Laid off during pandemic, Berkeley workers struggle and get creative

Florists, hair stylists, housekeepers, retail workers, security guards and booksellers: they’re all in the same boat.

Workers at Henry’s, at the Graduate Berkeley, were among countless who got laid off in Berkeley following the shelter-in-place order. Photo: Sarah Han

Over the weekend of March 7, Pan Ellington was still serving a packed room of diners at Henry’s, the restaurant at the Graduate Berkeley hotel.

Mindi Marcus was mixing drinks and pouring cold beers for partiers at the decades-old Missouri Lounge a couple miles away.

Siobhan McGurk was checking in runners and dancers and swimmers at the front desk of the downtown Berkeley YMCA, and saxophonist Nora Stanley was playing gigs and giving lessons around the area.

By the following weekend, all four people would be out of work.


That’s how quickly the coronavirus spread throughout the Bay Area and the world, prompting local health officials on March 16 to order people to stay home except to leave for activities deemed “essential.” As a result, diverse industries saw mass layoffs. Without customers, restaurants couldn’t or wouldn’t pay servers. And with venues closing, everyone from actors to audio engineers to bouncers stopped getting paychecks. Florists, hairstylists, housekeepers, retail workers and booksellers have found themselves in the same position.

State data confirm reports of job loss during the outbreak. California processed 186,809 unemployment insurance claims the week ending March 21 compared to 48,385  claims for the week ending March 7, before the shelter-in-place order. The 186,809 figure was a 363% increase over the same week the previous year. And the governor has said exponentially more people have filed for unemployment.

Hanna Morris, employment program manager at the Vietnamese American Community Center of the East Bay, assists immigrants and refugees in finding work in Oakland and Berkeley. Now she’s fielding 20 calls a week from people who’ve lost the stable jobs she helped them secure years ago. Instead of seeking employment, they’re now calling the center desperate for basic needs like groceries for their families.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Morris said. “They just don’t know how they’re going to pay rent or get food on the table. The ‘solution’ people usually have is the ‘survival jobs’ of dishwasher, security and whatnot. They’re often working two of them but at least they have them.” On the other hand, some of her clients have kept jobs as janitors at hospitals — raising another set of concerns.


When Marcus got laid off on Friday the 13th, “I wasn’t surprised but I was scared. There was the immediate fear of, ‘How am I going to survive?'” she said.

Marcus has been a bartender at the popular Missouri Lounge for 12 years. The first signs of the COVID-19 impact on the bar appeared in early March when business at the often-packed watering hole started slowing. During its final days in operation, employees were all wearing gloves and scrubbing surfaces.

“We were just all in conversation about whether or not we should even be open,” she said. “It was the moral dilemma of everyone needing to work — we’re all basically living paycheck-to-paycheck like so many people in the Bay Area — and the feeling of a moral obligation to public health.”

About 20 happy people posing together in a pile
The Missouri Lounge staff during more carefree times a few years ago. Courtesy: Mindi Marcus

Marcus said she’s in a better position than many of her colleagues because she has a second source of income from teaching (now online) yoga classes and she rents an apartment from a friend who won’t kick her out. She also applied for unemployment just a couple of days after she was let go.

“But I have a deep sense of sadness for the whole bar and restaurant industry in general,” she said.

Ellington was also laid off from their server job at Henry’s — for the second time. The first, in 2017, was for a remodel before the arrival of chef Chris Kronner. That time, Ellington and their coworkers were given severance pay and a guarantee to get rehired.

None of that was included this go-round, and benefits were cut off at the end of March.

“The big slap in the face was that we actually have to reapply” once it reopens, Ellington said. “Those things made it feel like, oh okay, we’re not being taken care of. Especially when you hear of small business owners doing more.” (The Graduate Berkeley is owned by the Kentucky-based Schulte Hospitality Group.)

Like Marcus, Ellington didn’t miss a beat before applying for unemployment. But they’re still nervously awaiting confirmation that they’ll receive a check.

“The folks I’m most concerned for are prep cooks, line cooks and housekeeping. I have an hourly job, but I had tips,” Ellington said.

Out of work, artists come up with creative ways to make money

Like many freelance or self-employed artists, Nora Stanley has struggled to find work in the COVID-19 era. Photo: Marlee Glatz

In some industries, workers are coming up with creative workarounds to keep their connections and income streams.

“There’s a lot of really interesting music being made out of bedrooms right now,” said Stanley, the saxophonist.

Musicians in her circle and beyond are live-streaming home performances and posting fresh albums online, asking for donations. There was even a two-day online Bay Area music festival where attendees could directly pay performers.

“These would have been desperate measures under any other circumstances,” Stanley said. “I’m seeing very successful musicians and even mentors of mine doing that — people in their fifties and sixties having to support themselves that way.”

