Laid-off service workers dipping into savings, 'living on bread and water' to get by during lockdown
With tighter restrictions hitting Manitoba businesses, some service workers looking for jobs in other areas
They've applied for government support, dipped into savings and hustled for side projects to make ends meet — but now, fed up with financial turmoil and facing another round of layoffs due to COVID-19 restrictions, some Winnipeg service-industry workers are leaving their professions completely.
"I love cooking and it's something that's always going to be a part of me. But this past year, I realized my main occupation, my profession isn't important," said Michael Ledda, a former chef and kitchen manager at Ben and Florentine in Winnipeg.
What is important, he says, is "to keep food on the table or to pay off my bills."
"I need to find something more secure."
On Nov. 2, Winnipeg moved to the red, or critical, level of Manitoba's pandemic response system. That meant restaurant dining rooms were ordered to close, with only delivery and takeout services allowed.
Ledda said he's been a cook for 20 years and prior to the pandemic, had no trouble getting hired. But since COVID-19 hit Manitoba, he's been laid off twice.
"I'm scared, if anything. I'm fearful that we might be locked up for six months and then I have to throw out my profession," he said.
He's been applying for work outside the restaurant industry, such as moving, shipping and security jobs.
Meanwhile, he's on employment insurance — but the payments aren't enough for rent, living expenses and child support for his son and two daughters, which takes up more than half his cheque, he said.
"It's hard. It's difficult to see my kids, because I can't pay my child support, and me and their mother have arguments," said Ledda.
"I am living on bread and water. That's my every day right now," he said.
Ledda said when he worked as a chef, he relied on free meals from restaurants to feed himself and supplement his grocery budget, but that's no longer an option.
To survive, he's been deferring some bills, selling valuable items on Kijiji and turning to other passions — music, drawing and painting — which have brought some extra cash and helped him through a difficult period.
"I do write a lot of music and I practise every day. So it helps keep my spirits going, for sure," said Ledda.
Dipping into savings
Connie Nagorski, a former server at Four Crowns Restaurant and Bar, said she was also laid off twice: first back in April, and again at the start of November, when Winnipeg went to the red level.
"It was really shocking for all of us to have to go through that again," she said.
"It was heartbreaking. I don't cry easily, but I definitely started to cry. Then I see other people that I worked with crying, because … our incomes are gone and we don't know when they're coming back," said Nagorski.
She has applied for the Canada recovery benefit — one of the programs that has replaced CERB, or the Canada emergency response benefit — and for now, she's using her savings.
"I've got a little meagre savings. So if this goes on for a long time, I'm going to be in trouble," she said.
Vizlumin Cabrera, a hairdresser at Harvest Barbershop, has also been dipping into her savings and living frugally to get by.
Cabrera, who considers herself an independent contractor, stopped working in early November, when the province required non-essential businesses to close down.
"It's unfortunate, but I think we were also at that point worried about our health and safety as well," she said.
"I am coming from a place of privilege, that I have savings. I don't think that's the case for everyone, and I do worry for folks who don't have that."
Navigating government supports, grants
After seeking help from SEED Winnipeg — a non-profit organization that helps people find employment — Cabrera applied for the provincial government's recently announced $5,000 bridge grant for businesses and organizations.
But the process wasn't easy, she said.
"Our government websites are not very engaging … and so you're already kind of stressed and you're already unfamiliar with the territory," she said. "It can be frustrating."
Canadians who have worked 120 hours are eligible for employment insurance, and if workers don't qualify for EI, they can apply for the Canada recovery benefit.
Businesses and organizations in Manitoba can also apply for the bridge grant.
Millie Acuna, manager of asset building programs at SEED, said once those options are exhausted, there are other strategies for managing finances, such as maintaining a budget, handling debt and understanding tenant rights.
"We're finding a lot of folks saying, 'I've been cut off of my budget. I don't have enough money to pay my rent … I'm going to be homeless in two to three weeks,'" said Acuna.
She said people with unemployment questions can seek help through the community financial helpline, a service that's been developed by SEED, Community Financial Counselling Services and the Community Unemployed Help Centre.
"To them, we say, 'it's OK, don't panic," said Acuna. "We will work through this for you."
If you're facing unemployment and need help, you can call the community financial helpline at 1-855-955-4234.