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Unemployed workers, businesses seek to re-create careers during COVID-19


Leonard N. Fleming   | The Detroit News

Rodica Richmond was struggling before the first coronavirus cases were confirmed in Michigan in March, but the pandemic has, at times, continued to bring more despair.

The Romanian immigrant and single mother living in Fenton, who lost her job driving a special needs bus when COVID-19 hit, responded by getting creative. She drove for Lyft when she didn't have her 11-year-old. She cleaned the apartment complex where she lives for credit off her rent. She even makes masks for extra cash.

"It's definitely been very difficult," said Richmond, 34, who also was diagnosed recently with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cannot wear a mask. "I'm just not the type of person that gives up. Going to food pantries ... whatever it took, I had to do it. I have to survive."

The coronavirus has forced Michiganians out of longtime careers while forcing businesses to re-create themselves to keep from closing their doors.

Although many business bans were lifted and replaced by orders allowing openings with restrictions and limited capacity, some haven't survived. Other venues, such as movie theaters, remain barred from opening.  Some popular dining spots around the state decided to shut their doors forever, such as Nellos on Woodward Avenue in Royal Oak or Bravo in Portage near Kalamazoo.

Indoor facilities have teetered on the brink. After 25 years, the Joe Dumars Fieldhouse in Shelby Township — named after the Detroit Pistons legend — was marked last month for closure.

The new reality of COVID-19 has prompted business owners and out-of-work job seekers to vastly change their approaches. Perhaps it's working. The adjusted unemployment rate in July was 8.7%, down from a historic high of 24% in April and higher than the national jobless rate of 10.2% for the same month, according to the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget. The U.S. rate fell to 8.4% in August, and Michigan's rate for that month will be released later this month.

Despite the rebound, Michigan lost 1.28 million jobs between April and July, state officials said.

Job prospects are restricted for individuals like Richmond, who cannot wear a mask due to medical conditions and prevents them from applying for employment requiring interactions with the public.

Other businesses are hanging on to hope that the pandemic, which has killed more than 6,500 in Michigan and over 193,000 across the country, won't bankrupt their operations.

" It's just flat-out painful," said Paul Glantz, one of the owners and face of the Emagine Theater chain that has been out of business for nearly six months. "I derive enormous pleasure from serving our guests and giving them a little escapism ... and being deprived of that for the last five months has been painful. We continue to be told we're closed temporarily but indefinitely."

Emagine's 11 theaters, nine of which are in Michigan, have cut 99% of their workforce — down to 20 employees from 1,400, some of whom are part time. Although not making much money, the theater chain has been offering weekend drive-in movies at the Novi location. 

The remaining management team and employees, Glantz said, are running the drive-in. "It's not something that I would call sustainable long-term," he said.

A federal "main-street loan" is giving the movie theater chain enough cash to "hang on through April of next year," Glantz said. "If we can't reopen by next spring, I'm not sure the prospects for our business surviving are very good at that point."

How others are adjusting

When the coronavirus hit in March, Helen Ramer, 49, of Lambertville transitioned from working in an office in Ohio to working 12-hour days from home. A few weeks later, her job as a closing coordinator for a title company was eliminated because of the financial hardship caused by the spread of the virus.

Eighty percent of the company's employees got laid off, she said.

Ramer said she began volunteering to shop for groceries and other items to raise cash. Some people paid her, while others didn't. Then she dipped into her 401(k) retirement savings account in May for money, knowing it might not have been a wise decision.

"I know it wasn't a smart move, but I cashed it out. I have to survive," Ramer said. "Until this world gets back to normal, I'm not getting a paycheck. I'm getting unemployment, but I have to have that as back-up. I had no choice."

Ramer said she is searching for work and trusting in God for another job opportunity.

Ramer said she is considering a career change if opportunities don't pan out soon. A friend of hers in South Carolina went from selling medical equipment to going into the insurance business.

Ramer said she is considering going to nursing school at the behest of her mother, who was also a nurse.

"And it's hard at my age to just go, 'I'm just going to change roles,'" she said.

When an economy spirals into recession, job losses force a regeneration in businesses and careers, said David Zin, an economist for the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency in Lansing.

"You would expect at least in the short term on a transitory basis people moving from being involved in services moving to goods production. I can't get a job as a waiter, so I'm going to see if I can get a job at an auto plant," Zin said. "Some of the re-creations may be permanent, some of them may be temporary. And some of them may not occur at all depending on the skill level." 

The last day Amber Morearty, 25, of Holly worked was March 13. The restaurant worker is a severe asthmatic and claustrophobic and said she cannot wear a mask. She has not returned as a waitress to the Waterford Township establishment where she worked on and off for eight years.

"2020 has not been taking care of me, I'll tell you that," said Morearty, who ended up in the hospital earlier this year just before the pandemic. "Me not being able to go to work is driving me insane. Not being able to work is frustrating."

Morearty said she is not going to live in fear of the virus but is cautious when she ventures out in public. The issue becomes one of financial need.

"I don't know what I'm going to do financially. Even talking, thinking about it puts you in a panic, like how am I going to supply for my family? What am I going to do?" she said.

"I can't go back to work. The whole transition is just overwhelming. It's stressful. I have anxiety, too. That's a trigger for my asthma. All around, it's scary."

Adapting to the virus

Dan Johnson, one of the owners of three Ironwood Grill restaurants in Metro Detroit, has adapted by catering more to outside traffic to help stay afloat.

The restaurants have been doing more patio business "to offset the 50% loss that's inside the building," said Johnson, referring to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's executive order that took effect June 8 limiting indoor traffic to half of normal capacity. The downside, he said, "is we're susceptible to seasonal" customers, who will wane when the weather turns colder.

"The profit margins in restaurants are so slim," Johnson said. "The margins, you are talking anywhere from 5%, 15%. So now when you cut the revenue off inside by 50%, now your labor percentages are going up, your fixed costs are going up. A lot of these businesses, unless they've got some serious capital cushion, they are not going to stay in business."

Meanwhile, Richmond is hoping for a blessing out of her struggles. She is getting ready to do interviews for new job opportunities.

"I'm a fighter. Yeah, I've been overwhelmed. Believe me, there have been times where I didn't know whether I was going to have money for food the next day," she said. "It's a mess, but guess what? I still have faith. And I have hope that everything will get better."

lfleming@detroitnews.com

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Twitter:@leonardnfleming