Washington state was the initial “epicenter” of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. We followed four women with ties to the service industry, which struggled long before stay-at-home orders became commonplace, in Seattle. We documented their stories by calling them every few weeks, from early April to early June.

After finishing a shift at a Seattle hotel one night, Alma Quiroz returned home to find her grandmother, who was visiting from Nicaragua, passed out on the bedroom floor.

“I was thinking she was dead right then,” said Quiroz, 26. She called an ambulance as her 8-year-old son, Oscar, watched from the sidelines.

Health care workers discovered that the 85-year-old had high blood pressure and kidney issues as a result of E. coli bacteria. She remained in the intensive care unit for 12 days beginning in late November. Quiroz took time off to watch over her grandmother in the hospital, but her paid leave didn’t last long. After about five days, she returned to the Edgewater Hotel, where she’d worked for more than a year as a night maid, room attendant or house person. She had to part ways with her second housekeeping job, which paid more but could not give her time off.

“Once I finished at Edgewater, I was running to go check on my grandma,” Quiroz said. “Prepare meals for her. Talk to her. Give her quality time, care, love. For family, ones you love a lot, of course you want to do that.”

The bills piled up. Quiroz needed money to cover medical expenses — but to work more hours, she needed support. Quiroz bought her aunt a plane ticket to Seattle. Months passed before Quiroz’s grandmother recovered. Her abuela returned to Nicaragua on Jan. 21 — the same day that Washington state announced its first covid-19 case.

‘How to make money?’

Summer and early fall mark the high season for the Seattle hotel industry. During these months, Quiroz could easily work 40 hours a week or more at Edgewater Hotel, a waterfront property in downtown Seattle. But during the winter months, hours dwindle. People who work in service and hospitality know to financially prepare themselves for the low season.

By the middle of February, as the coronavirus took hold globally, Quiroz was only working one or two days a week. She started to look for other jobs, but no one was hiring. On March 21, she got laid off along with 227 other Edgewater employees. Thousands of other hotel workers across the state have lost their jobs due to temporary and permanent layoffs, contributing to a 15.4 percent unemployment rate in April. At the same time a year earlier, it hovered around 4.4 percent.

Quiroz thought about applying for unemployment, but at the time, she could only get around $400 per week. She thought about her monthly expenses: Quiroz lived with a roommate, another single mother, and owed $900 for her portion of the rent. She also budgeted $300 for groceries, sent a few hundred dollars to her family in Nicaragua every paycheck and had medical bills to pay.

Unemployment checks weren’t enough, and relying on her savings wasn’t a long-term solution. She continued applying for jobs at hospitals and medical centers. It seemed like “those were the only companies that were hiring,” Quiroz said. She landed a part-time position as a janitor at Bailey-Boushay House, a facility that cares for people with HIV/AIDS. Bailey-Boushay House includes a small nursing home and a homeless shelter.

Although Quiroz had some concerns about the spread of covid-19, she prioritized working: “I needed something to do. It was, ‘How to make money?’ That’s all.”

‘Everything is coronavirus!’

Quiroz started at Bailey-Boushay in early April. She now works full time at the facility, suiting up in personal protective equipment four days a week. Each shift is 10 hours, and she has to catch a bus that leaves at 4:16 a.m. to get there on time.

These days, she’s happier: “I will have food, a roof. I feel a little bit of a stress release.”

Quiroz remains focused on her family. Two relatives in Nicaragua recently tested positive for covid-19. The country did not impose strict measures to slow the spread of the virus.

She still worries about her son. Oscar has experienced “a lot of changes in his short life.” He moved to the United States in October to join Quiroz, who arrived in 2017.

With classes online, learning is a struggle for Oscar, who speaks minimal English. He does class work for about three hours a day using a computer his school provides. Quiroz and her roommate, who got laid off from her job at a hotel in late March, did not have Internet, but they managed to get it for a reduced price through the school district.

When Quiroz isn’t working, she tries to take Oscar to nearby lakes or parks. They sleep in and eat big breakfasts together. On one May morning, they shared tortillas, pico de gallo, and chicken with vegetables.

Still, like most kids, Oscar is growing restless at home: “He’ll say, ‘Mom, why can’t we go somewhere? I’m bored.’” When she explains why, he’ll respond: “Everything is coronavirus! Everything is coronavirus!”

Timeline of events

October: Alma Quiroz’s son and grandmother arrive in the U.S. from Nicaragua

November: Quiroz’s grandmother is admitted to the intensive care unit for 12 days

Dec. 31: Cluster of pneumonia cases reported in Wuhan, China. Less than two weeks later, Chinese researchers identify illnesses as the novel coronavirus.

Jan. 21:

+ First recognized covid-19 case in Washington state and the U.S.

+ Quiroz sends her grandmother home to Nicaragua

February: “Low season” continues for the hotel industry in Seattle, and Quiroz’s hours get cut

Feb. 29: First recognized covid-19 death in King County, Wash., and the U.S.

March 16: Quiroz’s son’s elementary school closes, and he later begins online classes

March 21: Quiroz learns that her employer, Edgewater Hotel, will temporarily lay off 227 workers

March 23: Washington state stay-at-home order goes into effect

April 3: Quiroz starts a new job as a janitor at a medical facility in Seattle

Read the rest of this series

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