‘Surviving Is The Name Of The Game.’ State College Businesses, Workers Try To Stay Afloat

Mar 27, 2020

On the Friday morning after Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf ordered all businesses that are not considered “life-sustaining” to close their physical locations, Todd Colocino received the news that he was laid off. 

The certified welding inspector for a civil engineering firm in State College has been laid off before during the Great Recession. But this time he feels less certain.

“I feel like we don't know what's going to happen next. And, you know, nobody really does,” Colocino said. “The owners of my company just said, ‘We'll be in touch.’ That's just the situation that they're in. They don't have any income coming in either with the shutdown. So, work basically comes to a halt.”

He said the lay-off was no surprise. “It's not a shock,” he said.

But, almost in the same breath, Colocino’s wife, Michelle, who teaches at Penn State, said, “It is for me.”

She said her husband’s situation is a brutal reminder that nobody’s job is safe in this crisis.

“It's like, I'm shocked that I'm shocked,” she said. “Because I've been thinking about it. And I've been reading all the news. I feel like I'm just emotionally responding to the fact now it's really here, happening to us.”

She said with more than half of their household income gone, they are going to pour over their finances and hope they can still make mortgage and loan payments.

Since the governor ordered a statewide shutdown, more than 650,000 jobless claims have been filed in the state. A record 3.3 million unemployment claims were reported in the U.S. last week, shattering records dating back to the early 1980s.

Hospitality is one of the hardest hit industries, as restrictions on bars and restaurants were the first to roll out.

Hotel State College, the company that owns two restaurants, four bars and a small hotel downtown, laid off its entire staff of 223 as they closed all of their doors. 

A "now hiring" banner from before the coronavirus hit still hangs outside The Corner Room in downtown State College.
Credit Min Xian / WPSU

Curtis Shulman, director of operations, said they had no choice.

“There's zero revenue coming through the door,” Shulman said. “So with no money coming in, it's hard to support much of anything. So the impact can't be stressed enough. The impact it had on our employees is equally devastating.”

Even though restaurants are allowed to do take-out orders, Shulman said Hotel State College isn’t set up to do that efficiently. And there’s also concern that continuing to run the kitchen would mean not enough social distancing for its workers. 

The hope is, he said, with some government assistance, they could open the doors again someday.

“Surviving is the name of the game right now. It's how can we make sure that we have a business for people to come back to. And that's a huge objective. You know, on the outside, it might sound greedy, but it's not,” he said.

Conner Patterson picked up his last check Monday for working as a busser at the Corner Room. He’s since found a new job stocking shelves at a Giant grocery store. He hopes a test he has to take for a carpentry apprenticeship this summer will still happen next week.

“Overthinking and ruminating in stress really doesn't do me any good,” Patterson said. “I'm an anxious dude as it is. And just worrying about things that I can't fix in the current moment is only going to deter my progress and deter my work that I can put in at the current moment.”

A sign outside of Café Lemont.
Credit Emily Reddy / WPSU

Amid hardship for employers and employees across the board, some workers wonder if they could be treated better in this crisis. 

“It does not feel like they had to do this. It feels like they were choosing to do this, because they saw that they would be able to save some money once things start up again,” said a hotel worker who asked to stay nameless.

This worker was fired from a State College hotel -- along with the majority of the staff. He worked there for five years. We’re not using his name because he worries criticizing his employer will keep him from getting another job.

He said he was told if he reapplies for his position at the hotel, he will be considered a new hire and will have to take a pay cut of $3 per hour.

He does understand the hotel is having a hard time, he said. “From the 10th until I got fired, I saw about $350,000 just in room revenue disappear.”

He’s already filed his unemployment claim as he looks for new jobs, likely outside of hospitality. He is tightening his grocery budget and hopes he’ll find a new job before next month’s bills come around. He’s also joined a local group that’s helping the community. 

“With this COVID-19, there's a lot of volatility, and in volatility, there is opportunity. And I just think that we have a real good chance to build a better world while everything is in chaos.”

Like better protection for workers, he said. 

Congress passed a historic $2 trillion coronavirus relief package Friday afternoon. President Trump is expected to sign the legislature. Key provisions include financial assistance to businesses and workers.