Six months into pandemic, unemployed struggle and hope

Chris Hughes, who is an out-of-work chef, cooks pan-seared Covina with vegetables at his home trying to keep his skills up as he looks for work on Tuesday, August 25, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Chris Hughes, who is an out-of-work chef, cooks pan-seared Covina with vegetables at his home trying to keep his skills up as he looks for work on Tuesday, August 25, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Jobs are rebounding, but still far below pre-coronavirus times

In a chef’s world, what counts is expertise — a deft hand with a sharp knife, years of knowledge, an eagerness to learn and most of all, a talented, sensitive, creative palette.

“Kitchens are totally merit-based,” said Chris Hughes. “Chefs and hourly cooks are only promoted based on accomplishments. The most common mistake a novice chef makes is not understanding kitchen hierarchy and how they fit into that structure.”

That sophisticated structure — and all the jobs that accompany it — unraveled when the pandemic arrived. It still hasn’t fully returned.

“In this field, looking for work is frightening. Who in my industry is doing well?” said Hughes, who was chef de cuisine — the second-ranking chef — at a midtown restaurant but hasn’t worked since April.

From the first reported U.S. coronavirus death Feb. 29, Georgians cycled quickly from blissful ignorance to a fearful shutdown of many businesses and then to a hopeful reopening and attempted return to normal.

Optimists had predicted a rapid, “V-shaped” recovery but most signals show slow growth — and some warn of an economy that will be indefinitely constricted.

The damage is uneven. Much of white-collar Georgia is prospering, especially tech and finance jobs that can be done anywhere. But much blue-collar work depends on personal service like at restaurants or groups of people gathering for business conferences, sports or concerts.

Nearly a half-million jobless Georgians are jostling for about one-quarter that number of openings. Some were briefly rehired at their former jobs, only to be let go again. Some, like Hughes, were furloughed and then finally laid off.

Meanwhile, the rent or mortgage is due, food costs money and jobless benefits have been slashed. Under a new program, unemployed Georgians are expected to start receiving $300 in weekly federal funds sometime in September. That’s half what they received under an earlier program that expired in late July, and the new funding might only last a few weeks.

Hovering over every decision is fear of a virulent disease. While there has been some progress, the coronavirus has killed more than 5,200 Georgians thus far. The state also has one of the highest infection rates in the country.

Chris Hughes, who is an out-of-work chef, cooks pan-seared Covina with vegetables at his home trying to keep his skills up as he looks for work on Tuesday, August 25, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Chris Hughes, who is an out-of-work chef, cooks pan-seared Covina with vegetables at his home trying to keep his skills up as he looks for work on Tuesday, August 25, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

All of which puts the pressure on people like Hughes, who is 49 years old and wondering whether his industry will recover enough to make room for him again. He is a long way from his first job as a sportswriter in Macon, and he’s not going back to that. It’s just that he is interviewing for positions that are lower in the restaurant hierarchy, less prestigious and lower paying than his pre-pandemic job.

He and his girlfriend bought their Oakland City home in February. And while her work as a realtor has kept the lights on, it’s only a temporary solution.

“When it gets to September and October, that’s when you have to start getting creative,” he said. “Do I have another reinvention in my back pocket? I don’t know.”

That question would have seemed overly dramatic, even a little while ago.

Hughes didn’t even file for unemployment at first in April, when he was furloughed from an Italian restaurant. “I thought, surely we’ll be back to work in May.”

Instead, when the eatery reopened in May, the owners took a look at the world post-shutdown, brought back half the staff and laid off the rest, including Hughes.

And Hughes understood — it’s an upscale restaurant. “That’s a style not really conducive to takeout. It doesn’t translate to putting the pasta in a box and driving it home and throwing it in the microwave.”

