March 16 was the last day that David Engelsman walked into the Jackrabbit, an acclaimed restaurant at the boutique Duniway Hotel in downtown Portland, Ore. The lead server on morning duty, Engelsman was told before his shift started that his job was no longer needed. He left early, at 10:30 a.m. The restaurant didn't reopen the next day.
A total of 330 workers at the Duniway and another Hilton property across the street have been let go since then. With two autistic children, a wife with a severe heart condition and now no health insurance, Engelsman has devoted much of his time to the fight by his union, Unite Here, to get Hilton to make health-plan contributions for laid-off workers until the end of the year.
"We're left standing here with nothing," he said. "I know I sound dramatic, but it is dramatic."
Stories like this have become painfully common, with 11.5 million jobs lost since February and the government's monthly report Friday showing a drop in the unemployment rate but hiring at a far slower pace than in the spring.
When companies dispatched office staff to work from home, cut business trips and canceled business lunches, they also eliminated the jobs cleaning their offices and hotel rooms, driving them around town and serving them meals.
For this army of service workers across urban America, the pandemic risks becoming more than a short-term economic shock. If white-collar America doesn't return to the office, service workers will be left with nobody to serve.
The worry is particularly acute in cities, which for decades have sustained tens of millions of jobs for workers without a college education. Now remote work is adding to other pressures that have stunted opportunities. The collapse of retailers like J.C. Penney and Neiman Marcus has wiped out many low-wage jobs. The implosion of tourism in cities like New York and San Francisco will end many more.
Maria Valdez, a laid-off housekeeper at the Grand Hyatt in San Antonio, is scraping by with three children on a $314 weekly unemployment check. Kimber Adams, who lost her job as a bartender at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, is pinning hopes on her Plan B to become a phlebotomist. Waldo Cabrera, let go from his job cleaning the cabins of American Airlines jets at the Miami airport, hopes an offer to drive a tanker truck in Texas will wait until he can move at the end of the year.
"Perforce I have to leave here," he said.
WILL JOBS COME BACK?
Mari Duncan is relatively lucky. She is still drawing a paycheck, even though her job marinating meats and cooking soup at Facebook's Seattle campus ended when the company sent its managers and engineers to work from home. But she fears that her deal -- Facebook is still paying its food service contractor so it can cover payroll -- can't last forever.
"When I saw a story break about how Facebook will stay remote until July of 2021," she said, "I freaked out a little bit."
Every one of these workers is itching to get back to work. But a fear is budding that even when the pandemic has passed, the economy may not provide the jobs it once did.
"Some law firms are finding that it is more productive for their lawyers to stay at home," said Kristinia Bellamy, a janitor who was laid off from her job cleaning offices at a high-rise housing legal firms and other white-collar businesses in Manhattan. "This might be the beginning of the end for these commercial office buildings."
Consider Nike's decision in the spring to allow most employees at its headquarters in the Portland area to work remotely. Aramark, which runs the cafeteria and catering at Nike, furloughed many of its workers. With no need for full services anticipated "for an undefined period," Aramark says, 378 employees -- waiters, cooks, cashiers and others -- now face permanent layoff Sept. 25.
ZOOM, WORKING REMOTELY
The question is whether dislocations like this will be only temporary. About 1 in 5 adults of working age who do not have a college degree live in the biggest metropolitan areas -- in the top quarter by population density -- according to estimates by David Autor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Most are in service industries that cater to the needs of an affluent class of "knowledge workers" who have flocked to cities in search of cool amenities and high pay.
And having discovered Zoom, what company will fly a manager across the country for a day's worth of meetings? A lasting reduction in business travel will endanger the ecosystem of hotel and restaurant workers serving corporate travelers.
Jonathan Dingel and Brent Neiman of the University of Chicago have calculated that 37% of jobs can be done entirely from home. Those jobs tend to be highly paid, in fields like legal services, computer programming and financial services. And they tend to concentrate in affluent areas like San Francisco; Stamford, Conn.; and Raleigh, N.C.
Of course, a lot of the urban economy that employs low-wage service workers was shut down by city and state governments hoping to contain the pandemic. The risk of infection is also keeping many people at home. Presumably these fears and restrictions will relax once a vaccine or a treatment for covid-19 is developed.
Angel Carter, who was laid off in March from her job cleaning three floors in Philadelphia's Center City, notes that janitors at work are putting their health at risk. They are more important than ever -- given the pandemic -- because offices must be cleaned extra thoroughly. She argues that the job these days merits hazard pay. But above anything else, Carter said, "I'm praying that they do open back up."
Information for this story was contributed by Ben Casselman of The New York Times.