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Life far from sunny in Southern California where jobless hospitality workers face bleak future

* Tens of thousands of California hospitality employees out of work due to COVID-19

* Jobs at hotels, theme parks, golf courses gone in pandemic

* Workers from luxury industries waiting in line at food banks

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Autumn is coming to Southern California, where crowds of visitors normally would have been heading to arts festivals and celebrity events, and chef Nigel Henderson would have been making his living as their caterer.

Not this year.

The annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Greater Palm Springs, where he works as a private chef, was cancelled after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide stay-at-home order due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Coachella events alone would have earned Henderson as much as 40% of his year’s income.

Then Henderson’s monthly series Rhythm and Brunch LA, with DJ Trauma, comedian Dave Chappelle’s DJ, was cancelled. A fundraiser for the Dooky Chase Foundation was cancelled, and Kampalooza, a yearly outdoor cooking and camping experience, was cancelled.

“Initially you figure, yes it’s serious, but we will get a handle on it,” Henderson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But the coronavirus, the cancellations and the closings have Henderson and others in Los Angeles’ huge hospitality industry lining up at food banks, breaking into their children’s piggy banks and skimping on baby diapers to stretch their dollars.

TENS OF THOUSANDS LAID OFF

Most just do not know how they will survive the dark months ahead.

Hospitality workers - chefs, hotel staff, theme park workers, golf course attendants - make up nearly 10% of the workforce in Los Angeles.

Before COVID-19, that added up to nearly half a million jobs.

The pandemic has decimated the workforce. Unite Here Local 11, a hospitality workers union, saw nearly 90% of its more than 32,000 members laid off, according to union official Maria Hernandez.

As the cancellations mounted and the future grew more uncertain, Henderson said his optimism vanished.

“I went through a little depression. Running your own business, you don’t have anything to fall back on,” he said. For a while, his cooking classes at The Gourmandise School went online, but then the school furloughed all of its employees.

As a Black man, Henderson said, losing his livelihood comes amid a broader political context of what is going on across the country.

“Who cares about cooking lessons for real, when we’re talking about people getting shot in the street,” he said. “And there’s protest, and riots, and police brutality and a pandemic.”

Seeing video of the death of George Floyd in police custody “just brought out PTSD of growing up black in L.A. and all of the interactions I’ve had with cops,” he said.

The economic devastation reached high into the luxurious heights of Los Angeles’ hospitality sector.

Walter Almendarez can tell stories about a $40,000 wagon full of oysters and parties thrown by pop royalty Beyonce and Jay-Z at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont, where he worked for 23 years, more than half his life.

The opulent property, a celebrity haunt, boasts of panoramic views of Sunset Strip and poolside cottages nestled among banana trees.

It is owned by American luxury hotelier André Balazs, who also owns the Mercer Hotel in New York, Shelter Island’s Sunset Beach and the Chiltern Firehouse in London.

Almendarez never suspected his wealthy employer would stop paying him.

But on March 16, as he was playing with his daughter in the family’s living room, he got an email telling him his last day would be March 20 and to collect his things.

The hotel was laying off its staff, it said.

Almendarez most recently worked as a hotel bellman and has done every job in the place “besides the kitchen,” he said.

THE RIGHT OF RECALL

He has become a passionate advocate for “right of recall” and “right of retention” laws that would require owners to hire back their former staff and not replace them with less experienced or less costly employees.

One such law was adopted by Los Angeles County in June, and a statewide version, Assembly Bill 3216, passed by the California legislature awaits the governor’s signature to become law.

In September, a caravan of laid-off hospitality workers - including Almendarez - drove to the state capital in Sacramento and delivered a letter to Newsom, asking him to make the provision law as soon as possible.

A spokesman for the governor said he would not comment on the legislation under consideration, which is strongly opposed by business groups such as the California Chamber of Commerce.

California has taken other steps to safeguard workers hit hardest by the economic fallout of COVID-19, including passing a measure making it easier for workers infected on the job to access benefits and forcing businesses to report COVID-19 infections at work sites.

But even working at Chateau Marmont did not pay enough, and Almendarez drove an Uber to supplement his income and support his wife, 7-month-old daughter and his parents on $15.45 per hour plus tips from the hotel.

Room rates at the Chateau Marmont started at $625 a night, with a minimum of two nights.

Almendarez has been cutting costs, withdrawing savings, buying fewer diapers for his baby and going to food banks.

“You don’t think of shame. It’s food. You do what you have to do,” he said.

