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.
On Jan. 26, Ruhi Parashar sat in the Seoul airport on the phone with her sister. Parashar, who had been traveling for about two months throughout Asia, wanted to talk about Kobe Bryant’s death. Her sister wanted to talk about the coronavirus.
Less than a week before in Washington state, officials had announced the first recognized covid-19 case in the U.S. Her sister told Parashar she had to self-isolate for the recommended 14 days when she returned to Seattle.
“I was livid,” Parashar, 31, recalled. “I know that sounds crazy, but it wasn't a thing to quarantine.”
In fact, Parashar hadn’t realized the magnitude of the outbreak until she reached South Korea, where there were thermal imaging cameras and more people wearing masks. When she arrived at the Seattle-Tacoma airport, “no one cared about where I was.” Screenings were nonexistent.
Two weeks after returning home, Parashar felt fine. She continued with her plan: Leave Seattle, where she’s lived almost her entire life, and move to Los Angeles. On Feb. 16, she arrived in L.A. By Feb. 22, she’d landed two jobs as a server at rooftop bars. But as the number of covid-19 cases in the U.S. increased, Parashar got laid off.
“They said, ‘We have to let you guys go, and we encourage all of you — whether you’ve been working here for one day or five years — to file for unemployment,” she said.
And so, on March 8, she did.
Parashar started working in restaurants at 21 when she was a college student in Seattle. After graduating from the University of Washington, she decided to continue working in the service industry. It paid well, and it was flexible, meaning Parashar could travel or move to another city without having to worry about finding a job.
“I never thought, ‘When am I going to go sit in an office?’” Parashar said.
“People choose this industry and people need it,” she said. “There’s a very big difference. People need it to pay their bills, to get through college, to make that fast money for some larger life goal. And then people choose it because they love it. I’m a chooser. I needed it through college, got my degree, and then was like, ‘No, this is what I love.’”
Her passion for the industry is partly why the pandemic has taken such a toll on her. Opportunities are suddenly gone. For Parashar, the unknowns are particularly daunting.
“Our job is to make people feel comfortable, happy and encourage them to be with their friends,” she said. She worries about how socializing at a bar or restaurant will change as the severity of the pandemic fades. “How are you not going to feel anxious coming out of this? How are you not going to feel scared?”
By early April, Parashar still hadn’t heard back from California’s unemployment program. She began to feel uneasy. She had already signed up for Medi-Cal and the state’s food assistance program, CalFresh. Sure, her stimulus check could pay for one month’s rent. But what would happen after that? At best, her savings could last her until early summer.
“I think my panic attack will set in in June,” she said in April.
Despite pandemic-induced ups and downs, Parashar is glad she moved from Seattle, where she dealt with anxiety and depression, to L.A.: “Emotionally, I feel happier here. If I were in Seattle going through this quarantine, I don’t know what my mental state would be.”
On most mornings, Parashar still puts on a full face of makeup, as if she’s getting ready to dominate a waitressing shift. “I know it’s stupid, but it’s part of my uniform,” she said. “I don't want to lose that, even if I'm going to sit in my makeup … and watch reality TV.”
Otherwise, Parashar spends her days going on long, sun-filled walks, coloring, scrolling through social media, devouring shows like “90 Day Fiancé” and relaxing by cooking with her Instant Pot — a gift from her best friend. She quickly befriended her neighbors, and they started doing a food exchange. Sometimes, Parashar and her mother, who is still in Seattle, will cook the same Indian meals for dinner to feel more connected.
Around the first of every month, her mother asks if she needs money, but Parashar can’t bring herself to say yes. Her parents raised three daughters and paid for each one’s college education, but Parashar has never asked them for money as an adult.
“My parents were such hard workers that they deserve every cent that they get now,” she said. “They’ve already supported me. I would feel weird and guilty asking [my mom] for money because she’s done so much for me already.”
Parashar’s sister gave her a gift card for groceries, and her mom sent a few masks she made. Her friends, many of whom have worked in the service industry and understand her situation, have also stepped up. Parashar recognizes how fortunate she is, and she’s using this time to reexamine her approach to money and giving.
“I’m looking forward to how I’m going to change myself and be positive about it,” Parashar said. “I’m going to be frugal, and I’m going to feel good about it. And I’m going to stop buying stupid [stuff], like Gucci socks.”
And if money ever starts flowing in again, Parashar intends to pay it forward.
“We really need to come out of this differently as a whole,” she said. “Be more charitable. Be more giving to people. I really hope people don’t bounce back and not look back. I hope people look back, reflect and think about what they can do.”
In late April, Parashar found out she was denied unemployment in California. A representative told her to file in Washington state, where she’d worked and paid taxes in 2019. Parashar obliged. But her Washington claim was not as straightforward as her situation in L.A., where she’d been laid off due to the spread of coronavirus.
For three years, Parashar served at the same rooftop bar in Seattle. She loved the work, but being in Seattle negatively impacted her well-being. She needed a change of scenery, so she quit her job in November during the slow season. Before heading to L.A., Parashar traveled to Indonesia, Thailand and India. When she filed for unemployment in Washington, she cited mental health as her reason for quitting.
She eventually signed up for a phone interview with an adjudicator. A representative told her they would call by May 20. The date came and went. At first, Parashar shrugged it off: Maybe they were behind due to the massive unemployment fraud scheme that initially caused Washington state to lose more than $550 million. At least she received $250 from the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild’s emergency relief fund.
But by the end of the month, as L.A. County allowed restaurants to reopen at 60 percent capacity, Parashar expressed a desire to move on.
“A lot of me was banking on this unemployment money, but I’m starting to look at the big picture now, not the month by month,” she said. If she starts working in the service industry again, Parashar won’t make as much as she’s used to. Still, she sees long-term value in the struggle. “If I choose to go on the lower end of making money right now … and get by with that, I’ll feel more confident next summer when I’ve been in an establishment, and I’ve been through the hard times with them. I’ll be there for when things are ‘normal,’ whatever that means.”
Jan. 21: First recognized covid-19 case in Washington state and the U.S.
Jan. 26: Ruhi Parashar has a layover in South Korea; sister tells her to self-isolate for 14 days upon returning home to Seattle
Feb. 16: Parashar moves from Seattle to Los Angeles
Feb. 22: The veteran server and bartender secures two server jobs at rooftop bars
Feb. 29: First recognized covid-19 death in Washington state and the U.S.
March 7: Parashar gets laid off and later files for unemployment
March 16: L.A. County orders restaurants to cease in-person dining
March 27: Congress passes the Cares Act
+ Parashar receives a $1,200 stimulus check and $250 from the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild’s emergency relief fun
+ Denied California unemployment
+ Files a claim with Washington state unemployment
May 29: L.A. County announces restaurants may resume in-person dining at 60 percent capacity