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The pitfalls of being an Austin service industry worker during Covid-19

Tuesday, November 3, 2020 by Alyssa Weinstein

Gina Dvorak has been working since she was 16 – she’s never not had a job. So when she was furloughed from the serving job she’s held for over 10 years at an Austin Japanese restaurant, she fell into a state of depression and uncertainty.

Dvorak joined the droves of other service industry workers who lost their jobs when Covid-19 arrived in Austin more than eight months ago. 

“The idea of being unemployed was a really hard adjustment,” said Dvorak, who is also an organizer with the National Restaurant Organizing Project and Restaurant Workers United. “Then to have worked in this industry for so long (and) watch it fall to the wayside, you’re looked at without any respect and seen as an unskilled worker.”

Since March in Travis County, 42 percent of jobless claimants had been working in food service, retail or the personal care industry, according to Workforce Solutions Capital Area. Additionally, when comparing February with August, the leisure and hospitality industry has experienced the worst job losses of any sector in the metro area, dropping 24.3 percent, an Austin Chamber report stated.

Nearly one in four (22 percent) of all unemployed residents in the Austin area as of August previously worked in food service, retail or hospitality. In Texas, the unemployment rate for this sector is 8.8 percent or 93,896 people.

Initially, Dvorak thought the restaurant shutdowns that began in March would last a month and then everything would return to normal. But as weeks started passing and Covid-19 continued to spread throughout the country, she sought unemployment through the Texas Workforce Commission.

It was an exhausting and foreign process. It took three months before several of her service industry friends received any unemployment funds.

The service industry was already a low-paying industry before the pandemic: Jobs EQ reports that from April to June 2020, the average annual wage for the Austin metro area was $25,270.

Through the height of the pandemic, Dvorak was able to support herself with unemployment funds and the additional benefits that previously supplemented it. Now, with that funding gone for many Texans and with the uncertain stimulus negotiations in Washington, D.C., Dvorak questions where her future paychecks will come from and how Austin’s depleted service industry will recover.

Crystal Maher, a furloughed Bouldin Acres cocktail waitress and an organizer with the Texas Service Industry Coalition, also worries about the future of the restaurant industry, in which she has worked for nearly 13 years.

“I think we are in danger of never being the same again because of the inaction from the government,” Maher said.

When Maher collected her unemployment benefits with the additional $600 in federal aid, she did not want to return to work anytime in the foreseeable future due to concerns about Covid-19 and the instability of the industry.

Maher said she gave “every single penny” of her unemployment benefits to her roommate to pre-pay rent for the rest of the year. “I know jobs are gonna get sketchy,” she said.

Although the city has provided some financial support for residents beyond unemployment aid, the list of Austin’s restaurants that have permanently closed continues to grow.

As the pandemic drags on, the city created the Save Austin’s Vital Economic Sectors (SAVES) resolution to provide both immediate and long-term relief for the city’s most vulnerable sectors. Earlier this month, City Council passed the $15 million relief package targeting child care centers, live music venues and legacy business sectors. Specifically for the service industry, the SAVES resolution will give businesses the much-needed technical assistance in order to keep their employees on staff.

Veronica Briseño, the city’s chief economic recovery officer, has released an update detailing the timeline to implement the programs. City Council directed staff to return on Nov. 12 to further discuss the programs’ guidelines.

“(The SAVES resolution) is a very thoughtful approach of long-term sustainability for these businesses,” Briseño said. We won’t be able to save all businesses … I hate to say that, but the reality is we’re in a very tough time and we don’t have enough dollars as a city to provide relief to all businesses.”

Maher sees the resolution as good progress for the service industry, yet she said there are still many underlying problems the city has yet to address.

“It is great that (the city) has found money to keep buildings opened right now, but I have watched so many people from the industry have to leave town because they couldn’t afford to live here anymore,” she said. “People have lost their lives, their homes, their family members … we need to get money directly to the people, too.”

Until the SAVES resolution completes the next steps outlined for implementation, Maher and Dvorak will continue to advocate for service workers’ rights.

“I don’t think the service industry can return to the way it was, and really, I don’t want it to,” Dvorak said. “A huge part of the problem that we’re seeing with the industry is this desire to return to normalcy, but it wasn’t good. Only a small percentage of people were actually making good money, and money does not equate to respect or to equity.”

This story was written by a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. The Austin Monitor is working in partnership with the UT School of Journalism to teach and publish stories produced by students in the City and County Government Reporting course.

This story has been corrected. Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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