Back to the drawing board: Workers reflect on pandemic experiences
Editor's note: This is the second story in a two-part series on employment in Lake Oswego, West Linn and Wilsonville. Part one can be found here.
Sydney Sandmeyer worked at Lake Oswego's Babica Hen Cafe for just over five years before she was laid off at the start of the pandemic.
With two young children participating in remote learning and a husband who also lost work for a time, Sandmeyer had to learn to be a mother and teacher when her husband returned to work in June 2020.
"Because of the kids still being out of school and no child care, I stayed off (work) up until last May," Sandmeyer said.
Stories like Sandmeyer's are all too familiar. The pandemic has taken many workers, or prospective ones, on a journey they might not have anticipated.
Since the start of the pandemic, some local community members have struggled to find employment and navigate the state's unemployment system while others have pivoted careers or decided to stay home and care for family members. And while some relied on federal unemployment benefits as a crutch through tough financial times, those benefits expired early last month.
Experiences run the gamut
Sandmeyer said the extra federal unemployment dollars allowed her family to stay afloat "and not go into complete debt because of it."
She said the unemployment boost made her decision to stay home with the children less stressful. Despite the high levels of unemployment in 2020, poverty in America actually fell from 11.8% to 9.1% in 2020, likely due to stimulus checks and expanded unemployment benefits, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"I think it's important to note, and I'm sure most moms could relate to this, you kind of automatically … feel obligated to feel like the one to make the choice to stay home and put your career on hold," Sandmeyer said. "You have to do what's best for your kids. As moms we feel obligated to step up and do what needs to be done."
But since Sandmeyer returned to work this past spring and her children returned to school in September, there's been another obstacle. Her children were exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 and had to quarantine at home for 10 days.
"My husband and I had to rearrange our entire schedules," Sandmeyer said. "(It's a) new way of juggling work and parenting these days."
Maren Zieba, who's currently living in Lake Oswego with her aunt, lost her job prior to the pandemic and was looking for a fresh start.
Zieba had worked in the senior living industry for 15 years and wanted to pivot careers. When the pandemic struck, this transition became harder to accomplish. She said businesses would go through cycles where a job would be available but then it would close or be placed on hold.
"I just wanted to try something new and something different and change my lifestyle and change what I was doing," Zieba said.
However, she said that by no longer commuting or attending in-person networking events, it gave her more time for herself "and that was helpful especially when I was balancing having a job and still looking for more work."
Zieba was hired for a part-time contract position — which has since turned permanent — and eventually found a second job, which is of limited duration.
While Zieba has experienced anxiety around the potential temporariness of this type of work, she also has noticed its benefits. She said it's a way for employers and employees to test each other out.
"It's also a way for people who are transitioning to prove their skills in a duration of time and add to their portfolio of work," Zieba said.
For some, the pandemic spurred positive change in their careers.
Like many other workers, the fits and starts and having to manage health and safety protocols as the general manager of Edge Family Fitness proved exhausting for Davide Cook. Even when the gym was closed, he was busy posting online workouts and keeping members engaged. And when it was open, he was working 60-hour weeks, leaving him little time with family.
"It was honestly kind of scary because as a business owner or manager the restrictions and all the guidelines would change weekly. There was an uncertainty that was always in the air," he said.
But the time off during the shutdowns allowed him to reevaluate his life and accelerate a plan he had been mulling for a while: to become a real estate agent. This, he felt, would provide a more stable way to earn a living.
"It was definitely just an idea but the pandemic definitely made it a reality, because with being a grown man, having a family, the uncertainty of not knowing how you're going to make it, I needed to get into an industry that wasn't affected by the pandemic," he said.
While hanging out at home, Cook spent 150 hours studying before passing the real estate licensing test.
"I submerged myself in that world so I didn't have to worry about what was going on all around me. It was an escape from what was going on in the world. It definitely helped," Cook said.
Cook misses the community at Edge and being a mentor to others there, but doesn't regret his big move.
"I'm definitely happy with my decision," he said.
Arts community hit hard
For the community of artists who rely on a buffet of part-time gigs, residencies and contract work to get by, the pandemic wiped away much of their livelihoods.
Not only did much of their income fall by the wayside — a UCLA study found that 80% of gig workers' pay was insufficient to afford household expenses — but many struggled to navigate an unemployment system that is geared more toward traditional workers.
"I think to anyone who has been going through this pandemic that additional unemployment benefits were not even a life saver. It was so little and when it finally kicked in for many people, it was too late," said Raziah Roushan, executive director of the nonprofit Tualatin Valley Creates.
For instance, it took Wilsonville artist Benjamin Mefford many months to receive benefits. And then when he did, he only received money related to his lost job as a part-time worker at the Wilsonville Public Library. That amounted to $120 a week. And one time, he was asked by the state to repay $2,000 due to an overpayment.
"I had a full on panic attack," he said. "I already had all this pressure to figure all this out."
