Beletech Woldemichael doesn’t have a plan.
She works for the Sodexo food service company at Denver International Airport, cleaning tables, maintaining buffets, serving customers, for $14.55 an hour. It’s been quiet at the airport lately, and her bosses are cutting back on staffing during the coronavirus outbreak.
On Wednesday, she said, she was put on furlough without pay.
This puts Woldemichael, an immigrant from Ethiopia, in immediate crisis.
“I can’t pay my water bill, my electricity bill,” she said. “Of course I can’t provide food for my family. I take care of my mother and father, and they don’t work. They’re expecting me to provide food for them. I can’t pay my mortage, I can’t pay my bills. I can’t provide food for myself and for my family.”
Gov. Jared Polis, who has ordered all dine-in services to cease at Colorado bars and restaurants through the end of April, has also asked utilities not to shut off anyone’s services, and urged local governments to cease evictions and foreclosures. Many have already taken that step, which offers significant relief to people like Woldemichael. But she still has to buy food and take care of her older parents. She conceded she has no idea how she’ll weather the storm.
“We’re trying not to lose hope and not to be scared,” she said.
In the past week alone, about 1% of Colorado’s labor force has filed for unemployment. Many of those hit hardest by the steep economic decline wrought by efforts to slow the spread of the virus are, like Woldemichael, in the service industry.
There is talk of some relief for workers at the federal level, potentially including cash assistance. The majority of Colorado workers do not get a single day of paid family and medical leave through work, though federal legislation promises to change that for a fraction of them. And individual workplaces are offering different packages to help workers stay afloat, though many employees who spoke to The Denver Post for this story said that the packages they’re seeing don’t promise anything beyond two to four weeks from now.
“They don’t have an answer”
What that amounts to is an extraordinary level of fear and uncertainty for tens of thousands who already live on the brink of poverty, who’ve been laid off or furloughed, or who have lost hours.
“Not only are we in an industry that lives paycheck-to-paycheck, we live shift-to-shift,” said Christina Sharkady, who handles catering and other duties for Olive Garden. “We’re used to having cash every day. When you think about money to buy groceries, we don’t have that in the bank. We just think, ‘I’ll work my shift tomorrow, and then I’ll go to the grocery store.’ ”
Aside from take-out and delivery services, restaurants and bars must prepare for what is at least a six-week closure. Those exceptions mean there are still some shifts to be worked, but many fewer than usual. Sharkady counts herself as lucky to have more financial security than most in her industry, and so she’s offered to let co-workers take her shifts so that they might earn a few extra dollars, while they still can.
“I have four shifts this week and I’m grateful for them,” she said, “but I know that if I didn’t have them, I’d still be able to eat. I don’t know if i can say the same for my co-workers.”
Sharkady said that Olive Garden is offering people who work zero hours in a week 50% of their typical pay for that week, and 33% the week after that.
“So is it better for me to work today and get those hours that I can, and do the 50% next week?” she asks herself. “If I take the 50% and the 33%, can I use my sick pay the third week? They don’t have an answer for us.”
“We’re all really scared”
Employees have also had to make difficult choices between financial security and their own health.
Liam Buschel works as a cook at Denver Chophouse at the airport. He said the staff there has been told that one of their co-workers has tested positive for the coronavirus. (Attempts to reach the restaurant and its parent company for comment were not successful.) But that even before learning that, he felt unsafe working inside a building that sees people come and go every day from all corners of the world, including places with more severe outbreaks than what’s been observed so far in the U.S.
“We’re all really scared of getting sick, but we’re all at a point where we don’t know if we’re going to stop having a job,” he said. “So we’ve all been coming into work knowing this could be our last shift, but also that this could be the shift where we catch coronavirus.”
The restaurant is closed right now, and Buschel is getting worried.
“You can only be so smart to save up so much money on $17 an hour,” he said. “So I’m constantly dominated by fear and anxiety. Because even if I don’t get sick, how am I supposed to live?”
Then, of course, there’s the question of what happens if he does get sick. He doesn’t buy health insurance through his employer, and so the prospect of hospitalization is particularly scary: an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation of potential costs for coronavirus treatment finds that the average cost for hospital admission with pneumonia and no major complications runs more than $11,000. That doubles with complications.
“A life or death questions”
The state is scrambling to provide some relief and reassurance to people in Buschel’s situation — that is, the uninsured, underinsured, the laid-off and the furloughed.
Former Denver Mayor Federico Peña has been tapped by the governor to lead a new economic advisory council that will be tasked with helping steer Colorado through an economic crisis that Peña, who is 73, said is worse than anything he’s ever seen.
That council, Peña told reporters on Friday, will focus in the short term on trying to cover medical costs, including treatment costs, for any coronavirus patients, plus paid sick leave and training for workers who need new jobs.
And the governor, Democrat Jared Polis, added on Friday that he wants the federal government to “think big” in terms of economic relief, and he implored Colorado’s congressional delegation to do the same.
Workers like Buschel are waiting nervously to see what the state and federal governments come up with.
“It’s a life or death question or what’s going to happen next,” he said. “What are we supposed to do? How are we all supposed to go on living when we can’t afford to pay rent anywhere?”