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Some service industry workers opt to stay out of workforce for now, as Oregon reopens

Former budtender Jason Dallam is on unemployment and has begun selling fanny packs and other items he sews, hoping to build a new business. Photo shared by Jason Dallam.
Former budtender Jason Dallam is on unemployment and has begun selling fanny packs and other items he sews, hoping to build a new business. Photo shared by Jason Dallam.

Some service industry employees who were suddenly thrown out of work last year at the start of the pandemic are now grappling with how and whether to return to work. For those on extended unemployment making as much or more than they made working, the prospect of risking a coronavirus infection for low wages is less than appealing. We ask three Oregonians who were working in service industries how they’ve been making ends meet and what their plans are as Oregon opens back up. Brianna Relick, Jason Dallam and Erica Carr share their stories.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. Over the last few weeks, we’ve heard from a few business owners who said that they want to hire workers, but they can’t find people to fill their open positions. Meanwhile, unemployed people in Oregon, and around the country have said they have plenty of reasons to be worried about returning to the workforce, including lackluster pay, ongoing health concerns and childcare needs. We’re going to hear now from three Oregonians who each have their own reasons for either not wanting to or not being able to return to their old jobs. We start with Brianna Relick who worked for many years as a cook in Portland. Brianna, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Brianna Relick: Thank you for having me.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for your jobs, pre-pandemic?

Relick: Yeah, I worked in pretty much everything from bars to fine dining in Portland.

Miller: And what did that mean in terms of your jobs right before March of 2020, what were you doing?

Relick: I was filling in here and there at a bar as a cook.

Miller: And then, in March of 2020, what happened?

Relick: Everything shut down, completely, so we were all scrambling to get unemployment as fast as we could.

Miller: What was that like for you? Listeners may remember the stories about people speed dialing the Oregon Employment Department all day every day for days on end. What was it like for you to actually get unemployment assistance?

Relick: Well, it took quite a while for me to actually get it. It did start with me calling at 7 a.m., calling the unemployment department, every day.

Miller: But, even so, it took you days or weeks to get it.

Relick: Yeah.

Miller: When you were finally able to get that money, how did the money that you were getting from expanded unemployment benefits compare to what you had been making when you were working?

Relick: With the weekly bonuses, it was more money than I ever made.

Miller: What was that like to get more money not working than you had when you were working?

Relick: Pretty disheartening, but also a little bit comforting because we weren’t stressed out about how we were going to pay our bills or feed our dogs or anything like that. It was also like, damn, they could have been paying us this this whole time.

Miller: We asked listeners to share their stories, especially about working in the service industry. And we’ve got a few voicemails. I want to play one of them for you. This is Candace who called in from Corvallis.

Candace: I have been a career waitress for the last 30 years. I would have to say that the job is already a humiliating job where even at the highest levels, (I have been a level three sommelier and even served sitting presidents,) you are still sexually harassed and treated horribly, constantly, by the people you work with, as well as the people that you serve. In order to get your food out, I have been sexually harassed and abused every day in the workplace for 30 years of my career.

I refuse to go back to the industry. I am just done being treated horribly, and I know that people in the pandemic, they clap, but that’s just all show. When they’re out there in the world they’re actually behaving horribly. I tried to do delivery services, but most of those people, even the people with all their woke BLM stickers on their cars, they are just basically ordering 80% nonessential items. I don’t want to risk my life to deliver potting soil during a pandemic. So whatever praise you think people were giving us service workers during this pandemic, that is just all smoke and mirrors.

We’re also called “unskilled workers,” and that’s just absolutely ridiculous. I know for a fact that nobody could put on my apron and do what I do, trying to please 80 people at one time and work on a dime and go 10 hours without peeing. That’s a skill. So I think the word “unskilled workers” every time that you hear that, just know that you’re talking to an elitist who has no soul. Do better, humans! Thanks, bye.

Miller: Brianna, there was a lot in that minute and 10 seconds or something. What stands out to you in Candace’s story?

