Metro tunnel in D.C.
The Dupont Circle Metro station. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

Friday should have been a night for hospitality workers to celebrate alongside their patrons. After operating at reduced capacities and under strict social distancing restrictions for 14 months, servers and bartenders returned their tape measures to the tool box and geared up for more lucrative shifts. But server Chablis Owens was exasperated with her transportation options. She got off work at 11:45 p.m. on Capitol Hill and didn’t get home to Northern Virginia until 3 a.m. 

She took Metrorail to work for $6, but taking it home wasn’t an option since trains currently stop running at 11 p.m., even on weekends. That put Owens, who doesn’t own a vehicle, at the mercy of ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft. Owens grabbed a seat at a nearby bar while she refreshed the apps and watched fares fluctuate from $67 down to $56 and then back up to $81.

“I didn’t even want to hang out after work,” she says. “I wanted to go home, but I realized I ultimately had to sit somewhere. Otherwise it’s standing on Barracks Row waiting for rates to go down.” 

Owens finally settled on a $44.64 fare at 2:06 a.m. “I basically walk into every shift knowing that a third of it is going to go to getting home,” she says. “Unfortunately I feel like that’s what a lot of servers in the District are doing. You have to bite the bullet. What am I going to do? Walk five hours home to Fairfax? They have us by the balls.” 

Hospitality workers are frustrated that Mayor Muriel Bowser reopened the District’s economy before ensuring there were safe, affordable, and reliable ways to move about the region aside from using one’s individual vehicle. Most bars and restaurants can once again operate as late as 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. Customers are impacted too. This reporter paid $52 to get home from H Street NE on Friday night at 11:15 p.m. Before the pandemic, the same ride would have cost $12. That last round of drinks was an expensive mistake. 

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Both Uber and Lyft attribute the surge pricing to a supply and demand issue. “In 2020, many drivers stopped driving because they couldn’t count on getting enough trips to make it worth their time,” says Michele Blackwell, Uber’s public policy manager for the Mid-Atlantic region. “As D.C. has increased its vaccination rate and the city is moving towards fully reopening, we’re seeing people return to Uber. However, drivers have not returned to the road as quickly as riders.” 

Blackwell says some drivers fear for their health and safety even though passengers are still required to wear masks. The company is “working tirelessly” to meet demand. “In April, we announced a $250 million stimulus to get drivers back on the road,” Blackwell says. “In D.C., we announced that we were boosting earnings so any driver working at least 20 hours a week will typically earn $25.65 per hour. We’re also guaranteeing $1,675 when drivers in D.C. complete 180 trips.” 

Despite these incentives, some drivers City Paper questioned over the weekend said they’re not seeing money trickle down to them from the increased rates customers are paying. “It’s important for our riders to remember that our drivers are working enormously hard to meet the city’s increased demand,” Blackwell says. “Tipping goes 100 percent to the driver and is an important way to say thank you.” 

A representative from Lyft concurs that heightened demand as ridership increases is causing some areas to see higher prices and longer wait times. They too say they’re trying to coax drivers into working again. In the meantime, Lyft introduced some new features, like allowing riders to pay more for a “priority pickup” or pay less if they’re willing to “wait & save.” 

Lyft also partners with WMATA on the After-Hours Commuter Service Program. The transit agency covers the first $6 of a standard ride with Lyft when eligible and enrolled late night workers commute to or from work within Metro’s compact service area for up to 40 trips per month.

While District residents may be reconsidering staying out past when Metrorail closes because of high ride-sharing costs, the people who make up the hospitality industry are rethinking whether they want to continue working in bars and restaurants at all. Transportation troubles, along with other factors like low wages, toxic work cultures, and a lack of benefits, are contributing to a staffing crisis locally.

Megan Barnes quit her bar manager job at an upscale D.C. restaurant over the weekend. “When you’re factoring in the cost of Ubering to work and back home, you start to realize it’s not worth it anymore.” About two weeks ago she says Metrorail became unreliable even on the way to work because of delays. That’s when she switched to using ride-sharing services both ways. “I spent $30 to get there. I was in tears. I had to explain to chef why I was late. I hate being late.” 

She says she approached the leadership at the restaurant to see if they could help her with transportation costs, or at least increase her pay now that more customer numbers were increasing. According to Barnes, they recommended she get a car because they could assist with discounted parking nearby. “I can’t afford to buy a car,” she says. “I just went through COVID. I didn’t get unemployment the entire time. I dug myself into a huge financial hole and spent my savings trying to survive.” 