Adam Kryschuk strolls through the Avalon outdoor shopping area in Alpharetta on Friday morning May 1, 2020. Kryschuk, who lives nearby, came with Amy Heigl to walk the dog and see what stores were opening up. Ben@BenGray.com for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Adam Kryschuk strolls through the Avalon outdoor shopping area in Alpharetta on Friday morning May 1, 2020. Kryschuk, who lives nearby, came with Amy Heigl to walk the dog and see what stores were opening up. Ben@BenGray.com for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben@bengray.com

Credit: Ben@bengray.com

In the past three months, the state has added 294,700 jobs — a spectacular number in normal times. Unfortunately, that growth represented only 55% of the jobs lost in March and April. And as the coronavirus continued to spread, the rebound has slowed.

Much of the shortfall in hiring has been in sectors that depend on consumer spending. In a sign that the pain could continue, the Conference Board reported Wednesday that its U.S. index of consumer sentiment fell to a six-year low.

Some experts have called it “a 90% economy,” hampered by a lingering uncertainty about the virus, global trade and government policy. For some companies, that means retaining staff, but continually adjusting hours as demand ebbs and rises.

During the shutdowns, the average American work week dropped to 34.1 hours, then rose quickly to 34.7 in May as many businesses reopened, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But in the next two months it dipped to 34.5 hours.

“When my hours were reduced, that was a big deal,” said Miranda Gore, 36, of Woodstock, who does title reviews for a mortgage company. “Then I had to take time off when the schools closed.”

She didn’t realize at first she was eligible for the pandemic unemployment benefits, and by then she was in trouble, she said. “When you have a reduction in income, that has a spiraling effect.”

She needed help paying rent in June and July. One month from Catholic Charities, the other from St. Vincent de Paul.

She’s getting by now, but it’s like wobbling along a tightrope in fear of the wind.

“Right now, we are back at 40 hours a week and that’s awesome,” she said. “But we are all waiting with fingers crossed.”

Waffle House's Miss D (left) serves Daniel Bahena and his guest (right) on Monday, April 27, 2020 at The Waffle House at 2886 Clairmont Road in Brookhaven. Restaurants around metro Atlanta began to reopen dining rooms Monday, April 27, 2020 as restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic are lifted. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Waffle House's Miss D (left) serves Daniel Bahena and his guest (right) on Monday, April 27, 2020 at The Waffle House at 2886 Clairmont Road in Brookhaven. Restaurants around metro Atlanta began to reopen dining rooms Monday, April 27, 2020 as restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic are lifted. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Data from Yelp collected earlier in the summer showed that more than half the supposedly temporary closures of spring were now considered permanent. Bankruptcies are rising, including many icons of retail.

Cory Sontag, 44, of Athens did logistics for big events — work that evaporated in March, he said. “That is not coming back.”

He considers himself lucky. A single father, he has managed to dramatically cut expenses by living in a home owned by his family. “If I had to pay a mortgage, right now I would be panicked.”

He says he doesn’t want to be trapped into thinking that the pre-pandemic world — and his career — will return to the way it used to be. He’s talking with friends about online businesses, about finding something to sell that wouldn’t require a large investment. But he doesn’t know what.

Still, it’s important to accept change, look for opportunities and make plans, he said. “So when the dust settles, I don’t want to be standing in the same place I am now.”

For Hughes, the unemployed chef, it remains unclear if he’ll be able to return to his old industry.

As of mid-August, 24% of metro Atlanta’s restaurants and more than half the bars were closed, according to Womply, a software firm that tracks business spending. Many other sectors also weren’t back to pre-pandemic levels, although they weren’t hit as hard, Womply reported.

Like many chefs, Hughes loves dining out. But now that’s an indulgence he and his girlfriend cannot afford — which, ironically, is the kind of consumer caution that is chilling the hospitality business he depends on.

Hughes also says he does not have health insurance. He had hoped that if he kept working at his previous restaurant he would get it, and says his former employer had promised to give it to him, before he was furloughed and then laid off.

‘My one regret,’ he said.

Share of metro Atlanta businesses closed, mid-August

Arts and entertainment: 10%

Bars: 55%

Health and beauty: 20%

Lodging: 14%

Sports and recreation: 17%

Restaurants: 24%

Retail: 9%

Source: Womply