Relick: A lot of it, actually. The sexual harassment, and the way that women in particular are treated in the service industry is one of the reasons why I was always kind of looking to get out of it. Being a waitress definitely is difficult. Being a person who is not a man in the kitchen is an entirely different story. You are definitely not respected as much as the men, and you wouldn’t think that the wage gap would also apply to the lower paying jobs, but they absolutely do.

Miller: So you said that even when you were working these jobs over the years, you were looking for a way out. Have any of your old employers reached out to you to say, “Hey, we’re opening again” or “We are open again, and we’d like you to come back”?

Relick: No, they have not. Most of the places I worked at have closed either before the pandemic or during it. The last place I worked at just reopened, and I have talked to them about it because I just went there, but I’m not really interested or looking forward to it.

Miller: What would it take for you to go back to a cooking job at a bar or a restaurant?

Relick: I think definitely a higher wage. Especially right now, I think that so many people in the service industry are considered essential workers, but not treated that way. The service industry was not was not first in line to get vaccinated, and maybe they shouldn’t have been absolutely first, but it definitely should have been a lot sooner than it was, because they’re dealing with the public more than almost anybody.

Miller: And as you noted, you were getting more in unemployment benefits than you had been getting when you were working in kitchens. Has that changed the amount of money that you would actually wait in terms of choosing to work for? In other words would you take a job that pays less than your current unemployment benefits?

Relick: No.

Miller: What happens though when your benefits eventually run out?

Relick: Well eventually we’ll have to all just take what we can get, because that’s just part of surviving. But I’m trying to build up my dog boarding and walking business a little bit more so that I don’t have to go back, and now that people are getting vaccinated, people are starting to go on vacation and not work from home, so I’m hoping that will take off, but I’m not counting on it either. I’m still going to need to find a job once the employment runs out.

Miller: But you’re thinking you’re done with working in kitchens.

Relick: I would like to be but I’m not sure if it’s plausible.

Miller: Brianna Relick, thanks very much for starting us off today.

Relick: Thank you.

Miller: That’s Brianna Relick, who used to work as a cook in Portland, and as she says she might do it again, although she’s not excited about that. If you’re just tuning in, we are talking about the reasons that some Oregonians are opting out of service sector work. Jason Dallam joins us now. He used to work as a budtender at a cannabis shop. Jason Dallam, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Jason Dallam: Thank you, Dave, for having me.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. What were you doing for work, pre-pandemic?

Dallam: For work, before the pandemic, I was a budtender here in Portland, just waking up early hours, and constantly working 40 hour weeks to support myself and my husband.

Miller: I remember hearing at the beginning of the pandemic that business was good for liquor stores and cannabis stores. What happened to your job?

Dallam: For me it was more of a personal issue because of the pandemic. My husband’s an opera singer and we had to decide pretty quickly if being out in the workforce would be something safe for him as well as his mother who was dealing with some illnesses at the time. So it didn’t really give me a lot of options to consider staying in the workforce because even though the business was booming, and there were a lot of record sales going on with cannabis, it just wasn’t an option for me because a lot of science and data was telling us that this could be a potentially bad virus for someone to get, you know, if they were immunocompromised

Miller: And you had the sense that you were just going to be at a counter and people are going to be coming up to you all day, every day, and you had no idea what they were going to be potentially giving to you.

Dallam: Exactly. And I mean given, like I was saying earlier, the lack of information that we were gaining, I thought it would be best for at least me and my family, because I was the only one working in that situation, where I was interacting with the public. So it’s just kind of like if I remove myself from that, it would allow all of us to know that at least we’re being as safe as we can be.

I would have liked to have stayed, just given everything that was going on and the relationships and the work ethic I was building. But sometimes you have to look after yourself and your family. It took a pretty big toll having to decide I’m leaving behind you know these things. I was working up to maybe become assistant manager or a better role in the business, and sometimes you have to think about your future, and I didn’t want anything happening to my husband or my family, so it became the priority pretty immediately

Miller: But of course there is an economic hit to that. I shouldn’t say of course, I would assume there was. What did it mean for your household finances for you to leave that job?

