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Workers And Employers Try To Stay Afloat During Coronavirus

Empty tables at Sandston Smokehouse
Bobby Haller, who owns Sandston Smokehouse in Henrico, said the restaurant wouldn't survive a total shutdown. (Photo: Bobby Haller)

Governor Ralph Northam has ordered numerous businesses to close and others to scale back their services for the next 30 days. But even before this order, many businesses were slowing down and employees were staying home to protect the health and safety of the public.  

Hairstylists, for instance, had fewer clients in their chairs over the last couple of weeks. 

“You know we’re trying to go over to people’s houses and do haircuts in their kitchen for cash but that’s not an option now either,” said Kelly Malone, a stylist at Mango Salon in Richmond. "So this stability that we had by getting a trade for ourselves is just non-existent anymore.”

Malone and her colleagues are filing for unemployment, but she said it’s been a struggle. 

“The websites are slow,” she said. “I think they’re overloaded with everyone trying to do the same thing.” 

Some employees say their companies weren’t taking the outbreak seriously early on.  

Three employees told VPM they were fired from Richmond bowling alley River City Roll because they declined to work a crowded event two weekends ago. A fourth employee was fired after posting concerns about the event on Facebook. 

The event was scheduled to occur during the annual Shamrock the Block event - which was cancelled after Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney recommended the postponement or cancellation of large events to keep the community safe.

The company asked employees to sign a liability waiver, which VPM obtained, to work the St. Patrick’s Day event. It said “I have been made aware of any and all health concerns in regards to Coronavirus (COVID-19). I understand my employer, River City Roll, is not to be held liable if I contract COVID-19.” Some Employees who did not sign the waiver and didn’t show up to work were fired. 

“I’ve been applying to jobs online. I’ve applied for unemployment already,” a former employee said. “I’m 24. I never thought that I would have to apply for unemployment now.”

VPM is not disclosing the names of the employees because they fear retaliation. 

Rob Long, the founder and co-owner of River City Roll, declined an interview with VPM, but emailed us a statement. 

"River City Roll takes seriously its responsibility to treat all employees fairly and with dignity and respect at all times," the statement said. "We therefore do not comment on personnel matters because they are private and confidential. Make no mistake, we value every single member of our team."

Typically employees who have been terminated do not qualify for unemployment benefits. But Joyce Fogg, a spokesperson for the Virginia Employment Commission, said if the firing is related to the coronavirus outbreak, they should go ahead and apply. And do it online because it’s faster. 

The governor has waived the seven-day waiting period and the requirement that applicants be actively looking for work. Fogg said the office is working overtime and getting help from other departments.

“They won’t get their money until the claim gets processed and it’s determined how much they will get,” Fogg said. “But it’s our goal to get those completed in a week.”

It’s tough for employees but employers are struggling as well. Bobby Haller owns Sandston Smokehouse in Henrico as well as an e-cigarette and a tattoo shop. His tattoo business will close. His vape shop can stay open. But his restaurant will go from seating up to 100 to serving all meals to go. 

“We can do the carry out for 30 days,” Haller said. “But there is a fear that they just finally say, okay, all restaurants are closed.”

This, he said, would be the end of his restaurant, which is only two years old. 

“I pretty much wiped out every bit of savings I had into this. Being so young, we’re not really profitable yet. It’s sustaining, but there’s no room for a shutdown.”

He said the neighborhood has stepped up. People have donated hundreds of dollars to help their servers. 

“You know, in our community, we’ve been blessed," he said. "We’ve had a lot of support.”

Haller said he worries he may not qualify for emergency assistance because he has a personal tax lien.  We put that inquiry to the Virginia office of the U.S. Small Business Administration. They wouldn’t say whether a tax lien would disqualify a business owner for assistance, but encouraged people to go ahead and apply.