Digging in, digging out: Workers fret about grim future | Coronavirus

Maria Rosenberg hates “the new normal.”

The phrase, which has come to describe living in a COVID-19 world, draws the ire of the Santa Fe bartender because of what it entails: face mask wearing, social distancing, public health orders, infection rates and case numbers.

It cuts deeper than that for 48-year-old Rosenberg. The bar and restaurant industry has suffered greatly from a three-month-plus closure of indoor dining that deprived her of work from mid-March until the beginning of June, when the governor allowed restaurants to reopen indoor seating at a limited capacity. Then, just as she was just settling back into her routine behind the bar at the Cowgirl, Rosenberg found herself out of work again because Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham reimposed restrictions amid skyrocketing novel coronavirus cases.

Rosenberg is among the growing number of New Mexicans who suffered either a pandemic-related stoppage in their employment or lost their jobs altogether. The state’s unemployment rate rose to 12 percent for the week ending July 4.

With COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, raging through the country like an out-of-control wildfire, business owners and workers around the state are facing a stark reality: The virus is not going away, and it could wreak even more havoc on the state’s economy. With that realization comes growing anxiety and fear that jobs and income could be gone for a long, long time.

Rosenberg said March was the first time she applied for unemployment benefits, and she received $298 per week from the state, along with the $600-per-week unemployment supplement the federal government offered in response to the coronavirus crisis.

That federal aid, however, will come to a halt at the end of the month, and it doesn’t appear likely Rosenberg will be able to return to work any time soon.

She recognizes she faces some life-altering decisions — the kinds she never imagined she would have to make.

“This is quite a big life change for me,” Rosenberg said. “This is something I never would have thought I would have to reevaluate at my age. Am I going back to work to what I’ve been doing all my life or find another avenue to survive?”

Into the great unknown

Survival is on the minds of most business owners, too. Sarkis Zadeyan, co-owner of the French Pastry Shop & Creperie in downtown Santa Fe, said he is considering laying off workers in response to the latest indoor restrictions. That could mean bidding farewell to people who have worked there for a decade or more.

“They’re all hard decisions,” Zadeyan said. “I would say about 70 [percent] to 80 percent have been with me for more than 10 years. It’s painful. We’ve told them, ‘There are things we can do to keep you on, but your hours are going to be cut dramatically so that we can keep everybody.’ ”

Zadeyan, 41, holds out hope that more assistance from the federal government might be on its way. The company already exhausted the money it received from the Paycheck Protection Program, and Zadeyan would welcome more relief aid.

A big hang-up, however, is the issue of accruing more debt.

Zadeyan said he wants to file an application for PPP loan forgiveness, but the process is very cumbersome.

If that could be made easier, he would do it.

“The rules keep changing, and nothing is set in stone,” Zadeyan said. “We’re very anxious about that. We want to have everything forgiven before we take on anything else.”

Lisa Lujan-Harge, has heard the word “anxious” all too often during the pandemic. A retired state employee who runs a counseling service in Las Vegas, N.M., she said her business has been strong in part because of the pandemic. Many of her clients, she noted, express fear over the prospect of losing their jobs amid the outbreak and not having a fallback option.

Then there are families with children who are getting ready for the upcoming school year, and they are dealing with how to balance work and their kids’ schoolwork, as some students will start the year in a virtual learning model.

Some parents, she said, are having to make the difficult decision of giving up work to be at home.

“I’ve got a dad who said, ‘I don’t know computers, I don’t know how to help my son and I’m stressed about it,’ ” Harge said. “He doesn’t have a job, and they’re living off of unemployment. It is a real threat of, ‘How long is this going to continue?’ That is the biggest fear.

“I think some of us were hopeful or naïve that we’d be back to normal by summertime,” Lujan-Harge said. “Adjusting to this new normal has been stressful financially and emotionally.”