Eventually, he was so frustrated by the system he stopped collecting benefits altogether. Obtaining a full-time job wasn't realistic as he also had to care for his young daughter, and it would have prompted a significant step back in his art career.
"I heard Amazon was hiring and paying 20-something an hour to be a driver. There was no way I could drop everything else I was doing and step into that," he said. "I've invested so much into an art career. To step away from that would be kind of crazy at this point."
Mefford now has his job back at the library and is putting together a few galleries that are helping keep him afloat. He's hoping for a return to normalcy at some point soon but said the arts scene is still experiencing a lull.
Another artist, who asked to remain anonymous, felt that the Biden administration rescinding benefits amid a COVID-19 wave was irresponsible.
She said that the benefits were essential to providing stability for her fellow artists, and in their absence some have had to resort to odd jobs like cleaning houseless camps or even sex work to stay afloat.
"That's not to devalue that work in any way, but to show that people are having a hard time and are scrambling, while clearly people unaffected by unemployment (namely the Administration) don't have a clue as to what ending that program is actually doing to people's lives," she wrote via text message. "Overall it's leading to an atmosphere of desperation, and that's not really the safest thing, especially during COVID."
Roushan would like to see unemployment reform to make it easier for artists and other contract workers to receive benefits for lost income and urged people to invest in the art community during this trying time.
"I think we as arts consumers need to step up and be like 'I have an extra $20, $200, I'm not just going to look at it . I'm going to buy it. That is going to put money into the artist's hands," she said.
Reasons for staying away
While some people have struggled to find work, the economy is in the midst of an employee shortage and the unemployment rate is at a relatively healthy 4.9% after skyrocketing in the first half of 2020.
Some business owners hoped that the rescinding of benefits would lead to a rash of job seekers, but that did not happen in other states that got rid of the benefits earlier this year. It's still too early to know how the elimination of benefits is impacting the Oregon labor market.
Ellen Recko, a mentor at Lake Grove Job Seekers — a nonprofit organization that helps folks find work — said the organization conducted its own research to analyze trends during the pandemic.
"What happened to us, extremely surprisingly, was that during COVID, our numbers went down and that is so counterintuitive," said Recko of the number of people utilizing Lake Grove Job Seekers.
There were many factors that contributed to this trend, according to Recko.
She learned that some job-seekers were initially afraid to apply to jobs that required they be in an office setting during the pandemic, while others who were mid-to-late career were not as familiar with technology yet, so they had trouble using tools to work remotely. Recko said it was common to see parents juggling children or elderly parents as well.
Another reason for the hesitancy to head back to work — at least according to Michael Selvaggio — was workers beginning to expect more equitable pay.
"What happened to us, extremely surprisingly, was that during COVID, our numbers went down and that is so counterintuitive.
— Ellen Recko, mentor at Lake Grove Job Seekers
Selvaggio, a West Linn resident, lobbies in the state Legislature for a number of organizations including United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, Oregon's largest union in the private sector. He posited that because more was expected of workers over the past two years, they in turn expected bolstered compensation.
"While the supermarket industry did temporarily reward some workers with 'hazard pay' in 2020, those temporary bumps were meager compared to the 40-50% increase that stockholders saw in terms of new value (over expectations) — value that was largely funneled into dividends and stock buybacks," Selvaggio said via email. "When a worker gets thrown a few bucks for risking their life, and the corporate board gets several additional yachts apiece — or more than the equivalent thereof — for that employee's efforts, it makes it difficult to continue justifying a chronically low salary."
Recko spoke with business recruiters whose full-time hires dropped. Some of these businesses eventually decided on contract hires, she said.
Representatives of General Labor Industrial Staffing Solutions in Wilsonville, meanwhile, said they have noticed amid the job shortage that more employers are willing to hire less experienced workers and invest time in training them. They're seeing enthusiastic job seekers without many skills obtain jobs as carpenters or forklift drivers, which typically require previous training. This is requiring businesses to invest more in workforce training.
"Our customers are having to and choosing to be more flexible with their willingness to train or invest those resources into bringing on someone who is maybe more entry level or not as trained in a specific area," GLISS representatives said.
While "help wanted" signs and reduced business hours reportedly due to staffing shortages seem to be part of a new normal, some businesses continue to be inundated with job applications.
A local reader recently called PMG to report that the Dutch Bros. stand on Main Street in Oregon City was not only fully-staffed while similar businesses faced employee shortages, but the popular coffee stand was smoothly operated by young, industrious employees.
Stand manager Mackenzie Schumacher said she had hired 20 new employees so far in 2021 and received on average 20-25 job applications each month. She said the average age of her employees was 17 to 22.
According to Schumacher, people — both customers and employees— are drawn to Dutch Bros. by the positive atmosphere.
Patrick Burris started working at the Main Street stand in April. Now, Burris said manning the stand doesn't feel like work.
"We really care about what we do and we want to create that and instill that in our people, so we continue to pour into them to pour into the customers," Schumacher said.
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