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Dallas-Fort Worth residents out of work due to coronavirus forced to make hard choices

April 5,2020

See full Fort Worth Star-Telegram article by Jack Howland here.

Chris Parr has enough money saved to make it through one more month with his three young children, if he can buy only what he needs like food to fill the refrigerator and diapers and formula for his 1-year-old daughter.

Beyond that, he doesn’t know.

Parr, a 39-year-old Fort Worth bartender, is one of the staggering 10 million Americans who filed jobless claims over the past two weeks as the coronavirus has upended industries, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor. He found out from the owner of Lola’s Saloon on March 17 they would have to shut down by midnight the next day, per Mayor Betsy Price’s executive order. He could work one more shift before he had to face unemployment, and a new reality as a single father.

He called the Texas Workforce Commission multiple times to file for his unemployment benefits, waiting for about five hours total, until he was finally able to get through. He signed up for food stamps.

But he knew that alone wouldn’t be enough, so he submitted applications for jobs at four large supermarkets that are hiring, before he started thinking about the potential risks of working in a heavily trafficked store.

“What if somebody at the store has it, and then I come home to the kids and — I don’t know. It’s nerve-wracking,” Parr said over the phone on Thursday. “When it comes down to it, if the grocery store calls and says, ‘Hey, we need you to start tomorrow,’ and I haven’t heard anything else, then absolutely I’m going to go start tomorrow. Just so I can start having some kind of income coming in.”

In Texas, more than 461,000 people reported they lost their jobs during the month of March, according to Labor Department data. That represents a roughly 600 percent increase from February, as — in the span of one month — the coronavirus has led cities and counties across the state to enact measures that once would have been hard to imagine.

Across the Dallas-Fort Worth region, a new population of laid-off service industry workers like Parr are having to make hard choices about how to get by.

People are budgeting their savings, only spending what they can afford. They’re falling back on their family and friends for help. They’re pleading with landlords for more time on April rent.

Kara Atieh, who was laid off more than two weeks ago at the Scat Jazz Lounge in downtown Fort Worth, lives in an apartment complex with a lot of servers, bartenders and other restaurant employees, she said. Her apartment manager has told tenants laid off due to COVID-19 to pay what they can for the time being.

“His owners are instructing him that all we have to do is show some documentation that we are unemployed because of COVID and he was like, ‘Even if you can make any kind of payment, like $100, or just something,’” Atieh said. “I just think that that’s incredible and amazing and super kind in this situation. Because I’ve heard other apartments aren’t being cool at all.”

The Texas State Supreme Court has recognized the unprecedented soar in unemployment by halting eviction proceedings until after April 19. In Fort Worth, officials are temporarily not enforcing utility disconnections due to non-payment, and won’t be adding late fees through June 30.

But those measures, though they could be helpful in the meantime, don’t do a lot to ease the larger concerns of those who have worked for years as a server, or a host, or a bartender and can no longer make money the same way they did before.

Atieh, 48, has worked in the service industry for 12 years, working every job from a line cook, to a front-of-house host, to a cocktail server at Scats. It’s been a “strange couple of weeks” without a job to report to, she said. But she has tried to take it day by day and stay positive.

She’s getting by with funds she had put away to fix the brakes on her Jeep, forgoing an expensive trip to the auto body shop and instead walking or taking Lyft rides, even though it makes her nervous. She’s also hoping her unemployment benefits will kick in soon.

She would like to one day return to work at Scats, but doesn’t know when that could be, she said.

She tries to not spend too much time thinking about the future.

“It’s a scary situation, and I really can’t go there,” she said.

Vincent Vitek, 40, is getting tired of sitting on the couch.

“I’ve always worked in like a high-volume environment...You have to show up. You have to work 12-hour, 16-hour shifts, or whatever, and you have to be there,” he said. “I haven’t had anywhere to be in a couple weeks.”

Vitek, a Fort Worth native, moved to New York City in 1999 to work as a bartender and he eventually helped to open a restaurant called Employees Only, first in the city and then another location in Miami. After he moved home from Florida last August to be closer to family, he started bartending at Voicebox Karaoke Lounge on West Seventh Street. He knew he would be starting over, again, but he hoped he could work his way up, again.

Then the coronavirus happened.

Vincent VItek is a bartender in Fort Worth who has been out of work for weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic. For now he has a place to live and family nearby that can help, but he worries about what the job market will look like after people can go back to work.

The private suite karaoke bar — the “antithesis of social distance” — laid him off on March 9 over COVID-19 concerns, he said.

With little savings, having always relied on making cash fast with tips, Vitek began living with a TCU student who’s still employed. He started out as his dog-walker and house-sitter at the beginning of March while he was out of town, but the two have turned into friends. Since they had been spending time in the same place, they decided to quarantine together.

They have been getting through long days of isolation by drinking whiskey, playing video games and binge-watching shows like “Tiger King” on Netflix.

Vitek said it’s been frustrating to feel stuck, unable to even file for unemployment because the website has been too busy.

“I have 18 years of bartending experience, and there are no bartender jobs. There are no restaurant management jobs — there are no restaurant jobs,” he said. “It’s rough. It’s kind of like wait it out until the foreseeable future.”

He fears bars could stay closed until June, or July, or even August. He has his parents to live with if he had to.

Atieh, too, said she could back move in with her mother in Weatherford if she runs out of money and can’t find work. The 76-year-old woman is continuing to work at a grocery store, which causes her stress, both for her mother and herself.

She knows she’s not the only one, especially in the service industry, having to think about what-ifs and plan-Bs.

“We’re all unsure about what’s gonna happen,” she said.

For Parr, with three kids all under the age of 11 in his home, applying for in-demand jobs as soon as he could felt like something he had to do for them.

He worries about making sure they have everything they need, beyond just this week and the next one. Half of his day, he said, is spent thinking, “Oh my gosh, I gotta get this figured out.’”

“You just want to make sure that they have breakfast when they get up and food to eat all day,“ he said. “And just making sure they’re taken care of during all of this.”

There’s been plenty to keep Parr busy at his Benbrook home, with an 11-year-old son and two daughters — ages 5 and 1 — excited to have dad home all the time.

He’s been taking the kids on walks around the neighborhood, with his baby girl in a stroller and the other two often in a wagon he pulls behind him. He’s watched the two older siblings jump on the trampoline in their backyard, or play basketball in their front yard. He’s tried to make sure his son doesn’t spend all day playing Fortnite.

Once a day, he sits down with him for about an hour to make sure he completes worksheets on subjects like math and English. His mother, a teacher at a Fort Worth middle school, brought him the activities.

But Parr said it’s easy for stress about the future to come into his mind.

“That’s the thing that freaks me out the most is just the uncertainty of it all,” he said. “Not knowing when we’ll be able to go back to work at the bar, or if we’ll be able to go back to work at the bar.”

He explained his circumstances to his mortgage company, and representatives sent over a packet with various deals available to him for payments on his home. “They’re not going to start penalizing me or anything until we figure out what I’m gonna qualify for,” he said.

His mother, also out of work, is coming over often to help him with the kids, and she’s also there for him if he should ever need assistance with money.

He would still like to hear back from a grocery store, sooner rather than later.

“I’ve got probably another month money-wise,” Parr said. “I would hope — in three, four weeks time — I’ll definitely be working by then.”


Location Mentioned: Scat Jazz Lounge