Soldiering on

Alyssa Maestas is one of those who thought the COVID-19 pandemic would be merely a bump in the road as opposed to a detour from life as she knew it. A teacher at Amy Biehl Community School, she had to transition to teaching online for the last two months of the 2019-20 school year. She will continue to teach remotely in a few weeks because Santa Fe Public Schools last week opted to start the upcoming school year with distance learning.

If the school district gets to the point of opening schools, Maestas worries about the impact the virus will have on her, her co-workers and students. Maestas, 29, wonders who would fill in for her in the classroom if she became sick — especially because many substitute teachers recently retired from the profession.

“Who will want to go into that classroom where a teacher or a student tests positive?” Maestas said.

Add to that the possibility of a teacher missing significant time because of COVID-19. Maestas acknowledged she wasn’t sure how that might affect whatever sick leave and vacation time teachers have. She and her husband already experienced a dip in their income in the spring when his hours were reduced for about a month at Eye Associates of New Mexico.

A prolonged absence from work, she said, would lead to a pronounced impact on their family, which includes two children.

“We only get so many sick days in a school year,” Maestas said. “With the severity of COVID-19, you’re not going to be out for just two weeks in quarantine. It could come with other complications, and that is a scary thought for sure.”

Antoinette Armijo-Rougemont, who works as a fiscal administrator in Santa Fe’s convention and visitors bureau, is one of hundreds of city workers who have lost pay from the pandemic’s economic effects. Perhaps more distressing: They have lost a sense of security.

“My pay for this year will be reduced by over $10,000, which is significant,” Armijo-Rougemont said. But, she added, “many of us come to work at the city for security and benefits, not so much the pay.”

For many city employees, “our security has been shattered,” she said.

While many city employees who were furloughed 16 hours a week qualified for unemployment, Armijo-Rougemont said she didn’t.

“We’ve had to make adjustments at home with our finances and put many plans on hold,” she said.

Aside from the financial burden, Armijo-Rougemont said the impact on her daughter, who just graduated from Santa Fe High School, has been “emotionally taxing” — no prom, no graduation party and the prospect of starting college with online classes.

“She missed out on so much as a senior this year,” Armijo-Rougemont said.

“It basically feels like our lives are being put on hold for about a year, and it breaks my heart that she is missing out on so many special milestones,” she said. “You can’t buy back time or memories.”

It’s one thing for a two-parent household to deal with such weighty issues. But Elizabeth Bachicha-Conner has had to find a way to balance school, work and an 11-year-old son on her own.

Bachicha-Conner, 38 and a senior at New Mexico Highlands University, saw her work-study job as a tutor evaporate almost the instant the state shut down in March. She had money from financial assistance through the school for the rest of the semester, but the remainder of her supplemental income was gone.

To make matters worse, Bachicha-Conner said she never received any money from the federal stimulus package approved earlier this year because of a clerical error, and she couldn’t clear it up with the IRS because its services were limited.

Bachicha-Conner explored working at a restaurant for the summer until those businesses stopped indoor service. She toyed with applying at Walmart, but the health risks make her wary because she has no one in town who can care for her son. Her mother lives in Santa Rosa, and the rest of her family lives at least an hour away.

“The anxiety level, it’s higher for single parents because I worry about, ‘What if something happens to me?’ ” Bachicha-Conner said. “Who’s going to take care of my child? Most of my siblings, they’re far away and they have kids of their own, so I don’t want to put them at risk. And my mom, she works three jobs and she’s older, so I don’t want to put her at risk.”

Bachicha-Conner believes she will be able to tutor online once the school year begins at Highlands, but she also has to tend to her son at home because West Las Vegas Public Schools announced it will start the school year remotely. Bachicha-Conner said she will have to be self-sufficient as she tries to earn her bachelor’s degree in math and psychology.

“I’m going to have my hands full, but you do what you have to do,” she said.

Daniel J. Chacón of The New Mexican contributed to this report.

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