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Editor’s note: This is the first of a new column that will run every other week by Jesse Marx, VOSD’s associate editor, called Fine City. It will ship as a newsletter too. You can sign up here.
Bennie Brenner likes his job. He likes the location — at a restaurant in Balboa Park, where he and his wife got married. It reminds him of something positive.
But he was reluctant to go back into restaurant work after the pandemic and he puts much of the blame on delivery apps.
He spent almost eight years at a pizzeria. The restaurant needed to bring in another person just to handle the increased demand. Drivers would come in and take up space. The time it took to get an order out the door increased substantially. The tip pool diminished.
At times, Brenner felt like he was drowning.
“You’re working harder and harder and making less and less,” he said.
With the rollout of vaccines, 2021 was supposed to be a year of reflection and recovery, a time to acknowledge the fault lines in our political economy and health care system. There was a demand not just for equality of opportunity but equality of outcome.
Build back better or whatever.
For some, it was such a time. Many of those who kept a job while working remotely did fine and even saw improvements in their personal finances during the pandemic.
But COVID didn’t just wipe out lives and communities. It exposed what most San Diegans already knew — they were living with far less than they needed to get by. And they still are.
The Economic Policy Institute, a think tank, estimates that a four-person household had to earn $97,547 a year to live in the San Diego/Carlsbad metro area in 2017. Under that same scenario, both parents would need to make $28.30 an hour, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator.
A report released earlier this year by the California Future of Work Commission noted that half of San Diego’s workforce, like most major metros, was considered low wage in 2019. Nearly one in three people working full-time earned less than $15 an hour. That’s less than $31,200 annually.
Huge swaths of the population are tired and more anxious than ever. Multiple polls suggest an overwhelming majority of Americans have a negative view of the economy — and the number has been rising since the spring.
Some, like Brenner, are coming out of the pandemic wondering how they’re going to pay off the debt they incurred to maintain a decent life while everything around them went to hell.
Earlier this month, he got a threat in the mail for failing to pay off one of his credit cards. After the stay-at-home order went into effect last year, he survived thanks to his wife’s earnings and his savings. Only after he went on NBC7 to talk about his frustrations with the California Employment Development Department did his benefits show up.
The state provided him around $3,000 a month. The cost of his apartment in University Heights is $1,550 — a relatively small amount in San Diego. He also got help through the Housing Commission. But all the assistance combined wasn’t enough to meet his basic needs.
“I wasn’t willing to forgo rent,” he said.
Brenner’s now faced with finding a second job while he finishes his bachelor’s degree at age 39. He grew up in Escondido. If his rent goes up, he may leave California.
He’s not alone. A recent Public Policy Institute of California survey found that a quarter of residents are seriously considering a move out of state, citing a lack of well-paying jobs. Two-thirds of residents are worried about a widening gap between rich and poor, and believe the next generation is going to be worse off.
After COVID hit, spending at local businesses tanked. Schools and shops shut down. Tourism, education and retail account for about a third of the local economy but represented nine out of every 10 jobs lost. Black and Latino San Diegans were more likely to report that they or someone in their household suffered a financial setback as a result of the closures.
As one San Diego Association of Governments report noted, the cancellation of big events had a huge effect on hotels, restaurants, caterers and many businesses in between — from audio visual companies to dry cleaners to gas stations. At the time, the outlook for “the visitor industry” was particularly bleak. It lost 20 years of economic gain and was projected to take another five to get back on track.
In contrast, white collar jobs that require a college education bounced back relatively quickly. National figures show that high-wage employment was up almost 10 percent while low-wage employment was down 21 percent as of last summer. Locally, the ZIP codes where unemployment remained highest during the pandemic, including those in Logan Heights and San Ysidro, were also home to some of the lowest median incomes in the county historically.
There are, of course, signs of improvement: modest wage increases on a national scale as workers gain more leverage over prospective employers in the labor market.
The unemployment rate for the San Diego region has been falling, but it’s on par today with where we were during the 2001 recession, and those numbers don’t take into consideration the people who’ve stopped looking for work. As Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik wrote in October: “There are still 1.6 million more long-term unemployed than there were before the pandemic, and 5.5 million fewer Americans with jobs.”
