Ryan McDonald

Workers get creative to get by in time of coronavirus

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by Ryan McDonald

Along with threatening the health of millions of Americans, the novel coronavirus pandemic is cratering the U.S. economy. Health officials have attempted to stem the spread of the virus by forcing many businesses to close their doors, effectively shutting down whole sectors of consumer spending. In California, “essential” services are allowed to remain open, but huge numbers of firms are closed for the foreseeable future.

On Monday, the UCLA Anderson School of Business issued a revised economic outlook — subtitle “The Sum of All Fears” — that predicted that the National Bureau of Economic Research will declare that March 2020 was the beginning of a recession. The unemployment rate in California, recently near the lowest it has ever been at 3.9 percent, is expected to surge.The UCLA forecast predicts it will hit 6.3 percent by the end of the year. Some expectations have been considerably higher, reaching well into the double digits. Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a press conference last week that the state received 80,000 unemployment insurance applications on March 17; the average number for a single day is 2,000.

Federal, state and local programs are in the works to blunt the effects of the pandemic, including eviction moratoriums, loans to small businesses, and a stimulus package that could provide checks to every U.S. adult. And other predictions, such as those from Los Angeles-based Beacon Economics, have been less bullish about the impact of the coronavirus, arguing that it is not clear the economy will enter a recession. But even Beacon, in its seasonal report released last Friday, described the risk of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, as “the greatest threat to the nation’s economic expansion in over a decade.”

Those whose work cannot be easily replicated over a computer screen will take the biggest hit. These are by and large positions that already carried higher levels of uncertainty and instability to begin with, and which reflect the peculiarities and unevenness of the last decade of economic growth: juggling second and third jobs, the growing imperative to market oneself, and the replacement of a social safety net with Patreon and GoFundMe. Here’s how three such workers in Hermosa Beach are surviving in the time of coronavirus.

Graham Curran, hair stylist

Graham Curran and his wife Mia Zdjelar run a hairstyling business in Hermosa Beach. Photo courtesy Graham Curran

A few days ago, hair stylist Graham Curran took his turn in the barber’s chair and got a haircut from Mia Zdjelar, an in-demand stylist often booked far in advance. The haircut, however, did not take place inside a studio, but inside the home that Curran and Zdjelar share as husband and wife. Their Hermosa Beach business shut down as part of the region’s attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

They closed their doors last Wednesday evening. At that point, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors had asked bars to close, but many salons were still running. Gov. Newsom’s emergency order closing all nonessential businesses came the next day. On Saturday, Los Angeles County clarified that personal grooming services, including hair and nail salons, would have to close.

Business, Curran said, had been slowing down in the days leading up to their decision.

“It was on a lot of stylists’ minds as things got more serious. The business is kind of in that gray area. But obviously, there’s no six-foot rule with what we do: you’re right there with them,” Curran said. “Things were changing so fast, and we thought, in a few more days, we probably wouldn’t be allowed to stay open anyway.”

The husband-and-wife team run their operation — they could never decide on a formal name — at Salon Republic, located in the Hermosa Pavilion at the intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and 16th Street. Salon Republic is a WeWork for the beauty industry, renting spaces to stylists and providing supplies like towels and shampoo. (Salon Republic notified all of its tenants that it would close Thursday evening, and says it will cover studio rent for the duration of the closure.) Instagram has been essential to the revived interest in barbering that began around the time Curran decided to enter the field, and the company also provides social media coaching.

Curran describes Salon Republic as the next step up from renting a chair in a salon, and he and his wife have outfitted their space with personal touches. The vinyl records displayed on the walls and playing on the turntable, for example, change with the seasons. The personalized atmosphere helped build close relationships with many of their clients, and a steady, stable business. But as worries about the coronavirus became more serious, people began cancelling appointments booked months before.

“It’s kind of crazy. All your bookings start to disappear, and you start to feel alone. It wasn’t like everyone disappeared, everyone’s just doing their part to keep everybody safe,” he said.

