Bastidas hasn’t worked in more than six months. And she can’t go back to the WilmerHale offices until the lawyers do.
Service workers like Bastidas were laid off in droves when white-collar employees fled their cubicles in the middle of March, and many of those lawyers, accountants, software engineers, and designers won’t be coming back to their offices until next year, if ever. WilmerHale just started allowing small groups of employees back in the building on a voluntary basis but hasn’t determined when it will fully reopen.
Without people commuting to offices in Boston and around the region, normally bustling business districts have become shadows of their former selves. Lunch spots and flower shops closed their doors. Parking lots turned into wastelands. With business travel at a virtual standstill, cavernous convention centers stand empty.
Many of the people who once kept these places running don’t have college degrees or are immigrants like Bastidas with limited English skills, and limited job prospects.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the unemployment benefits were generous, with a $600-a-week boost that raised some workers’ wages above what they used to make. But that extra pay ended in late July, followed by a brief $300-a-week bump that has also come to an end. With no further aid from the government in sight, unemployed workers are down to the final 13 weeks of extended benefits, set to expire in December.
Of the 34 UG2 cleaners at 60 State Street, only 12 have been called back, according to 32BJ Service Employees Union District 615, the union that represents them.
“Now the stimulus is gone and my savings are gone,” said Bastidas, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. “I’m very stressed now, especially about whether or not I’m ever going to return to work.”
UG2 did not respond to requests for comment.
Massachusetts has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, at 11.3 percent, down from highest-in-the-nation rates that topped out at more than 17 percent earlier this summer. Unemployment in the service sector is higher than in any other job category, and many of the state’s 622,000 service workers are dependent on people returning to the office in order to resume their jobs.
Service occupations shed more than a quarter of all jobs in the sector nationwide between February and May, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
It’s unclear when employees will come back to their offices, and if those offices will ever be as full as they once were. As companies realize the savings of keeping employees at home and productivity remains strong, employers may allow, or even encourage, their staff to work remotely more often. And many employees welcome that change.
But this kind of shift could exacerbate the inequities that already exist between the many white, well-paid employees who can do their work over the Internet and people of color who do more hands-on work in the service sector, said Dania Francis economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Unemployment rates for Black and Latino workers — more than a quarter of whom are in the service industry in Massachusetts — have not dropped as much as that of white workers as the stalled economy started sputtering back to life this summer.
“As far as being absorbed back into the economy, there’s certainly a disadvantage for immigrants and underrepresented minorities,” Francis said. “There definitely will be ripple effects.”
Cleaning and maintenance jobs — over half of which are done by Black and Latino workers nationwide — could be part of that wave.
As offices and other buildings reopen, cleaning will be more crucial than ever, said Roxana Rivera, the head of 32BJ SEIU District 615, which represents Bastidas and 14,500 other janitors around New England, about 80 percent of whom are immigrants. But if companies go all-remote, or get more comfortable with many of their employees working from home, there may be fewer cleaning jobs overall.
“I don’t think the industry is going to come back the way that it was, with the same amount of workers,” Rivera said.
Of the roughly 3,600 union cleaners who lost their $15- to $20-an-hour jobs in the spring, more than 2,500 are still unemployed.
Not far from Paulina Bastidas’s deserted workplace on State Street, the mammoth Hynes Convention Center also sits empty. Julio Delgado has been setting up conferences there for 20 years, but his $25-an-hour job disappeared along with 100-plus events the center typically holds every year, and he worries about what it will take for his job to come back. “I know it depends on people coming together, which right now is very difficult,” said Delgado, 46, who is from the Dominican Republic and spoke in Spanish through an interpreter. “In January, if my job doesn’t come back, I’m going to have to look for a different kind of work.”
Delgado has six sons under the age of 18 at home, along with his mother and his wife, who also is unemployed. At the moment, driving for Uber is his only fallback plan — and with many people uncomfortable riding in strangers’ cars, there are fewer opportunities than there used to be.