His major concern has been losing health insurance coverage. To stay on the plan he had while working at the hotel would cost him $500 a month.

California has seen a surge in applications for its health care marketplace, “Covered California,” which provides subsidies for low-income residents to afford private health care plans.

Applications doubled in the early month of the pandemic.

California also expanded unemployment benefits for workers laid off during COVID-19, but the tsunami of more than 10,000 claims a day has created a backlog, according to a government report released in September.

So far the only support Almendarez has gotten from his employer was $5,000 from a fundraiser that Balazs hosted on the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe.

But he is months behind on the mortgage for his home, which he bought in 2009.

A spokeswoman for the Chateau Marmont said the hotel has “publicly committed to recalling workers based on seniority,” as the pandemic eases, and noted that the hotel has already managed to hire back six employees so far.

CHICKENS, A GARDEN AND A COW

Elizabeth Mejia, an out-of-work waitress, watched her mother lose her house to foreclosure in the 2007-2008 financial crisis.

“It was like a trauma,” she said.

Before the pandemic, Mejia worked at Ford’s Filling Station at the Los Angeles International Airport.

The upscale gastropub is owned by Areas USA, a holding of Paris-based private equity firm PAI Partners, which has $16 billion under management.

The 30-year-old mother of two daughters had worked at the restaurant for eight years, and husband Arturo works as a part-time mechanic for Delta Airlines.

Mejia got a text message from her employer on March 20 telling her not to show up the next day. After three weeks of silence, she was laid off, and her husband had his hours cut.

A spokesperson for Areas said in a written statement that the “onset of the coronavirus pandemic left Areas no choice but to close most of our 24 concession establishments at LAX and layoff more than 550 employee,” adding that, “these were difficult decisions and they were not made lightly.”

Mejia and her husband went into survival mode. They bought chickens as a source of eggs, planted a garden in their backyard and pooled money with friends and family to buy a cow for a source of meat.

“When you grow up poor, you get resourceful,” her husband said.

Mejia vowed that she and her husband would not lose their home they bought in South Central Los Angeles six years ago for $250,000, where they are raising their young daughters.

They have cut costs, cancelled their cable television and were about to pull their daughters out of Catholic school.

This was a particularly painful decision for Mejia, who recalls her own time in public school as “full of bullies, too many kids, and I didn’t learn much at all.”

The Archdiocese offered to reduce the tuition and her girls have stayed.

The family has had a tradition of filling up unicorn piggy banks with coins. When the banks are full, the family breaks them open and puts the money toward a visit to a national park.

They have visited a dozen parks, but after she was laid off, Mejia broke open one of the banks to get the $100 of coins inside.

“We needed the money for food,” she said.

The least well-off workers are shouldering the economic burden of the pandemic throughout Los Angeles, said Kent Wong, director of the University of California Los Angeles Labor Center.

“Here, you see some of the wealthiest people in the world .... and the workers creating that wealth getting squeezed,” he said.

“This is the reality of L.A. today - record homelessness, a huge divide based on race and immigration status. It’s a tale of two cities.”

“NO ONE SHOULD BE HUNGRY IN AMERICA”

Some non-profit groups have tried to fill the gap in services.

Los Angeles-based charity “No Us Without You” helps feed 1,000 families a week, focusing on undocumented workers.

“We are out here doing it ourselves,” Damian Diaz, a co-founder. “We are just a bunch of bar people with ingenuity.”

A trendy bar owned by Diaz and his partner Othón Nolasco is now filled with refrigerators and boxes of food.

Twice a week for the last six months, they distribute 100,000 pounds of food to hungry families.

Diaz takes precautions to protect the undocumented families from raids by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency by arranging times privately and regularly changing drop-offs to isolated locations.

One recent day, Nolasco was unloading and sorting through pastries, water, coloring books for children, eggs, milk, beans, tortillas and beef chorizo.

Diaz speaks with each family, doing wellness checks.

A few months ago, he asked a woman what size diapers she needed for her baby, and she said the baby had died.

“We are just humans feeding humans,” Diaz said. “No one should be hungry in America.”

Looking to survive, Henderson is working on his podcast, The Gumbo Pot, selling a line of food-based apparel and giving online cooking classes with national brands.

“I’ve been in business for a very long time,” he said. “There’s always a point where you are going to hit a roadblock.

"But not pushing forward is not an option.” This story is part of a series of photo essays called COVID-19: THE BIGGER PICTURE here (Reporting by L. Kasimu Harris, Editing by Avi Asher-Schapiro and Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org)

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