Dallam: Well pretty quickly, you run out of money because you don’t have a way of getting a bi-weekly paycheck. Like we heard from our other guests, unemployment was absolutely crazy. I pretty much immediately filed unemployment. I did it all digitally, and it took about a month to two months before I started receiving any aid. But as the aid was slowly rolling in, it was easy to get back on our feet. Similar to our other guests, I was also starting to make a little bit more than what I had been making previously at my job, and things started becoming a little bit stable. But things kind of went downhill a few months later and we ended up having to move out of our apartment and in with our in-laws, because of everything going on with COVID. So it took a pretty big hit on our financial status.

Miller: What was it like to be making more money not working than you had been when you were working? How did that make you think about work?

Dallam: Well, that’s where things really started to shift for me, where I realized “Wow, I have the exact same amount of time to myself that I usually would be spending working for someone else and doing their tasks and jobs.” And I kind of have a little bit of an entrepreneurial idealism to the things that I do, so there was a point where I was like, “I can utilize this money and kind of turn myself into an entrepreneur,” and slowly go from a sapling to a tree and try to gain roots so that I could actually progress when this pandemic is over. So that’s kind of what was happening, I was like “Wow, I can use this income to support myself and to actually start working on the skills that I would rather be doing than working for someone else, and not being able to get those skills and achieve the things that I wanted with my life.”

Miller: So what have you actually been doing?

Dallam: So I actually started sewing. It kind of just happened, not literally overnight, but I realized that I can make face masks during the pandemic when it’s really hard to find them, and that was one of the first things that I started doing pretty much immediately. And then I realized “Oh, I can do more than this.” And, long story short, I started producing some products, like a fanny pack and like Pendleton coasters, and I’m just trying really hard to continue to grow that, so that when unemployment does end, I have the opportunity to take care of myself, and maybe eventually take care of others, and have a sense of humanity when I employ people, because like we’ve been talking about, there’s a lot of reasons why I don’t want to return to the workforce, pay is one of them. And hopefully with everything that’s gone on and having this help from the government, I can finally be a possible small business, I can help out neighbors in the community.

Miller: Let’s listen to one more voice mail. This is Anthony who called in from Portland.

Anthony: I was a food service worker for four years before the pandemic. Unemployed for several months and at the end of 2020 got a job locally in manufacturing. I’ve thought about going back to food service. Hourly wage-wise, here in Oregon, it’s actually pretty good money. But the stability that this manufacturing job offers right now is certainly contributing to my decision to stay put. And also, it’s really sad hearing all the stories about how poorly people continue to treat service workers, even in these trying times, Kudos to everyone who’s still in the in the industry and, I still go and pick up takeout and stuff, but it’s just very clear that we don’t care about each other as much as we ought to, and it’s so sad being reminded even a year after all this started that we’re still struggling to reach out, and make sure that we’re being kind and generous to each other.

Miller: You know, Jason, one of things that stands out in that voice mail from Anthony is part of the reason that he noted he’s leaving the restaurant world for manufacturing is he wants more stability. He noted that the pay, for him, has been pretty good. What you’re talking about now, the one possible future for yourself as an entrepreneur and a business owner with a clothing or sewing business, that doesn’t seem at least at first like a path to obvious stability. Entrepreneurs’ lives are almost always filled with uncertainty and risk and potentially great rewards. Do you see a way right now to make enough money with your new sewing business to get by once unemployment benefits end?

Dallam: That is definitely the goal. I’ve been working pretty tirelessly to create a few items that I can sell. I don’t know if I’ll be able to make that goal, because unemployment is what’s helping me stay stable during this transition. I would like it to, that would be great. But it just really depends on how popular, I guess you could say, my items or my store becomes, and people start wanting to buy my products, because without that consumerism, I really won’t have any way of making ends meet. But it’s kind of like, you try your hardest and hopefully all the hard work pays off, kind of like what you were saying.

Miller: Have you been paying any attention to job listings or are you not worrying about that version of employment right now?