Delgado is one of 184 employees laid off by the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority after the calendar “evaporated” when the pandemic hit, said spokesman Nate Little, and it could be several years before conventions fully ramp up again. “As long as there’s no work, there’s nothing we can really do” for the workers, he said. “We’re broke.”
Restaurants that cater to lunchtime crowds also have been decimated by the lack of office workers. Boloco has temporarily closed five of its sevenburrito restaurants in Massachusetts and laid off 70 of 100 employees. B.Good, the burger-and-bowl chain, has shut down restaurants that rely on foot traffic in Downtown Crossing, the Seaport, and Back Bay. “I really hope that people come back into the city to work,” said chief executive Chris Fuqua. “Having people in the urban centers, it’s kind of the lifeblood of society.”
At Logan Airport, where Retz Domingue is one of an estimated 1,000 laid-off contractors, passenger numbers are still down 82percent. Domingue, a wheelchair attendant and baggage handler, has been driving for Lyft a few days a week, but it’s a risk, especially because his girlfriend is pregnant. His family back home in Haiti also relies on him for money. “All the hope is on me,” he said.
Bastidas came to the United States from Peru 20 years ago to find a job that would help pay for her children’s education back home. She moved in with her brother and his wife in Jamaica Plain, and found part-time cleaning jobs at the Hilton, the Ritz-Carlton, and Fenway Park before landing a full-time job at 60 State Street. Bastidas became a citizen in 2010, and all five of her children and nine grandchildren now also live in the United States.
Three years ago, Bastidas had enough saved up for a down payment on a four-bedroom condo she shares with her daughter’s family in Revere, where her grandson’s toys line a bedroom windowsill in the front and the last of summer’s pink roses are still blooming beside the trash bin.
“My dreams were realized,” Bastidas said.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Bastidas was glad to be home, where it was safe. But now she’s worried. She lost her health insurance, which paid for her thyroid medication, at the end of August — she’s trying to get on MassHealth — and her savings are gone. Her son-in-law, who worked at a Boston hotel, also has been laid off for six months, and they are working through the last of their unemployment funds. So far, they’ve kept up on the mortgage, which they split, but Bastidas said the time has come to reach out to lender MassHousing for assistance.
The family has been cutting costs, including eating less meat, and looking for jobs, but there isn’t much to be found. Beyond cleaning and child care, Bastidas’s options are limited. “The problem is that a lot of these jobs require English and I’m not bilingual,” she said.
As the pandemic stretches on, the family’s foothold on the first rung of the economic ladder is becoming increasingly perilous.
Since she lost her job, Bastidas has been spending her Tuesdays volunteering at the East Boston Community Soup Kitchen. From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., she cleans, sorts donations, and hands out bags of food to the 200 or so people who line up outside Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church. She also sometimes takes food home for her family. After a recent shift, Bastidas pulled a Ziploc bag full of face masks out and swapped out a blue disposable mask for the green one she’d been wearing, then applied hand sanitizer to her arms like lotion and ran some through her short, thick hair.
Bastidas also has been doing phone bank work — first to reelect Senator Ed Markey, now for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Three mornings a week, she takes English classes online.
Bastidas felt like part of the family at WilmerHale, she said, occasionally chatting in the hallways and kitchens with lawyers who wanted to practice their Spanish. One even helped her negotiate a payment when the apartment building where she lived in East Boston was sold and she had to move out.
When she went back to Peru last December after her father died, several of the secretaries checked in on her over Facebook and let her know the lawyers were asking about her, too.
Bastidas doesn’t blame the WilmerHale employees for hunkering down at home, even if it means she can’t work. But she desperately needs her job back. She knows going back to work will mean interacting with more people, which is worrisome, but, she said, “It doesn’t compare to the impotence that you feel when you can’t work at all.”
“So many years of service,” she said, “and it might amount to nothing.”