In the end, Barnes decided to leave D.C. She’s moving next month. “I can’t afford to live here anymore and transportation is a problem,” she says. “It’s really disappointing. I was born and raised here and thought I’d make my roots here.”

A server at a downtown restaurant, who asked to remain anonymous, also says they’re experiencing anxiety because their commute from Silver Spring to West End is “so daunting.” We’ll call them Erin. It takes an hour and a half for Erin to get to work with walks to and from the Metro station. “At night is the real problem,” they say. Metrorail isn’t an option then so Erin pays around $50 for Uber rides. “It’s like taking away two-to-three tables’ worth of tips,” they say. “It feels like I’m going into debt just to get to work. Honestly, I almost cried this morning because I was so stressed out.” 

Unlike Barnes, Erin is in a position to purchase a car and says the restaurant they work for only charges $60 a month to park. “They care about us,” Erin says. “But if it were any other restaurant, I would have left.” 

Owens, Barnes, and Erin have higher paying jobs in the hospitality industry. Some of their colleagues are even less likely to be able to afford living in the District and therefore endure even longer and more expensive commutes. 

“There are other people like dishwashers and busboys and food runners that don’t necessarily make the amount of money that a server would,” Owens says. “I’m walking away with one-third of my shift going to transportation. They’re walking in thinking, ‘Holy shit, three-quarters of my work day is going to getting home. That’s really unfair.”

Photo of restaurant tables by Darrow Montgomery/file

It’s not just the night shift that’s impacted. Christina Carmon is the general manager of a fast food restaurant in D.C. Her Saturday morning breakfast employees are expected to clock in at 7 a.m., the exact time that Metrorail currently starts running. They largely live in Southeast D.C. and Maryland and rely on ride-sharing services. “I have one employee in Hyattsville,” Carmon says. “It used to be $22 for him to leave at 6:30 a.m. Now it’s $73.”

Some workers have caught a break scheduling Uber or Lyft rides in advance to get around surge pricing, according to Carmon. But she says that’s not a perfect fix because drivers can cancel at the last minute, causing riders to lose out on reduced rates. Carmon has moved employees shifts around to accommodate their needs when possible. Other restaurant managers, chefs, and owners report losing their best employees because they can’t get to and from work affordably or reliably as of late. Some ask to come late or leave early, which cuts into their earnings and leaves restaurants and bars short-staffed. 

Employer stipends or subsidies would help but aren’t common in the restaurant industry. That’s unlikely to change soon, as owners are working to recoup more than a year of lost revenue as they simultaneously stare down rent payments they may have been able to avoid until recently. Some owners who can’t afford to help have stepped up to give their employees rides home, but that’s not sustainable. 

“We’re trying to give people rides home whenever possible and necessary,” says DC9 Nightclub co-owner Amber Bursik. “Who wants to go to work and pay that much money so that it negates coming to work.” 

While most workers report wrestling with ride-sharing services and Metrorail, transportation in D.C. isn’t a dichotomy. There are other ways to get around that have pluses and minuses, starting with lesser known ride-sharing companies like Via and Empower. Some prefer the latter because Empower allows drivers to both set their own rates and keep 100 percent of fares. 

Taxis, the way Washingtonians used to hail rides, are in short supply. “Where are the taxis?” Bursik asks. “I haven’t seen one in a year. They’re just none. I work in taxi land where all the taxis come and hang out in their off hours.” 

Taxi trips dropped in demand by 96 percent since the beginning of the pandemic, according to David Do, the director of D.C.’s Department of For-Hire Vehicles. “Many drivers stayed home to help curve the spread of COVID-19,” he says. “However, based on recent outreach conducted by DFHV, 98 percent of taxi operators plan to return to work. As more people are vaccinated and the city reopens, we do expect more drivers on the road and trips to gradually rise.”

Consider the bus, says Stephanie Strazisar. She lives in Brightwood Park and takes the bus down Georgia Avenue NW to get to the restaurant where she works. “It is so much more affordable for me than ride shares like Lyft and Uber,” she says. “Lately the bus has been busier so I am leaving earlier in case the bus is full and not accepting more passengers.”

On weekdays, Strazisar typically clocks out in time to catch the last bus home. Weekends are a different story, but she’s encouraged by a recent announcement that WMATA is expanding some bus route operating hours to 2 a.m. starting June 6.