“There’s a lot of really interesting music being made out of bedrooms right now.” – Nora Stanley

Before the outbreak, Stanley kept busy like most freelance artists do, piecing together gigs at Bay Area venues almost nightly, and teaching private lessons and classes at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley. This spring was slated to be a busy one for the 24-year-old musician, who had shows lined up in Los Angeles as well as her first New York City gig.

“All of that disappeared,” she said. Stanley has kept a student or two for virtual lessons, but she teaches piano to several young children who’d need their teacher there to guide their hands on the keys.

“There’s definitely a lot of plain old stress,” Stanley said. “I see a lot of my friends working from home still and being able to continue their schedule and the structure in their lives, and I don’t have that. That’s one big thing, even aside from making money.”

Stanley is considering offering a “song a day” feature to her digital followers like she’s seen her peers do, and on the plus side she’s found time for collaborative projects with people in other cities, which she’d put aside.

“We’re all going through this together,” she said.

Some workers aren’t laid off — but put on indefinite unpaid leave

a building with cars parked in front
Employees at the downtown Berkeley YMCA have been furloughed. Photo: Google Maps

Some places are promising their employees their jobs back after the pandemic subsides — but it doesn’t mean they get their wages in the meantime.

McGurk does many different tasks at her YMCA branch, but a central job is checking in visitors and registering new members. By mid-March, most of her time was spent putting those memberships on pause.

“First there was a trickle of calls, then it got more and more intense to the point that on one day I took 25 calls in the space of two hours for people freezing memberships,” she said. The facility became eerily empty, classes were canceled, and at a certain point nothing but the actual gym was running.”

A few days after the Y closed indefinitely, McGurk and her coworkers heard they were being furloughed — put on unpaid leave. (They can still apply for unemployment.)

McGurk’s wife is a salaried high school teacher, so the couple still has an income.

“We’re lucky that her pay can definitely pay our rent and our groceries. But we can’t save anything. I need to repair the car, and I cannot do that. It’s a bit of a struggle to pay student loans,” she said. McGurk is also starting law school in the fall, and had planned to save up until then.

On her forced time off McGurk is taking a U.S. history class — that is, she’s overhearing her wife teach remote classes in their home. She’s running in the Berkeley Hills and even set up a “mini home gym,” but as a YMCA employee, she’s looking forward to returning to her regular exercise routine.

The florist is closed, but a classical guitarist keeps trying to make a living on College Avenue. Photo: Pete Rosos

Everywhere, the shutdown is raising existential and practical questions about what facilities and experiences are “essential” to society. While Marcus might not use that word to describe a dive bar like Missouri Lounge, she said the closure has shown her the real value of the institution and others like it.

“Bars feel like the backbone of so many social interactions,” she said. “Business meetings are held there, people meet their future partners there, people get laid because they go to bars. Having community and social interactions are so important for mental health.”

From state aid to crowdfunding, relief efforts pop up

The city of Berkeley has launched a $3 million relief fund for small businesses, arts organizations and tenants that have been dealt a blow by the coronavirus. That money is intended to help merchants keep their employees or rehire after reopening, but it won’t necessarily immediately reach the workers who are in tough spots.

A slew of disparate relief efforts have cropped up to do that: there’s the Safety Net Fund for Bay Area artists, the Virtual Tip Jar for individual service works across the country, and the Oakland Food Service Workers COVID-19 Relief Fund. Several individual businesses like the Missouri Lounge have crowdfunding sites up for employees.

California has also attempted to speed up the unemployment disbursement process, redirecting staff to the office and giving them some flexibility in determining who’s eligible for benefits. Recipients are getting paid quicker and receiving more at once, according to the state. (There is also a new federal law expanding paid sick leave, and family and medical leave related to COVID-19 in many cases.)

Employment counselors like Morris now find themselves helping clients secure emergency assistance instead of finding jobs. But some of the people she works with traditionally haven’t been eligible for unemployment, either because they haven’t worked in the country long enough to have accumulated the required amount of prior income, or because their positions don’t qualify. There are attempts afoot to relax rules during the outbreak, though, with the federal CARES Act temporarily allowing some self-employed people and “gig economy” workers like Lyft and Uber drivers to collect unemployment for the first time.

Some of the immigrants Morris works with are nervous about applying for unemployment, though, fearing they’ll later be denied visas or citizenship for being a “public charge.” However, receiving unemployment does not give someone a “public charge” status, and immigrants can safely apply for it, she said. Her Oakland nonprofit has also dug into its emergency fund to give out periodic $300 payments and is organizing grocery deliveries for quarantined seniors.

Like with everything about the coronavirus pandemic, uncertainty weighs on workers in Berkeley, whether it’s uncertainty about how to feed their kids, or uncertainty about when they’ll get to return to beloved jobs and colleagues.

One thing is a bit more certain for both the bartenders who pour drinks at venues and the musicians who play at them.

When it’s all over, “I feel like bars will have booming business,” said Stanley.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside.. Email: natalie@berkeleyside.com. Twitter: nat_orenstein.