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Idaho Millenials and restaurant workers hit hardest by COVID-19

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Austin Amaro had big plans for 2020, but then the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact Idaho.

He started hitting the books at the College of Western Idaho studying Human Biology while working full time at Red Feather Lounge on 8th Street. After years of working as a server, he hoped to slowly work his way toward a bachelor’s degree and launch a career in the medical field. Things were looking up. 

Amaro, 25, made progress toward paying off his credit card debt, while studying hard in school and making a living on the way to long term stability. Then the pandemic closed his bar in March. COVID-19, and the public health orders to slow the spread of the virus, left him without income for five weeks while he waited for his unemployment benefits to be approved. 

“Essentially I finished my semester while still mostly worrying about how I was going to not starve and not get kicked out of an apartment and also still get good grades,” he said. “I was worrying about so many different things.”

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[Unemployment rates rise but some business owners can’t find employees]

The pandemic-fueled economic slowdown hit Idahoans of all ages and occupations, but restaurant workers and millennials made up the majority of the 221,695 unemployment claims filed with the Idaho Department of Labor since the week of March 21. These jobs, which often have nontraditional hours and little to no benefits, also often offer low base pay – making workers rely on tips from customers.

Of those claims, a quarter came from those in the 25-34 age group, though that age bracket only makes up 13% of Idaho’s population. Another 20% of claims came those younger than 25, according to an analysis of unemployment claim data by BoiseDev. Foodservice workers filed the most claims nearly every week during that time period, with 18,929 claims statewide. 

Restaurant workers took the biggest hit early in the pandemic when restaurants were some of the first businesses to close, but claim numbers from this group eased in recent months. During March 2020, food service workers only made up 4.5% of claims. But, they made up 22%, 23% and 20% of claims in April, May and June respectively. By August, the percentage dropped to 16%. 

When Red Feather closed, Amaro used his last paycheck to pay his rent two months in advance and hunkered down with his savings to wait for unemployment or the ability to return to work. He eventually received unemployment benefits five weeks after he lost his job and returned to work at Red Feather’s sister restaurant Bittercreek Alehouse in early June. 

The extra boost from the CARES Act helped him stay on track with his plan to pay off credit card debt and put money away. But, planning for taxes he will owe next year and the looming possibility of restaurants shuttering again as COVID-19 cases in Idaho rise has him cautiously saving for the future.

Virus pushes young Americans out of the classroom

There’s also the issue of online learning. Prior to the pandemic, Amaro did well in school and could get the help he needed from his professors, but he struggles with online learning. The combination of stress and the new environment means his grades have taken a dip, and he’s concerned it will set him back in his goals of eventually transferring to Boise State University to earn a bachelor’s degree on the original timeline he set out for himself. 

“I was making these choices for my education and my focus there is to build a better life for myself and be able to move to a different place someday,” he said. “I can serve anywhere, but that doesn’t mean I can survive if I’m serving anywhere.”

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The slowdown in Amaro’s education is not unique. Mark Mather, a demographer in Washington D.C. with think tank Population Reference Bureau, said the slowdown caused by COVID-19 lowered enrollment at colleges across the country due to concerns about the virus and finances. This is different from the Great Recession when out of work Americans headed back to school to learn new skills and improve their career prospects. 

Mathers said the number of people impacted by dropping out of college, loss of income and savings and impacts to physical and mental health could dog young Americans for decades to come, long after the US finds a path out of the pandemic.

“People will be going back to work, but I just feel like this has been such a disruption in people’s lives and has had such a negative impact on people’s not just their economic well-being but in terms of their physical and mental health,” he said. “I think it’s going to have a long term impact on individuals and their families probably for decades.”

A growing gap between those with and without higher education

Education isn’t the only thing impacting young people during the pandemic. Although young people are less likely to die from COVID-19, they are more susceptible to the long-term economic and social impacts of the pandemic. Unlike older generations who have more established careers and finances, those in their mid to late 20s and early 30s are entering the prime ages for marriage and having children during this unprecedented upheaval. 

In the past two decades, the share of young adults getting married steadily dropped. Mathers is concerned the pandemic will push the rates even lower, both in the short and long-term. He said couples will postpone marriage to wait for social distancing guidelines to lift in the next year, but they might also wait to marry until the economy improves. This could take years. 

Marriage rates dropped faster for young Americans without bachelor’s degrees than for those who completed higher education. Between 2000 and 2019, the number of married Americans under 24 without a college degree dropped 16%, while those in the same age group who graduated college had a lower marriage rate of 10%. Mathers estimates if patterns continue, the disparity will continue to increase. 

Courtesy of Population Reference Bureau

The number of young adults having children is also continuing to drop, which Mathers expects will be exacerbated by the pandemic. The fertility rate in the United States recently dropped to the lowest point in recorded history, with women having an average of 1.7 births in their lifetime, according to a 2019 study from PRB. 

Mathers estimates birth rates for women over 30 will remain flat at 98 births per 1,000 women until 2025. But, he predicts the number of births per 1,000 women for those between 25 and 29 will continue to drop to 85.2 by 2025. 

He said population decreasing and fewer children by itself is not a warning sign of a faltering economy. However, this does show some “disturbing” trends about who can afford to have children in the United States moving into the future. 

“There’s this growing divide in this country between people who have college degrees and people with just a high school diploma where it’s increasingly just those people who are more educated who are in an economic position where they can make these major life transitions,” he said. 

Courtesy of Population Reference Bureau

Dreams deferred

Amaro isn’t the only one in his friend group on hold. A fellow bartender and server he knows put out an album at the beginning of the year, which released right before lockdown and he cancelled his planned musical tour. Another fellow server had to delay plans to move to Oregon because he couldn’t build up enough savings like he planned. 

“The hardest thing for us in the service industry is a lot of times it’s hard to build a savings and some of my coworkers didn’t even qualify for unemployment so they had to go two full months without any kind of income,” Amaro said. “Some of them got help from their parents, some got help because their friends were generous.”

University of Idaho Finance Professor Terry Grieb said the United States economy is recovering, but it doesn’t look the same for everyone. He said Americans with traditional office jobs and white-collar workers fared better than those in the airline industry or working in restaurants. This is concerning now, but Grieb said the real impacts will be felt in a few years when lower-income Americans are further behind in their careers, earnings and life events. 

“When the economy takes off more quickly, (workers who were not laid off) will be in a great place to take advantage of that,” he said. “People who are sitting on hold now and barely getting by are not positioning themselves for those opportunities in the future. That’s the economy basically denying them that opportunity.”

Things aren’t all doom and gloom though, Grieb said. He pointed to other countries with massive economic downturns, like Japan in the 1990s, where an entire generation was crippled by the country’s economy crashing. 

“It is a serious problem and is something we need to address and try and help people across all of the demographics survive and be in a position to take opportunities a couple of years down the road, but it’s not on the scale of what it could be,” Grieb said. “Honestly in the short run this is really hard and people are in pain and it is hard to be a young adult worker now, but I think over time those opportunities will come back.”

Margaret Carmel
Margaret is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at margaret@boisedev.com or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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