A part-time server and bartender who works on H Street NE, Karianna Barr, started counting on a rental car service called Free2Move after Metrorail, Uber, and Lyft failed her on commutes home. Free2Move is attempting to fill the void Car2Go left when the company exited North America last year, though Bursik and others say the fleet of cars parked around town isn’t as plentiful. 

“They’re fairly reliable,” Barr says. “Every so often, you’ll sign up to get a car and the car isn’t there.” She usually logs in to check for available vehicles while she’s closing up the bar. She checks within a six-to-eight block radius and prefers not to stray too far off the main drag for safety reasons. “Every so often I have to veer off into more residential areas, which are darker and whatnot and it makes me nervous.”

Hospitality workers can be crime targets because historically they’ve headed home with cash tips on their person. There have already been more than 600 reported robberies and more than 560 assaults with dangerous weapons in D.C. this year. “We don’t use cash where I am right now but I’m pretty identifiable as industry in my sneakers, jeans, and black shirt.” 

Then there’s driving and parking, which is dependable but cost prohibitive if you work in high-traffic areas of the city. Ashaad Emamdee, the general manager of HipCityVeg in Chinatown, lives in Laurel and drives downtown. Having a car is critical because he often purchases supplies from vendors in the suburbs and ferries them in or moves goods from the Chinatown store to the Dupont Circle store. 

Emamdee got a welcome reprieve from parking fees during the pandemic because the city wasn’t enforcing parking violations. He parked on the street for free without worrying about getting ticketed. Now he’s staring down paying $385 a month again. “There’s a garage across the street from our building,” he says. “There are cheaper ones, but you have to walk six blocks away. I usually get off work at 10 p.m. 7:30 p.m. is late enough to not want to walk around by yourself.” 

There are other reasons Emamdee likes to have his car close by. On January 6, HipCityVeg caught wind of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol Building. Emamdee closed the store at 1:30 p.m. and piled employees into his car to get out of the city as quickly as possible. “Everything happens here,” he says. “You have to be prepared.” 

Some of those employees won’t be with HipCityVeg much longer because of transportation challenges, according to Emamdee. (The Philadelphia-based company just increased its minimum wage to $15 nationwide.) “I’m going to lose four employees because of this,” he says. “At a time when it’s so hard to find staff. Mine have been with me since before the pandemic. They can’t afford parking and live in Northern Virginia.” 

Those who don’t live too far from their workplace can invest in a scooter or bike of their own or sign up for an annual membership with Capital Bikeshare that costs $85. “I bought one of those electric scooters last year,” says bartender Kit Yarber. He paid around $450 for it. Others who have gone this route quote similar prices. “I did the math and realized if I drove it to and from work for a month it would wind up being about the same if I was paying for Lyfts.” 

Zac Hoffman, a bartender, ANC commissioner, and executive vice president of the DC Bar and Restaurant Workers Alliance, says he’s been reaching out to scooter and bike companies like Lime, Bird, and Spin to see if they could provide any breaks for the hospitality industry. Spin recently donated 12 electric bikes, according to Hoffman. He’s figuring out how to equitably distribute them to those in need.

But the restaurant workers and owners who weighed in all agree that the best fix is extending Metrorail’s hours so the mode of transportation caters to more than the District’s 9-to-5 workforce. City Paper asked WMATA if there any near-term plans to increase Metrorail operating hours.

“The Board is committed to ensuring Metro is an integral part of the region’s economic recovery,” Board Chair Paul C. Smedberg offered in response. “The Board’s Finance and Capital Committee is hosting a work session on June 2 to discuss additional service and fare options for the fall and beyond.”

At a May 13 WMATA board of directors meeting Tom Webster, the executive vice president for strategy, planning, and program management, did not share what hours they’re considering, but he let on that implementing a new service plan can take three months. That tracks with Smedberg’s fall projection.

Before the pandemic, Metrorail operated until 11 p.m. on Sundays, until 11:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; and until 12:30 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Returning to the same operating hours as 2019 isn’t good enough, according to Hoffman.

“We talked in 2019 about the lack of late-night Metro service,” he says. “We were more aggressive than the mayor or even [Shawn] Townsend for late night service. We were championing a 24-7 model.”

(Townsend is the director of the Mayor’s Office of Nightlife and Culture. He did not respond to City’s Paper’s request for an interview about tips for nightlife employees who are having a hard time getting around.)

Hoffman explains that when bars can stay open until 3 a.m., some workers don’t get off until 4 a.m. “What are they supposed to do?” he asks. “Figure it out? That’s been Metro’s response to the industry. Don’t rely on us to get home.”