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Many Portland restaurants, on winter hiatus or still closed after the initial March shutdown, have laid off or furloughed workers. Some of those workers have struggled to stay afloat since.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX

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Shoestring Budgets, Side Gigs, and a Ticking Clock: How Portland’s Unemployed Restaurant Workers Are Struggling to Survive

Extended unemployment benefits are set to expire this month, and Congress hasn’t approved another stimulus package

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After 18 years of working in food service, Shelley Bowers lost her job as a bartender at the Alibi Tiki Lounge when Oregon’s pandemic lockdown started in March.

Bowers was okay for the first few months. Between the $1,200 federal stimulus check, her unemployment benefits, and an additional weekly $600 from the CARES Act Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, she could cover groceries and rent on her two-bedroom apartment.

But the $600 stopped coming in July. Since then, she’s been scraping by with $397 a week in extended unemployment benefits, less than a quarter of her pre-pandemic income. Now, Bowers — and around 12 million other Americans — are set to lose these extended unemployment benefits they’re living on by the end of December. In Oregon, about 70,000 people may lose their benefits. Congress hasn’t approved any new help for unemployed Americans.

The restaurant industry lost more jobs from the pandemic than any other industry in the U.S. That amounted to nearly 6 million jobs in the first six weeks of the pandemic, about half of all restaurant jobs in the country. While some of those jobs returned as states reopened, the industry was still down 1.5 million jobs compared to pre-pandemic levels in October. And job growth slowed with the recent surge in COVID cases and the new round of shutdowns.

In Portland, unemployed restaurant workers like Bowers have drained their savings and are ending the year with very little government help, unsure of when they’ll be employed again. Dozens of restaurants across the city have permanently closed since March. Many are currently closed due to the indoor dining ban, while others have heavily reduced staff and hours. So it’s uncertain when, and if, the city’s restaurant jobs will return. It’s also uncertain when unemployed Americans will receive more help from the government as Congress fights a partisan battle about what the next coronavirus stimulus package will look like. Some proposals for the bill give more money to unemployed workers than others, but none come close to the scale of the first coronavirus relief bill. Even if a bill is passed this month, there may be a gap in payments to unemployed workers. So with rapid job growth or significant government support unlikely in the next couple of months, unemployed Portland-area restaurant workers are facing extreme financial hardship and uncertainty.

“When I had the CARES Act money, I felt secure about my financial future for once the world reopens,” Bowers says. “But now I don’t feel that. I feel scared.”

Bowers’s unemployment benefits have been just enough to keep her and her roommate, Ruby O’Fennell, fed and housed since March. O’Fennell had just gotten a job at a location of the Portland coffee company Barista when the pandemic started, but lost it almost immediately because of the shutdown. O’Fennell hasn’t received any unemployment benefits this year, so Bowers has been covering their $1,100 monthly rent and buying most of the groceries.

A barista with 10 years of experience, O’Fennell moved to Portland after living in California for a year. She says the move caused confusion about which state would handle her unemployment benefits, and that she’s been trying to reach both agencies regularly since March — sometimes calling hundreds of times per day and spending hours on hold. But she’s only been able to talk to people from the agencies a handful of times, and she still doesn’t know if she’ll receive benefits. The only government help she’s had this year is the $1,200 federal stimulus check.

O’Fennell is one of many people in Oregon who weren’t able to get unemployment benefits at all this year. Oregon’s employment department was ill-equipped to handle the surge in claims during the pandemic. Since March, the agency has been consistently behind in delivering benefits. Issues with its outdated computer system left thousands of Oregonians without benefits for months. The system also sent out false information to unemployed workers. Gov. Kate Brown fired the director of the Oregon Employment Department in May because of the delays. Amid all the confusion, many people who’ve consistently filed for unemployment throughout the pandemic have been passed over, one way or the other, and have been left to fend for themselves.

“We’re not making enough money to survive this,” O’Fennell says. “I really feel like a pawn, like I’m just here for some kind of material gain and that I’m never going to get to have what I wanted.”

Lifelong restaurant industry veteran Melynda Amann is also not where she thought she’d be at her age. Amann lost her job as the daytime bartender at Mad Hanna, a bar in Northeast Portland, at the beginning of the pandemic. Her husband also lost his bartending job. She says their combined income is now about 30-percent of what it was before the pandemic.

Amann is a cancer survivor and her husband has heart disease, so they’re both at a high risk of being hospitalized or dying if they get the coronavirus. So even when their respective bars have been partially open during the pandemic, they haven’t risked working.

People like Amann have faced a terrible ultimatum during the pandemic: risk your life to go to work, or stay home and fall behind on bills. Restaurant workers, in many ways, have been on the front lines of the pandemic. And the industry has been hit harder than any other economically. But the federal government hasn’t allotted stimulus money specifically for restaurant workers.

“We’re both middle-aged. I never imagined being 50 years old and being in this situation,” Amann says. “The jobs that we’ve done our whole life are not even an option at the moment.”

They’re both relying on their extended unemployment benefits to pay bills. Amann says she’d probably have to take out a loan to cover rent if Congress doesn’t approve another stimulus package including more unemployment benefits soon.

Steve Carder, who was the manager at the restaurant Slow Bar before the pandemic hit, is also relying on extended unemployment benefits to pay the bills for himself and his three-year-old son. He says his unemployment money covers his mortgage, and not much else. Carder has been mowing people’s lawns for cash to pay other bills since the pandemic started.

Carder is one of many restaurant workers who’s angry about how lawmakers handled restaurants during the pandemic. Local lawmakers have changed restaurant restrictions over and over since March, making employment unreliable for restaurant workers. He says he understands the public health reasons for restaurant restrictions, but criticizes lawmakers for not doing more to help restaurant workers who become unemployed because of the shutdowns. “You can’t just tell people to close and not back up their income,” Carder says. “Do we need to take to the streets with pitchforks and torches?”

Food-industry workers like Bowers, O’Fennell, Amann, and Carder are shocked at how little the government has done for them since March. “I feel like there’s so much hatred from one party to the other that they’re more concerned with sticking it to their political opponents than they are with actually helping the American people,” Bowers says. “That really upsets me.”

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