Down by the Bay

What it’s like to be laid off—but getting a lot of help—in one of the richest parts of the country.

Chairs stacked on top of a table in a closed shop.
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With all 50 states under a disaster declaration, “nonessential” retail businesses and their workers have seen the most direct impact of the economy’s slowdown. Hana Yoshimoto is an Oakland, California, resident with deep connections to the Bay Area service industry who lost her job after the state put its shelter-in-place policy in place. I wanted to know how a laid-off service worker in one of the most expensive areas in the world was experiencing the effects of the orders. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Lili Loofbourow: Tell me what the last few weeks have been like for you.

Hana Yoshimoto: My story is also a little bit complex because I left Blue Bottle [Coffee] at the beginning of February. And I was unemployed for two and a half weeks. My application for Boba Guys [a chain of tapioca tea shops] was already in motion. Feb. 19 or something was my first day. I was training for them as an assistant manager. I wasn’t in that role yet because I’d just started. The leadership has been extremely open about all of the possibilities of what they would do as corona progressed. Do you know Boba Guys as a company at all?

I don’t.

They do a lot of advocacy work for small businesses, especially Asian businesses. And they’re extremely active in local and federal government. So it’s just, they talk a lot about that in the leadership. The one leadership meeting I was able to attend was on March 9, like a week or so before shutdown.

In the manager meeting, they were super transparent about what next steps were. At the time, the shelter in place wasn’t happening yet, and they were waiting to see what other businesses did. And they were really open with us about sharing that information. They presented us with two-week, four-week, and eight-week plans that kind of depended on how fast everything progressed.

We were constantly being communicated with about changing procedures and stores’ cleaning procedures, sanitary stuff, what we were pulling from the service, all of that.

How did they tell you about closing?

I think it was the 17th of March when we received a companywide email that they would in fact be closing. I believe they announced all California stores immediately and then were working on tying up New York as well. They announced on Tuesday night that Thursday would be our last day open. I think they had spent the last few days FaceTiming or Zoom meeting with management and the headquarters teams. But they laid off everybody except for several executives. They’ve fully taken over the e-commerce store and are packing orders and posting on Instagram and doing all that stuff.

They let go of everybody and they gave out—what they did was they gave us the option. Boba Guys as a company pays full health benefits if you’re a full-time employee. So, full coverage through Kaiser. They said basically, “We want to come back. We don’t know when. So we don’t expect you to necessarily to want to wait around for that. But if you’re able to and you want to stay on our payroll technically you can continue to receive health benefits through the end of 2020.” So they weren’t able to pay us. But they were allowing people to apply sick hours and to stay on their payroll for health benefits. And then the other option was to accept the layoff so that you could file for unemployment. It’s in limbo. They know that if they are able to come back, then it would be a few stores at a time and not everything rebooting at once. Because they have 17 locations.

So they’re paying employees’ health coverage through the end of 2020 regardless. But if you do that, then you’re not getting paid, obviously?

You’re not getting paid. Like if right now, if they open up, even next week, I would have to reapply, technically. They would give me my job back, but I would have to go through the formalities of reenlisting as an employee because they terminated my employment.

So that’s a tough choice. How did you decide?

For me it’s honestly not a tough choice. It’s pretty simple. I’m extremely paycheck to paycheck. So I had to accept the offer to gain unemployment because the potential benefits of that are higher than even the cost of having insurance paid for. I just kind of ruminated on if it affected my ability to come back or not, but I gained reassurance from them. But at the same time, I’ve also just been through a tumultuous period of time recently with work and I just was like, “Maybe I should just stay on and get my health insurance and make things easy for them.” But was convinced myself that it would just be more important to have the financial benefits and unemployment at the moment.

Does paying the bills look rough for you?

Not super rough for me personally. I actually am lucky to have received a personal grant that I applied for to have my rent covered. It’s called Project Ellis. It appears the guy who runs it is a tech investor in the city. They initially started to cover costs of people who were immigrating, but when COVID-19 happened, they saw an immediate need to help people with their housing. So because I’ve been granted that rent coverage, I will be OK, I think for another month.

So it’s one month’s rent?

