Michelle Hill and her husband, Kelly, had just submitted their paperwork seeking to qualify for their first house, when COVID-19 restrictions were put in place. Now, the Hills’ plans for a home of their own and their two daughters, Rosemary, 6, and Sage, 1, are on hold.
On Tuesday, Michelle Hill was temporarily laid off from her job as a server at Steamworks Brewing Co.
Jessie Mackey is thankful for the Durango lifestyle – multiple jobs to make ends meet. It’s hidden blessings are all too apparent now that she’s been temporarily laid off from her bartending gig at J. Bo’s Pizza and Rib Co.
No one knows exactly how many service industry employees have lost their jobs – or are severely impacted from loss of tips – but Tim Walsworth, executive director of Durango’s Business Improvement District, said it’s “easily hundreds.”
He encouraged people to donate to the Community Emergency Relief Fund, saying its core purpose is to help employees who have lost their jobs, through no fault of their own, as a result of disasters. And over the years, CERF has become very good at what it does, he said.
“That fund is taking donations right now,” Walsworth said. “We’re going to need every penny.”
Mackey’s and Hill’s stories are only two among hundreds of servers in town whose lives were upended Tuesday when Gov. Jared Polis banned dine-in restaurants through April 16, a ban he extended to at least April 30 on Thursday.
“We had just turned in our first application. We’re trying to buy our first house, and we wanted to qualify first to see what we could afford. That doesn’t look like it’s going to happen,” Hill said.
Even if Hill qualifies for unemployment, she doesn’t think it will help much because more than 70% of her income comes from tips, not covered by unemployment.
“We think we can make it through May and pay rent, and that’s about it,” she said. “We’ll see what we’ll need to sacrifice after that.”
Hill’s supply of contacts have run out. She won’t replace them. Instead, she’ll rely on her glasses.
Natural Grocers and Walmart are hiring and she’s thinking of applying, but she’s unsure if they would be interested in hiring her for a short period of time. “After four or six weeks, we might be rolling again (at Steamworks). But I’m working on a résumé.”
Hill understands the situation Steamworks is in, and she said her employer has been helpful to workers it has had to lay off. The brewpub is offering free meals to all its laid-off employees while its operation has been reduced to to-go service out of its sliding front windows.
Rosemary and Sage are ecstatic mom is able to stay at home more.
“Rosemary asked if we could go on a sleigh ride, and I said, ‘Oh, the car’s still covered with snow.’ We’re looking to sacrifice wherever we can. If my husband keeps his job, we’ll be bare-bones, but we think we’ll be able to get by, but there goes what little we saved for home-buying,” she said.
Mackey, like Hill, said her employer J. Bo’s has been accommodating to its laid-off workers. The restaurant plans to conduct a deep cleaning during the hiatus in dine-in service, and it will employ some of its laid-off workers for that project.
Mackey said J. Bo’s owner has told them to come to him if they need help during the COVID-19 forced closure.
Other aspects of coping in the wake of the COVID-19 layoffs have been more frustrating.
“I’ve been trying to apply on the unemployment website for three days, but I get to a certain point and the website doesn’t let me go any further,” Mackey said. “If you think about it, there’s hundreds of people from Durango and thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands trying to get on that website.
“Even if I do get unemployment, servers rely on tips. We’re creating a good experience for our customers. The hourly salary is not going to cover it, and the bills don’t stop coming,” she said.
Mackey’s second job, managing Hermosa Mobile Home Village, has proved a lifesaver.
“I’m thankful I have another job not in the restaurant industry, and I’m thankful my mother taught me to save. She said, ‘Every paycheck you put this certain percentage away, and you don’t even think about. You don’t use it until you need it.’”
A final stress point for Mackey is just the uncertainty of her current employment situation.
“We don’t really know how long this will go on. Hopefully, it will be only a month, six weeks, but no one really has any answers.”