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Heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition

As Detroit Shuts Down Over Coronavirus, Service Workers Wonder What’s Next

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Image credit: Shiraz Ahmed / WDET

Some of the biggest sports events have been cancelled and Rock Ventures is sending it’s nearly 18,000 workers home due to worries over the spread of coronavirus. The impact on restaurant and retail workers with no safety net could be massive.

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For service industry workers, paid sick days and the ability to work remotely are a rare luxury.

So not everyone in Michigan’s economy can follow the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s instructions to stay home from work if you get sick… or go see a doctor.

There was no shortage of pity tips from people who are concerned about us [in the service industry]. But slowly, the trickle is going to drop to nothing in the near future.” — Dave Frassetto, bartender

How is the news of confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease resulting from coronavirus, in Michigan affecting the nearly 450,000 service industry workers in the state?

Click on the player above to hear how Detroit’s service workers are coping during a crisis.

Nick Ferreri has been driving for Uber for five years and completed nearly 10,000 trips. He says he’s always carries hand sanitizer with him, but that he isn’t too worried about this latest wave of coronavirus news. He says his passengers haven’t really brought it up.

People tend to get a little fearful and stay home so of course it will definitely affect the business.” — Nick Ferreri, Uber driver

Nobody really has talked about the virus or anything,” says Ferreri. ”But it seems like the past two weeks were very busy and then all of a sudden it has quieted down. I wouldn’t say a whole lot but noticeably.”

Ferreri says Uber is his main source of income. He doesn’t think people will stop using the ride-sharing services entirely, but as major events and conferences get cancelled in Detroit and the country he’s sure he’ll see a drop in revenue.

People tend to get a little fearful and stay home so of course it will definitely affect the business,” says Ferreri. ”I’m curious to see how that happens over the weekend when people are typically out and about.”

Are you experiencing financial hardship? Find out how to apply to expanded unemployment benefits here.

A Silent Stadium

A lot of those weekend activities end up being sporting events at Little Caesars Arena, but with the NBA cancelling the remainder of its season; the NHL following suit, and the MLB postponing opening day, a usually busy sports schedule in March and April will be non-existent. 

That could potentially mean less work for people like Tara Lennon. She manages the team store at Little Caesars Arena, where they sell merchandise for the Red Wings and Pistons. On any given day she manages 40 to 60 part time workers.

A lot of my associates work at Little Ceasars Arena and Comerica Park, so it’s affecting mostly our hourly part time staff.” — Tara Lennon, Little Caesars Arena

A lot of my associates are concurrent employees which means they work at Little Ceasars Arena and Comerica Park,” says Lennon. “So it’s affecting mostly our hourly part time staff.”

Pistons employees and LCA staff supporting games will be paid during the hiatus, reports the Detroit Free Press.

But there’s LCA staff that could go without pay for several weeks, if not longer. A lot — if not all — of those part time workers are members of the Unite Here Local #24 union that represents about 7,000 service industry workers in Detroit, including casino workers and hotel workers, as well as concessionaires at Comerica Park and Little Caesars Arena. 

Downtown Detroit.Courtesy of District Detroit
Courtesy of District Detroit

Downtown Detroit.

In a statement, Unite Here’s international union leader D. Taylor called on Congress to take decisive action to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, arguing that not everyone can afford to take time off if they’re sick, even if they are in the union and have affordable health care and adequate sick time.

Dave Frassetto, a bartender at a large hotel in downtown Detroit and a member of Unite Here Local #24, says business has noticeably declined. 

Most people are concerned about how I’m doing,” says Frassetto. “There was no shortage of pity tips from people who are concerned about us [in the service industry]. But slowly, the trickle is going to drop to nothing in the near future.”

He says being in the union offers him some protection that other service industry workers who work paycheck-to-paycheck might not have.

We have insurance. We have some paid time off and we have paid vacation. We’re at a level where we are somewhat protected compared to our friends who work at small bars and small businesses,” says Frassetto. “Still, they are cutting back shifts.”

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Lost Traffic, Workers

Another factor is office workers downtown potentially working from home for an extended period of time, leaving restaurants and bar seats empty.

We’ve purchased $4 million in equipment with 2,500 laptops, 5,000 monitors, and 2,200 laptop docking stations.” — Aaron Walker, Rock Ventures

Today, Rock Ventures announced it’s sending its nearly 18,000 downtown employees to work from home in hopes of limiting the spread of the virus.

It has been determined that the safest course of action for our team members and clients is to institute a work from home policy,” said Aaron Walker, chief communications officer of Rock Ventures, in a statement. Rock Ventures includes real estate company Bedrock Detroit and mortgage company Quicken Loans, some of the biggest employers in downtown Detroit.

We’ve purchased $4 million in equipment with 2,500 laptops, 5,000 monitors, and 2,200 laptop docking stations to make sure our team members are able to work from home effectively.”

Applying for Unemployment

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has signed an executive order to temporarily expand eligibility for unemployment benefits, effective immediately and until Tuesday, April 14 at 11:59 PM.

Under this order, unemployment would be expanded to:

  • Workers who have an unanticipated family care responsibility, including those who have childcare responsibilities due to school closures, or those who are forced to care for loved ones who become ill. 
  • Workers who are sick, quarantined, or immunocompromised and who do not have access to paid family and medical leave or are laid off. 
  • First responders in the public health community who become ill or are quarantined due to exposure to COVID-19. 

Access to benefits for unemployed workers will also be extended:

  • Benefits will be increased from 20 to 26 weeks. 
  • The application eligibility period will be increased from 14 to 28 days 
  • The normal in-person registration and work search requirements will be suspended.  

Eligible employees should apply for unemployment benefits online at  or 1-866-500-0017. A factsheet on how to apply for benefits can be found here.  

Updated, 4:00 pm, March 13, 2020: This piece has been updated with additional reporting detailing service workers concerns.
​Updated, 12:07 pm, March 17, 2020: This piece has been updated with additional reporting detailing how to apply for unemployment

Ryan Patrick Hooper, Host, CultureShift

Ryan Patrick Hooper is a host of CultureShift and longtime arts, culture and music reporter. Follow @hoopingtonpost

This post is a part of Coronavirus in Michigan.

101.9 WDET, Detroit’s NPR Station, is committed to providing accurate, up-to-date information on coronavirus, and it's related illness COVID-19, in Michigan. 

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