Some friends of Curran’s, whom he also counts as clients, suggested he consider allowing people to purchase packages of one, two or four gift haircuts, akin to a gift card. He had never thought to offer gift cards before, but several friends said they would be interested.

Just as social media has been helpful to fuel the growth of the business, it proved vital to helping him survive a downturn. After a casual posting, online purchases started pouring in. As of Monday morning, he had pre-sold 165 haircuts to 55 different clients.

“It just kind of happened organically. I don’t think I would have thought to do something like this if it wasn’t for my friends,” he said.   

Curran studied illustration before getting into barbering,  and said that he plans to keep his mind occupied during the closure by finishing a few paintings he previously had been commissioned to do. Although the uncertainty created by the coronavirus is worrying, he’s been buoyed by the support he’s received. Many of his clients, he noted, work in the restaurant industry, and likely are unable to work themselves.

Mikey Jerome, bartender

Bartender Mikey Jerome is a familiar face at Hennessey’s on Pier Plaza. Photo courtesy Mikey Jerome

There’s never a good time for a global pandemic. But for bartender Mikey Jerome, it could have been worse.

The longtime bartender at Hennessey’s on Pier Plaza — known for his broad smile, inexhaustible energy, and a New York accent broader than the Long Island Sound — bought a townhouse in Redondo Beach last year with his girlfriend. He knew he needed to build up a “nest egg” as he put it, so last summer, after an afternoon bodysurfing at the Manhattan Beach Pier, he walked up to Shellback Tavern and asked if they were hiring. He initially got on for a couple of days. Then an injury to another Shellback employee opened up more shifts. Before he knew it, Jerome was working two 40-hour-a-week jobs, each at a high-volume bar. So when owner Paul Hennessey closed his Irish taverns shortly before St. Patrick’s Day, usually the busiest day of the year, and Shellback shuttered just before the start of the popular March Madness basketball tournament, instead of lamenting his situation, Jerome felt fortunate to have some money saved up.

“Luckily, it put me in a better situation. People would ask me, ‘Mikey, why are you working so much? You gotta enjoy life.’ I know what they’re saying, but you can’t turn down work like that,” Jerome said.

Jerome’s chipper outlook exists alongside an understanding of just how precarious life can be in the service industry. He’s been around long enough to recognize that having a second job for people in the restaurant industry is less a “side hustle” than an inescapable reality these days, and he knows that the closure has left many of his coworkers with nothing to fall back on. Several people he knows who work at restaurants in Hermosa have gotten jobs at Costco or local supermarkets since the closures.

“I tell you, I’m heartbroken for 80 percent or so of our working staff. I know when I was their age, I was living check to check. I didn’t have the best shifts. I was working 40 hours a week, but when the rent came and the bills came, that took up pretty much all my money,” he said.

Public health authorities have criticized the wanton attitude of people who went out to crowded bars and nightclubs after the danger was apparent but before mandatory shutdowns were in place. In Jerome’s experience, the weekend before bars were forced to close was a slow one, diminishing the cushion people might have had to fall back on.

“There were people out, but it was way less than normal. Sales were down. It wasn’t like in Florida,” Jerome said, referring to widely circulated images of packed beaches in Clearwater and spring breakers living it up in Miami. Most of the people who were out at bars, Jerome said, were talking about the virus.

Since the closure, Jerome has been trying to keep himself busy. He’s developed an at-home workout routine he does every morning. He’s been playing the guitar and teaching himself new songs, and plans to buy the Rosetta Stone program to improve his Spanish. He’s also trying to provide support for his girlfriend, who works as an operating room nurse and is expecting to enter a stressful period.

Jerome has been cheered by the kindness that he and other service industry workers have benefitted from. His neighbors have been particularly kind (while maintaining social distance), and so were some of his regular customers leading up to the closure. But people who live and die by tips are especially attuned to the fact that generosity can endure only so long. The current crisis, Jerome said, feels much worse than the one spawned by the Great Recession of 2008-09. At least then people could drown their sorrows at a neighborhood bar.

“It’s almost like you’re retired, but you’re not. You still have these worries of making money, all these worries of the unexpected,” Jerome said.

Tracy Lynn Stanbury, yoga teacher

Tracy Lynn Stanbury is an instructor at Soho Yoga in Hermosa Beach. Photo courtesy Tracy Lynn Stanbury

Tracy Lynn Stanbury considers herself “half yoga teacher, half comedian.”

“It’s so important to get people laughing and enjoying themselves,” she said. “If you’re going to challenge me, at least make it so I can smile while you’re doing it.”

Lately, Lynn Stanbury has had a harder time finding out whether her students are laughing along with her. With yoga studios all over California closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus, she and other yoga teachers have shifted their instruction online, streaming over various platforms for people following stay-at-home orders from local governments.

When word of the closure came down, Lynn Stanbury had multiple concerns. What in people’s lives would replace attending yoga classes? Along with teaching at studios, she works with clinical facilities across Los Angeles, some of which use yoga as treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. For Lynn Stanbury and millions of adherents, yoga provides not just a work out but peace of mind, a commodity as treasured as toilet paper in the throes of the pandemic. 

Many South Bay studios have tried to serve people by offering online instruction options since they began closing earlier this month. Soho Yoga on Hermosa Avenue, one of the places where Lynn Stanbury teaches, has been streaming classes on its Instagram account, and created a Patreon where people can purchase monthly packages to view the many classes it offers.

The idea of providing fitness instruction over the Internet is not new. Firms like Peloton sell exercise bikes and treadmills that are linked to instructors providing exercise classes over an app. Yoga-specific programs have also been around for several years. But news of the closures also led Lynn Stanbury to wonder what would happen to her and her fellow Soho employees, many, though not all, of whom are full-time yoga teachers.

Yoga in America is booming — national spending on classes and products increased 65 percent between 2012 and 2016 — but the life of most yoga teachers, even at studios with good reputations like Soho, is a teetering balance. Yoga studios tend to cluster in places with high-income populations, which makes it harder for yoga teachers to live near their place of work. It also trims the margins of the studios that employ them, who have to pay the sky-high commercial rents their neighborhoods command. As a result, the rate for teaching group classes is lower than students may realize. Several surveys have found that the median base rate for teaching an hour-long group class was $25; few teachers make more than $50. That does not cover the time it takes to travel among the multiple studios where they can find teaching slots, or the hours spent preparing sequences of poses. Many yoga teachers cram their weeks with as many classes as they can, hoping their teaching style catches the eye of students interested in booking private sessions, where the reimbursement rate is higher. 

This was the path Lynn Stanbury trod for several years before stepping back and launching her own online yoga platform in June of last year.

“I very steeply reduced my teaching schedule. I was feeling a bit overworked, and dealing with some exhaustion,” she said.

Lynn Stanbury knew she would be up against outfits with more funding and professional filming equipment, but she has steadily built up followers. Many have previously taken her classes in person, and the bulk of the viewers are from California, but some are taking her classes from as far away as Switzerland. She now has more than 200 online subscribers, a number that has doubled since the coronavirus closures. Later this year, she will be advising Soho’s teacher trainees on how she built up her service.

It’s obviously impossible to provide hands-on adjustments to students through a screen, and it’s hard to assess how people are responding to the pace and difficulty of a class. But on the bright side, Lynn Stanbury said the growth of online yoga will make it more accessible to people with lower incomes. 

“I ask people, the members, What do you need right now?” she said of her online strategy. “I’m searching for a way to differentiate myself, make it more personal. That’s whats so magical about a yoga class: You step into space, and form that personal connection with a teacher.”

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