her longtime gig at FarmTable Cucina in downtown St. Petersburg was cut short when that restaurant was forced to close at the end of 2019.
“I’d been working there for so long I didn’t really know what to do,” she said. “When you’ve been somewhere for so long, where do you go?”
When she got hired as part of the opening staff at Sea Worthy, a new restaurant from the owners of St. Petersburg’s Brick and Mortar, it felt like the beginning of something promising. Williams was joined by a few of her former FarmTable Cucina colleagues. She got along great with the staff and the owners. She quickly fell in love with her regulars.
“I felt like I had finally discovered my new work family after FarmTable closed,” she said. “And then disaster struck.”
In the past two months, Williams has been getting by on some unemployment money and food stamps. She feels lucky that she is able to live with her parents — landlords that won’t kick her out if she can’t pay her rent, which right now she can’t. There’s also the student debt she owes — roughly $70,000 — and other bills to pay. But those will have to wait.
“I had a little over a month for savings and that was it,” she said. “Most of us are living check to check. If anything else, it’s reinforced the importance of me being in control of my financial situation.”
In the meantime, Williams tries to stay busy. She reads bartending manuals and has been taking online mixology courses. She’s studying hospitality management and trying to prepare for what the world might look like when this is all over.
“I want to make sure I’m indispensable," she said. “Things might be changed forever. Even if people start going out again to eat and drink, there will always be this memory of this time, about how easily we were all displaced. It’s going to be a call to the government, and all these other agencies: How do we make this industry safe, and so this doesn’t happen again?”
The economic backlash caused by the coronavirus shutdowns has Williams thinking of alternative career choices, but in the end she said she can’t bear the thought of leaving the hospitality world behind.
“This situation has me second-guessing, like, ‘What if I did something else? Would I be in the same situation?’ But you do what you do because you love to do it. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” she said. “I live and breathe it. I bring it home with me. It’s my entire life.”
Sea Worthy Fish + Bar has reopened with limited outside dining. Williams has not been hired back and is looking for work.