Yeah. And they pay the landlord directly, so there’s no way to get those funds for anything else. So because my rent is covered, I will be OK. But if my rent hadn’t been covered, then I think I would have been OK for another, probably a week.

I feel extremely grateful. When I shared that I lost my job, I pretty immediately had people, close friends and family, send me money. So that also has helped.

Do you have roommates?

I have two roommates. Two of us have lost our jobs. The other one is a gig worker. She did a lot of Lyft as well as ushering for concerts, security for things, for events.

Are you guys doing OK with the shelter in place?

We are. We’ve been keeping each other sane. There’s been a lot of really wonderful community efforts around organizing and support. I had an old co-worker who is a chef now and started cooking up some vegan and gluten-free meals and delivering around the city to impacted workers. I believe [the restaurant has] money from tech investment and then they continue to accrue additional donations, but they have been serving like 200 free family dinners a night to employees or people affected by the crisis. I’m talking a half of a roasted chicken and a ball of mozzarella, and fresh bread, and two beers and then dessert. It’s insane.

Are you thinking about what a month from now might look like for you?

I’ve been mainly playing it by ear, just simply due to the fact that I don’t have a high confidence in anybody’s timeline right now for when this is going to be over. I think that’s part of why I haven’t been very concerned and able to be so calm and relaxed about everything. My entire work experience over the last seven years has been almost strictly food and beverage. And that’s absolutely the industry that I want to still be in. And now it almost kind of deepens that even more for me to want to help dig us out of this situation. So I don’t know at the moment and I am playing it ear by ear or day by day, playing it by ear. Depending on how things progress I’ll kind of reassess.

So it’s not chasing you away from the industry, what just happened?

No, I mean it might when it gets closer. … It’s a moment where it’s easy to be idealistic right now with no obligations. It’s not right now. I really would like to fight to stay in it and play a role in helping after all of this. Because there’s a lot, there’s going to be a lot to do.

Would a $1,200 one-time check, does that feel to you like that would get you through?

For me right now, any amount of money helps. So when someone was, like, “All I can send you is 10 bucks.” I’m like “That’s two kombucha. That’s 10 packs of ramen, everything’s helpful.” But $1,200 in the Bay Area for a lot of people is a month’s worth of rent. So to not have to worry about that, because what people are doing right now, I think a lot of my friends are having to pick what to do. People are choosing to not pay [rent] so that they can have money to eat, buy medications, pay other bills that they aren’t able to put off. So I’m not having to make that decision this month, but I may have to make that decision next month.

And with the stimulus bill offering an extra $600 a week for unemployed workers for four months, does that feel like it would change things?

That feels way more helpful. I could kind of be able to wait out my industry repairing itself a little bit more before I was able to even be employed in it. Because I know there’s a certain level of what needs to happen before I can even have a job.

What would you use the extra government relief money for?

The most important thing would be making sure my rent is covered for the next few months, because I’m anticipating this entire situation lasting longer than expected and I don’t want to rely on thinking that I’ll be able to get a grant every month. But besides that, I have a car that I haven’t driven in nearly a year that needs to get fixed, so helping with that, and that would also expand my opportunities for work also.

You’re not necessarily looking for other kinds of employment right now?

At the moment, I’m OK to sit tight. Between unemployment and [the one-time] $1,200 and [weekly] $600, that will be all more than I made. There’s actually a weird—and this is just my story, I know most people don’t feel this way—but I’m in a position at the moment where I have more money in my account than I have had before. I’ve had more Venmo donations from friends and family than the grant. I ran into a [coffee] trainer and mentioned it was my birthday and I got home and he’d Venmoed me $100. There’s something about how fucked up this situation is that people are really wanting to help as much as they can. So that’s been—an honor. And I feel a little bit guilty because not everybody has this situation, and I think that’s important to note. I was extremely paycheck to paycheck before this, and it’s mostly thanks to the generosity of my community that I’m doing OK right now.

But it has to last me months without working. I had my rent covered, but that money has to go toward planning for the next months.

Correction, April 14, 2020: Due to a transcription error, this piece originally misquoted Hana Yoshimoto as referring to a coffee “trader.” She said “trainer.”