Dallam: Yeah, I actually have just been working really hard to try to set these goals to be able to become more successful myself in a way that I don’t have to rely on working for a business that may not have my best interests at heart. But one thing that I’ve discovered during all this is that I’ve had the pleasure to get to know one of the local sewing stores, Montavilla Sewing Centers, and they’ve been probably the most helpful people during this. And you start discovering a lot more about the community when the work that you do involves the community. It would be really cool to work with them if, for some reason, things don’t work out with what I’m working towards, because I’ll be able to still be part of an industry that I think I’ll gain more respect and have a better livelihood from, versus, when I was working for the cannabis industry, it was, you know, you just kind of go to work, do your thing and leave because it’s about more of the profit than it is about the skill set of something where you’re talking and learning with someone about something that has more growth per se.

Miller: Jason Dallam, thanks very much for joining us.

Dallam: Thank you.

Miller: Jason Dallam is a former budtender at a cannabis shop now working on his own sewing business. We have one more story about how the pandemic has scrambled people’s careers. Erica Carr joins us now. She’s a former hairdresser, makeup artist, and global beauty educator. Erica, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Erica Carr: Thanks so much for having me.

Miller: What were you doing for work, pre-pandemic. I have a feeling a lot of people know when I say “former hairdresser and makeup artist,” but global beauty educator is a little bit different.

Carr: Well, I’ve owned my own business for almost 20 years, and that involved traveling around the world, serving underserved markets and teaching them how to start and grow a beauty business, whether that be in hairstyling, makeup artistry, but primarily I focused on the bridal industry. I had a huge bridal business when I lived in California and I started teaching, and I discovered that there were many areas of the U.S. and the world that simply couldn’t afford to go to L.A. and New York. So I went to them, and it exploded, and it was incredible.

Miller: That sounds like a lot of travel and a lot of in-person sessions, the exact kind of things that ground to a complete halt 14 months ago. Did that mean that your job just evaporated?

Carr: It was eviscerated, yes. Everything I had was travel, everything I had was in person. I was known for the hands-on segment, many people would offer online or just seminar style training, but I actually would literally stand with someone, and hold their hand, and say “This is how you braid,” and “This is how you curl,” and “This is how you do eyeliner,” and watch their hands and show them the small nuances of how to create the looks they would see in TV and film. It was super rewarding, but once COVID hit, I knew that my job was over.

Miller: So what kind of options do you have right now?

Carr: Well, having been a hairdresser, a makeup artist and also working as a bartender/server for many, many years in the service industry, I don’t find a lot out there for me right now. For instance, in the hair world, if I wanted to go work at a hair salon, especially in Portland, the folks that are hiring will expect you to come in with a full clientele, and that’s impossible for someone that never had a business here in a salon. I don’t have that.

Miller: You have experience, but not clientele.

Carr: Sure. And then those that are offering a commission style, which is standard in our industry there, either 60-40 to the house or 50-50, their hair cut prices are so below what I was charging when I left the Bay Area, I could never make it. And of course, all weddings and events were shut down. So makeup wasn’t happening. I wasn’t getting calls like I was. Pre-COVID, I was getting calls from Nike and Adidas and other production here in Portland. Those calls were gone, because everything had to cease. When I decided maybe I could do this online, so many other people, freelancers especially, lost their jobs. They didn’t have money to pay for online classes. So I had to rethink and pivot.

Miller: Pivot to what?

Carr: Well, I started to see if I could get back into the restaurant industry. I thought if I started to beef up my resume and show that I had worked for five star restaurants in Napa Valley, that I was trained as a high level sommelier, that I had a lot of experience because I’m 48, that I would be easily snatched up by any restaurant. Well, all of the restaurants that I wanted to work for closed. And then I realized the restaurant industry was never going to recover like I thought. So I wasn’t getting called back, even though I had a really fat resume, years of experience, they weren’t interested in hiring me. And the calls that I did get, I was told I was overqualified for what they were offering, and I said I’ll take anything I need to make money because at the time I didn’t want to apply for unemployment. I’ve never been on unemployment, ever, in my entire life. I started working at 14. I thought “No, no, no there’s other people that need this, I don’t need that.” And then I had to apply because I had no option.

Miller: Erica Carr, I’m sorry to say we are out of time, I’m sorry we can’t hear the rest of your story, but thank you so much for joining us today.

Carr: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Miller: That’s Erica Carr, former hairdresser, former server, former makeup artist, former global beauty educator, talking about the last year and thoughts for the future.

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Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Allison Frost