Workers seek benefits as Park City businesses are shuttered
Last Saturday, Joe Oshnack worked what turned out to be his last shift for the foreseeable future at the Wasatch Brew Pub on Main Street.
That’s the day Summit County health officials announced the first case of community spread of the coronavirus, which happened to involve a doorman working just down the street at another bar.
That prompted unprecedented restrictions on the area’s businesses, leaving many proprietors virtually no choice but to lay off or furlough workers.
Oshnack received a call from the restaurant’s general manager Monday notifying him the pub was shutting down for the time being. Then on Friday, he received another call saying there was no prospective date to return to work.
Oshnack applied for unemployment benefits, cut down on his expenses and thinks he’ll be able to manage on about half his normal income while the situation plays out. But his health insurance came through his job at the pub and he likes to ski and mountain bike.
“My biggest concern, which I did mention, too, to my boss talking about being furloughed — my health insurance comes through there,” he said. “I’ve definitely used the health insurance before.”
Almost exactly half of the jobs in Summit County — 15,791 of them — fall into four categories, according to data provided by the county: One that includes ski-industry workers, one that includes hotels and food service, one that includes retail operations like grocery stores and one that includes personal service and maintenance workers.
While officials have mentioned the timing of the crisis comes after the winter’s prime tourism period, saying the area is losing what essentially amounts to one month of the ski season, workers and businesses have been hit hard.
Oshnack said he had it better than most. One of his colleagues, for example, hasn’t worked in the area long enough to collect unemployment benefits and is planning to return to her home state.
Bill White, who owns eight area eateries, said he was caught flatfooted with a quarter-million dollars in inventory.
“We went from 500 (employees) to zero in 24 hours. From some income to zero income,” he said. “Nobody can be prepared for that.”
He added that the Great Recession resulted in a loss of about 25% of revenue in his restaurant group, but this crisis is a different experience entirely.
White immediately laid off nearly all of his employees and referred them to unemployment resources and shut down the restaurants to cut expenses. He also tried to find work at his other operations for some of his employees and attempted to stabilize others with a temporary food bank.
Ramping back up when the business restrictions are lifted will be challenging, he said, and White disputes the notion that things will go back to normal quickly.
The Utah Department of Workforce Services, which administers unemployment insurance claims, said it is receiving an influx of applications and has received additional administrative funding to process the claims, according to spokesperson Brooke Porter Coles.
“The goal is to get to a first unemployment benefit being paid within 21 days,” Coles wrote in an email. “We are seeing significant increases in demand so we do ask that claimants be patient as we try to meet this demand.”
She added that the department is watching the moves being made on the federal level that may bolster unemployment insurance, and that the state’s trust fund is “strong and solvent.”
For workers like Oshnack, who are waiting for benefits to kick in, Park City’s rapid economic shutdown has been surreal.
“It’s strange,” Oshnack said of a deserted Main Street. “Just a regular old zombie apocalypse.”
Information about Department of Workforce Services resources for workers affected by COVID-19 can be found at jobs.utah.gov/covid19/.
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City Hall in December posted strong sales-tax numbers, powering past projections and nearly equaling the figure from the same month in the previous year, as Park City continued to beat expectations amid the continued spread of the novel coronavirus. The numbers in December show the Park City economy still was roaring during the first full month of the ski season.