Conservatives have also pushed a narrative that prolonged benefits would keep people from working and as a result several red states cut off their programs early. But the evidence suggests that pandemic unemployment assistance did not significantly discourage people from seeking jobs again.
One study found that people whose benefits were high compared to their previous wages re-entered the labor market at a faster rate. Joblessness, another group of researchers concluded, “was driven by the pandemic itself and not by the policy response to it.” Yet another study estimated that an early round of stimulus checks did cause a decline in applications, but it had the effect of decreasing competition in the labor market at a time when jobs were unusually scarce, which the researchers considered a good thing overall.
That tight labor market was something Eilene Beniquez could handle. When she lost her job as a student services rep in UC San Diego’s international program, it was obvious what to do.
She pivoted back to Tropical Star, a Latin American restaurant and market, which her parents own. Both are in their 70s and had to stay home. She grew up around the business and enrolled in Mesa College to study hospitality management but didn’t finish the certificate. The confusion of the pandemic offered a crash course that the textbooks never could.
The dining room had to close for a time, but the grocery store was considered essential. Beniquez said her parents gave the store’s three employees — herself included — the option of shutting the doors because of COVID. They chose to keep the doors open, she said, so they could all earn income at a time of total uncertainty.
Then the costs of the business went up. Many of the store’s products are imported and people didn’t react well when the store was out of something.
Beniquez works 10- to 11-hour days to help keep the business alive while she considers a second job. Cleaning up people’s messes and ensuring the bills get paid has left her exhausted. At the same time, being thrust into the family business may end up being a good thing long term.
“The irony is that I want to open my own place,” she said, laughing, “but I’m such a masochist.”
While the cloud of the pandemic slowly lifts, a sense of pessimism about the future persists in many people’s minds.
“I’m really fucking scared moving forward,” is how Ariel Levine put it.
As a musician, he lost his ability to perform live — a big source of his income and what he’s known for locally. Instead, he had to fall back on his work as an audio engineer, picking up jobs on occasion, but there wasn’t a whole lot more he could do.
He did manage to get a few gigs after restaurants and wineries began opening back up, and he describes those performances as some of the best in his life. The crowd wasn’t drunk and belligerent. People seemed genuinely gracious to see musicians in person again.
Unemployment benefits gave him some breathing room. He got a chance to step back and reconsider his career. Some of his friends are back to playing every night, but he can’t bring himself to do it. He’ll never not be a musician, he said, but he’s grown tired of the hustle as he approaches 40.
In the meantime, he’s picking up part-time work at an automotive shop and another that builds records consoles.
I caught one of Levine’s shows at Beaumont’s Eatery in Pacific Beach in early December and spoke to him the day after. I was curious not only about the pandemic’s toll on creative types whose income has always been precarious, but whether he’d seen anything from our elected officials that made him optimistic. It might matter for some people which party is in charge, but he considers himself politics-proof.
“A Republican or Democrat in the White House doesn’t affect how much or how little Beaumont’s wants to pay me,” he said.
I’ve often wondered that too: Are our political institutions even capable of creating a better, more equitable world? Or is our only hope to just keep on mitigating the harms around the edges of society forever?
It often feels as though our daily lives run according to an algorithm no one has any real control over. That struggle has animated a lot of my reporting over the years and is one of the things I hope to explore in more depth with this new column.
The seed of it was planted a few weeks ago over lunch with my boss. We were lamenting the loss of working-class columnists at major newspapers who stalked the halls of power and wrote from the perspective of regular people, many of whom they’d grown up with.
I do not claim to be that voice. But I take inspiration from a tradition in journalism that sought to tease out not merely the symptoms but the causes of anguish and alienation.
I’ll still be doing investigative work. But my goal, every couple weeks, is to bring abstract concepts down to the everyday level and explore contradictions that underlie our political institutions. I want to get closer to the truth of what it’s like to live in a place that calls itself the nation’s finest.
Get at me if you’ve got any thoughts or ideas and sign up for the newsletter. We’ll be covering a range of topics over the next few months, some lighter than others, but always with an eye toward the forces of history that still reverberate and the ideology that shapes even the most neutral-sounding policy.
Some incredible things happen when people are forced to compete against one another for resources. We owe it to them to listen and tell their stories.