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Business and Labor

Last Call, Again. Laid Off, Again: Oregon Hospitality Workers Face Another Round Of Unemployment

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Some of the first workers to lose jobs in the pandemic are losing them again in the “freeze.” As new business restrictions kicked in statewide this week, some workers and business owners experienced a gut-punching déjà vu.

On Wednesday, the day Oregon’s “freeze” went into effect, Ezra Caraeff showed up at his bar Paydirt armed with butcher paper and masking tape.

“I’m getting good at this,” he said, covering the windows.

Inside, bar manager Whitney Delk began pulling hundreds of liquor bottles off the walls. She had practice too. She did the same thing in March.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Ezra Caraeff, one of the owners of Paydirt, a bar in Northeast Portland, papers the windows of the bar on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020. The bar will close for at least the next four weeks, part of Oregon's "freeze" and effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Then Paydirt was shuttered again. Just like in March.

As new business restrictions kicked in statewide this week, some workers and business owners experienced a gut-punching déjà vu. To combat the state’s dangerous spike in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, Gov. Kate Brown temporarily closed some businesses, such as gyms, and greatly restricted others. She banned both indoor and outdoor dining at bars and restaurants.

So now, some workers who lost their jobs when the pandemic first hit are getting laid off again.

“Without the outdoor dining in tents that are covered and heated, we don’t have much of an option at this point other than to just close and wait,” Caraeff said.

He laid off about 40 people at the four bars he co-owns, including Paydirt.

Then, the wait began.

Last call, again

Paydirt plays a pivotal role in a Northeast Portland building called “The Zipper,” whose fate OPB has been following during the pandemic. A collection of micro restaurants surrounds the bar. In normal times, people gather for food and drink in the building’s common area and outside.

But at 9:45 pm Tuesday, on the eve of the freeze, bartender Krishna Sunglieng announced last call at Paydirt.

Not just for the night, but for at least one month.

“Please bring your final selections to the bar. And as always, wash your hands and wear a mask,” he said to a smattering of applause. Then, his layoff began.

In the COVID-19 hotspot of Multnomah County, Brown’s restrictions will remain in effect for at least four weeks. In other counties, it could be two weeks. It all depends on when, and if, the virus can be brought under some semblance of control.

The first time the pandemic closed Paydirt, from March through June, felt surreal. Shocking. This time, both staff and owners seemed more resigned.

“We all went through the five stages of grief the first time through,” Caraeff said. “I’m just gonna try to skip the denial… I’m just gonna go right to acceptance.”

The bar had invested in outdoor service. It chipped in for tents and propane heaters. It encouraged customers to gather at the firepits outside and order from their phones.

“We went above and beyond to do everything to make this as seamless as possible,” Caraeff said.

He generally agrees with the governor’s efforts to protect public health. Still, Caraeff worries that one month from now, in the dead of winter, people won’t come back.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB
Paydirt, a bar in Northeast Portland, closed the doors after last call on Tuesday, November 17, 2020, part of Oregon's "freeze" and effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

This week, Brown announced a $55 million fund to help businesses hurt by COVID-19 restrictions, including the current freeze. The money comes from the state’s share of federal Coronavirus Relief Funds and will be distributed through the counties. Brown acknowledged the help wasn’t enough and called on the federal government to do more.

Jason Brandt, the head of the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association, expressed appreciation for the fund. But he criticized Brown’s emergency order, calling the ban on outdoor dining “overly impulsive.”

“That equates to thousands of restaurant employee jobs that are lost right before Thanksgiving,” he said.

Brandt said it’s unfair that under the new rules, two households can still mingle and eat together in private homes, but they can’t do the same outside a restaurant in the open air.

On Friday, the association filed a complaint in federal court seeking to block enforcement of the freeze as it applies to the restaurant industry.

Laid off, again

The Oregon Employment Department has braced for an influx of unemployment claims during the freeze. Despite a legion of problems as the pandemic hit, director David Gerstenfeld said restarting claims should be straightforward for most people who get laid off again.

That doesn’t help Paydirt bartender Jessamyn Klatt-Faistnaur. Standing in the empty bar, she said she never got unemployment benefits the first time it closed.

“They said I don’t qualify,” she said. “At all.”

She didn’t completely understand why. Now she was laid off again, with no benefits and two young kids to support.

“Super stressful,” she said, inhaling sharply.

Bar manager Whitney Delk waited more than two months for her unemployment last spring. In June, the checks finally arrived — 16 at once.

Those months of isolation were hard for Delk, who lived alone. She drank. Took long walks through the city. Snapped photos of businesses that had closed. She waited for Paydirt to reopen.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB
Paydirt bar manager Whitney Delk takes the liquor bottles off the shelves on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020. The bar will be closed for at least four weeks, part of Oregon's "freeze" and effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The day she went back to work — June 29 — was a very good day.

“I felt incredible that day,” she said. “I was ready to come in. I had Queen on. I was like, ‘We are the champions, boom-boom-chhh, let’s do this.’”

Delk was feeling more optimistic about this layoff, which a lot of people saw coming. She saved money. She prepared.

“I personally stopped drinking at the end of May. I got on medication — a mild mood stabilizer. I’ve been attending therapy,” she said.

She said she expects the bar to stay shuttered a lot longer than one month. She wants to stay strong.

“I had a lot of people reach out and help me and I want to be that person. I want to pay it forward. I don’t want to go down again,” she said. “I’m not.”

Bar owner Ezra Caraeff said Paydirt will survive the freeze. He and his partners have a Small Business Association loan sitting in the bank for each bar, in case the coronavirus crisis worsens even more.

“We’re okay right now. We’ll be okay in 30 days when, hopefully, we’re legally allowed to open again. If this stretches deep into next year, we won’t be okay,” he said.

And he doesn’t think anyone will.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting