Coping with Income Losses Caused by Pandemics: The Bay View Compass
By Sheila Julson
It has been almost a year since the world was turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic.
How are we doing here in Bay View? the compass caught up with three Bay View residents who were willing to share their struggles and triumphs.
Aimee Wood is a single mom and a licensed masseuse. For seven years, she had run her balance point massage therapy business full-time from a space she rented in Cudahy. Wood said her business was thriving before she was forced to close on March 13, 2020.
Aside from some chair massages in her driveway for a few friends, Wood was completely unable to work in any capacity during the early shutdown.
When stores were allowed to reopen in May, few of their regular customers returned. And then she learned that one of her clients had been exposed to COVID. “I’ve closed and canceled appointments. I stayed in quarantine and after that I just didn’t feel comfortable with everything that was going on.”
Wood noted that since giving massage requires extremely close contact with clients, she felt she could not continue working safely. She defaulted on her rent and was evicted from her office suite in Cudahy. “I’ve never been in arrears on rent in seven years,” Wood claimed. In June, she rented a new space in the Hair Experience building at 2215 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., but has not resumed massage work there.
Cudahy Mayor Tom Pavlic introduced Wood to the We’re All In Small Business Grant program, operated by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. (WEDC). She applied and received two scholarships through We’re All In. She also received $1,000 from the Small Business Administration’s Disaster Economic Injury Loan Program.
Wood described the process of navigating the credit systems as “an absolute nightmare”. She speculated that the complexity was due to programs that were created and implemented very quickly. “Someone who isn’t tech-savvy would have trouble applying,” she said. “An older business owner who doesn’t spend much time online wouldn’t even have known about or had access to these programs.”
Wood said the grants helped her get through tough financial times. With this money she was able to keep the premises at her new location and modernize the sanitary facilities.
Wood is a single mother with a 9 year old son. His school in Bay View is closed and like so many others he is engaged in purely virtual learning. She took advantage of the Milwaukee Public Schools’ Summer Food Service Program, which distributed free meals to students.
She believes that if everyone takes the pandemic seriously and all non-essential businesses shut down completely for four to six weeks, we could eradicate the COVID-19 virus. “But there are so many people who don’t want to compromise for a few weeks,” she said.
Although the pandemic has affected her livelihood, she is grateful for the time she can spend with her son and is glad they both remain in good health. “This is precious time with my child and I’m glad we’re staying healthy,” she said. “As much as I hate all the changes, we’re lucky.”
Prior to last March’s pandemic-related closures, Christophor Rick was a bartender at Fiserv Forum. He started working there in August 2018 but became unemployed on March 11, 2020. He still receives unemployment benefits for this job loss. The closure came just as the Milwaukee Bucks headed toward the NBA playoffs. (Rick is a Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization (MASH) union representative at the arena.)
Rick was also fired from his other bartending gig at the Saint Kate Hotel. He started working there in December 2019 and was fired on March 12, 2020 due to pandemic-related closures. His pay for that job ended on August 31st.
Like Wood, Rick described navigating utilities as an absolute nightmare. Rick had significant difficulties with Wisconsin’s unemployment system.
“It took them about 200 to 205 days to get around to paying me anything,” he said. “In order to survive, I had to take out a few loans to pay the bills. I had to struggle to get other help for things like food and energy. Fortunately, I’m also a veteran and the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs has come forward. I got some help from them in a much smoother process.”
He lamented the process of applying for unemployment benefits. “[Wisconsin’s] The unemployment insurance system is opaque in that you as an applicant have no insight into how it works, the deadlines and the process. On top of that, the web interface is massively outdated, the weekly re-entry of data is cumbersome and seems aimed at discouraging people rather than making it as easy as possible for those most in need.
“Reporting your case status is sometimes confusing and misleading. The whole system needs to be overhauled because people don’t want to be unemployed and it’s a delicate place, especially for those with families or with physical or mental health problems,” he said.
Rick was notified by the United States Postal Service on December 5 that he had been hired as a part-time, seasonal mail carrier. But he tested positive for COVID-19 on December 1 and was unable to take the short-term job. He has been self-isolating until December 8. “COVID-19 has knocked me out. I could hardly get out of bed for two weeks, but luckily I got better,” he said.
Rick estimates that by the end of 2020 he had applied to more than 50 different positions with no results other than the temporary position at the post office.
Rick had harsh words for Wisconsin state lawmakers, particularly Robin Vos, who has stood in the way of efforts to contain the pandemic.
Rick accused lawmakers of worsening the misery by failing to take action to reduce COVID-19 risks, forcing April’s in-person vote and failing to address the state’s archaic unemployment system. He also stressed that citizens who refuse to comply with mask and social distancing requirements are delaying the return to “normal” life.
“It will be different for the service industry. I don’t want to go back to bartendering until the pandemic is fully under control,” he said. “The anti-masker and anti-vaxxer sentiment is endangering everyone’s lives. The new mutant strain of the virus, which spreads more easily, is also a danger. It is amazing why people still go to bars and restaurants at all. You are literally putting yourself and those around you at risk, and for what? A beer and a shot?”
He expressed his appreciation for venues like Palomino and Vanguard, which are closed to in-person dining and are not rushing to open their doors. “Use common sense on how best to reopen. Follow smart CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines and enforce the rules equally for everyone,” he said. “If the majority of people strictly follow government guidelines and mass vaccinations are possible, we can once again become the city of festivals and revitalize the once-vibrant food and drink experiences that Milwaukee had to offer.”
Our pets have been a source of comfort during the social isolation caused by the pandemic. But more people working from home and socializing had initially gotten involved in Miranda Ortega’s dog walking business. She is also an at-home dog sitter through Rover.com, an online marketplace where people buy and sell pet care services such as pet sitting, kennels, and dog walking.
Before the pandemic, Ortega’s business was booming and she had a full-time job. She had planned to have a space for her dog grooming business on S. Kinnickinnic Ave. 2643 (Honeypie) for rent. When the pandemic struck and the shutdown began, it lost 90 percent of its customers within three days. “Everybody stopped going to work,” she said. “The only clients I’ve had were key workers in the medical field.”
Ortega received a stimulus payment in April. At the time of the Compass interview, she said she did not yet have the second stimulus check, which was approved by Congress in late 2020. around by the state when trying to provide the required information. “I just gave up. You can’t get anyone on the phone,” she said. During the closure, Ortega’s own dog, Rafael, a dachshund, fell ill but has since recovered.
In the summer of 2020, Ortega said there had been a sharp increase in the number of people adopting pets. Her business has started to bounce back and has actually improved now and is doing better now than before the pandemic. She’s still looking for commercial space to rent, but said some owners have expressed concerns about having a dog daycare center in their building.
“It was scary going from working all the time to no work and then having nowhere to get help,” she said. “But for me it went better than I expected. It’s cool to be stripped down to the essentials.”
Update/Correction: This article originally stated that in December 2020, Christophor Rick was working as a part-time short-term mailman for the United States Postal Service. Rick was offered employment by USPS on December 5, but was unable to work due to his December 1 COVID-19 diagnosis, as well as the degree and duration of the illness.