Chaos, uncertainty and hope: Tales from real people in a layoff world

Mary Katherine Westmark, co-owner of Bay Leaf Market, a local grocery and coffee shop in Crawfordville, in Wakulla County. Credit: Facebook page, Mary Katherine Westmark.

Roxie Smith worked as a server at Sonny’s BBQ for 14 years. She learned about her termination through a “print-out email” posted on the wall.

“’Effective immediately: servers are terminated,’” she paraphrased.

“And that was it. They closed the dining room. There wasn’t any need for us, so they basically laid us all off.”

Her boyfriend, Alex Morrison, was out the door as well.

He had worked at BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse in Pensacola for the past year. Two weeks ago, his managers told the staff to consider filing for unemployment.

“First there was a notification on our scheduling app, and then a day or two later I got a call from my general manager,” he said.

In a world gone numb by shutdowns, lockdowns and layoffs, Roxie and Alex are two people caught up in the coronavirus chaos – the infections, the deaths and the fallout of the economy.

The Florida Phoenix asked the couple to talk about their experiences.

The Phoenix also asked a third person to talk about the coronavirus experience from the perspective of a small business owner.  Mary Katherine Westmark had found herself in a struggle. She and her co-owner had to let go most of their employees from a grocery story in Wakulla County.

Here are their stories.

Restaurant workers

Alex Morrison and Roxie Smith. Credit: Alex Morrison.

Given her long-standing employment, Roxie negotiated working as a cashier while Sonny’s BBQ reduced its business for take-out only.

That job and Alex’s tax refund helped the two pay April rent. But after a few weeks, Roxie saw it necessary to quit her cashier job to keep her and her boyfriend healthy.

The vast majority of COVID-19 infections in Escambia County are in Pensacola, according to Florida Health Department data.

“Everybody that I am close to has a history of pre-existing conditions — so if they were to get the virus, they would be hit much harder,” Roxie said. (The new coronavirus causes the respiratory illness that has expanded across the globe.)

The couple decided to file for unemployment benefits, but as tipped and part-time employees, Roxie and Alex stumbled into unique difficulties.

Unemployment nightmare

Alex said he tried to complete the unemployment application three times in one week. Part of his difficulty is finding information the site requires.

“With inconsistent schedules from week to week, it’s difficult to keep track of not only the normal things like start dates and end dates, but things like estimates of my income over the past 18 months,” Alex said. “The lack of consistency can make it really hard to estimate something like that.”

Alex also faced a hurdle in the website of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity: Frequent crashes.

“It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but I have had the website become unresponsive for long periods of time,” Alex said. “Because of how confusing the entire process can be, it’s difficult to tell if I messed up along the way or if the site is shutting down.”

Some good news: The state said last week that it was adding servers and beefing up its call center. Some new applicants reported success in filing applications beginning late Wednesday, after a three-hour website maintenance period.

That news came as the U.S. Department of Labor reported Thursday that 6.6 million people across the country filed new unemployment claims in the last week, shattering past records.

Uncertainty and hope

Alex said he thinks he’ll be able to return to his position when the COVID-19 situation cools down in Florida.

“[BJ’s is] assuring us that when this is all over, we are expected to have our job back — but there really is no timeframe for that,” Alex said.

Alex and Roxie also await any assistance from the recently enacted $2.2 trillion federal aid package, which includes an extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits through July 31.

“Alex is a little more optimistic on that,” Roxie said about the stimulus package. “I’m more of a person that goes, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’”

Small business owners: pandemic changed everything

Mary Katherine Westmark and Tammie Barfield own Bay Leaf Market, a grocery store and coffee shop in Crawfordville, in Wakulla County, south of Tallahassee.

They aimed in 2013 to create a health-focused and organic grocery option where the community could interact.

“We wanted to create a ‘third place’ — a place for people to come together that’s not their home, not their work, not their church,” Mary Katherine said.

The pandemic changed everything quickly, when nearby Leon County confirmed its first coronavirus case.

Bay Leaf Market soon moved to curbside grocery orders. To adhere to social distancing, they catalogued all products and posted photos on Facebook.

The store owners also increased sanitary measures, using a fresh glove every time they handled cash and credit cards and frequently wiping surfaces with bleach towels.

Still, Bay Leaf Market’s revenues fell, and their business was cut in half.  In the past, they’d never had any problems paying employees and all bills.

At that point, Mary Katherine and Tammie decided their needed to reduce their 11-person staff to five. Those remaining were the two owners, two sons of the owners and a woman who prepares lunch orders.

They said most of the affected employees were young adults with families they could fall back on or older adults with another source of income.

“They all said that the extra money is nice, but they’ll have enough to get by,” Mary Katherine said. “It’s not going to cause anyone to be destitute — thank God.”

Challenges ahead

Meanwhile, the owners faced additional challenges, including exhaustion from running a business on a skeleton staff while juggling personal responsibilities during a pandemic.

“If our revenues are just going to be enough to keep the doors open and pay two young employees … It’s like, does it make sense to kill yourself and be so physically exhausted every day?” Mary Katherine said.

On the other hand, she recognizes the need for the grocery store to stay open.

“They appreciate us being open. They appreciate being able to call us and get all the stuff for them,” Mary Katherine said.

The owners are unsure of the direction the store will go in.

Mary Katherine said her outlook fluctuates throughout the day.

“When we’re at work, we’re so busy…You feel like you’re accomplishing something,” she said. “You’re doing something. You feel good about it… And then I come home and watch the news and get completely wigged out…And then I get there the next day and it feels like were doing okay and we’re being careful. We go back and forth.”

Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.