As coronavirus rips through the Seattle area, fear of the disease and policies to limit its spread have left canceled events, abandoned travel plans and vacant hotel rooms in their wake, with lower-wage hourly workers the most affected part of the hospitality sector.
When Michelle Orgill, a baker at the Washington State Convention Center, went to check her work schedule Wednesday morning, “everything was gone,” she said.
All her shifts for the rest of the month had been canceled.
Nor is she alone. Nearly 500 cooks, waiters, setup staff and traffic attendants at the convention center expect not to work any more shifts in March, the result of event cancellations over coronavirus concerns.
Since Thursday, the convention center — a cornerstone of Seattle’s tourism economy — has emptied. Ten convention center events have been canceled, including three major shows expected to net a combined $32 million in economic activity for the city.
Seven smaller-scale conferences are still on the books, said Jeff Blosser, the president and CEO of the convention center, in an email.
More cancellations are sure to come on the heels of the ban announced Wednesday by Gov. Jay Inslee on gatherings of more than 250 people in the Seattle area to control the spread of the virus. The ban is in effect through the end of March, but is expected to last well beyond that. At least six events scheduled for April are expected to draw more than 250 attendees, according to the convention center’s website.
Other local convention centers are also affected. The Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue has seen 16 cancellations in recent weeks.
On-call employees like Orgill, who work only if the convention center is hosting an event, are “our biggest concern,” said Tim Carr, CEO of Meydenbauer Center. “Across the hospitality community, they’re the ones feeling the greatest impact.”
Congressional Democrats and Republicans are currently vying to push out versions of a federal spending plan that could help those workers.
In Seattle, meetings and conventions generate nearly 30% of hotels’ business, according to Tom Norwalk, the president and CEO of Visit Seattle. In the first week of March, hotels in the downtown core have seen a 46% drop in revenue, compared to the same period last year, he said.
“It’s been so incredibly bad,” he said. “And it’s happened so fast.”
The cancellations spell pain for the state convention center’s roughly 500 on-call staff.
Many of those workers were looking forward to the busier spring event season to replenish savings depleted during the winter slowdown. Now, many don’t know when they may work again.
On-call staff also only qualify for health insurance if they work more than a certain number of hours each month, typically 60-65 hours. Few, if any, anticipate meeting that benchmark by the end of March, throwing their future health coverage into jeopardy, according to officials at two unions representing the workers.
Roughly 75 of those workers are employed directly by the convention center, which emailed them last Friday to notify them that “due to the current health situation and the impacts to our event schedule, all on-call shifts have been canceled over the dates of March 7 – 31, 2020.”
The convention center said it would allow all of its direct employees to use sick and vacation leave to cover canceled shifts. They will be paid for those hours, and the hours will count toward any minimums for health care benefits, Blosser confirmed.
More than 400 other on-call convention center workers, including Orgill, are employed by the center’s food contractor, Aramark, which began calling staff last week to alert them that their shifts were canceled. Aramark has not yet announced whether its employees will be allowed to cover missing shifts with sick or vacation leave.
The company is currently negotiating with the union representing its workers at the convention center, Unite Here Local 8, on a new collective bargaining agreement. It did not respond to questions.
Orgill, who works for Aramark, said she’ll likely be able to “squeak by” on her April rent payment. But she’s no longer sure whether she’ll be able to afford her copays for specialist visits to treat a bum knee and arthritis in her neck.
“Seventy-five dollars at the end of the month could really make or break me,” she said.
Even if she’s able to use all her sick leave to cover her shifts in March, she said that means in the future, she may have to prepare food while sick if she happens to be ill when she gets a call to work.
Some convention center workers strategizing how to cope with the prolonged period of no work have second jobs that may help them weather the storm — though as slackening demand across Seattle’s service industry causes small businesses to shutter, even that’s uncertain.
One kitchen worker said she planned to borrow money from her adult child.
As for Orgill, she said she expects to visit the food bank later this month, to get dog food for her pug-beagle mix.
And Thursday, she said, she’s going to a workshop on how to apply for unemployment benefits.