The Coronavirus Economy: How my job in catering has changed

March 17, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

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Ian Stack recently found that his formidable interpersonal skills are obsolete in a COVID-19 economy.

The 27-year-old New Yorker, who lives in Astoria with his boyfriend and their new puppy, is an aspiring actor who was working at an event and production design company while also serving as a caterer from time to time. But nearly all that work has screeched to a halt, as events across New York City are canceled and theaters shut down, all necessary actions by private businesses to help reduce the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Ian Stack is an aspiring actor who works at an event and production design company as a caterer.
Courtesy of Ian Stack

In the U.S., caterers generate $11.7 billion in revenue annually, while party and event planners pull in $5.4 billion, according to estimates by research firm IBISWorld. Their entire business model is built around hosting events for large groups of people. But with city and governments now strongly encouraging—or even mandating—social distancing measures, caterers and party planners are taking a huge financial hit in an economy that some financial experts are already projecting will slide into a recession this year.

Fortune spoke with Stack for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, to ask about how COVID-19 has affected his employment status, his plans for the future, and to get a sense of how he was handling this news, both emotionally and financially. The following Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited.

Fortune: Can you tell me what you do in the city for work?

Stack: I moved to the city to pursue acting and started out doing restaurant work. But a few friends recommended catering, so I stopped working at a restaurant and applied to seven catering companies at once. They all hired me, and from that work I would cobble together a full work load.

In this past year, I joined a production design company doing the planning, the production, and the design. My work for them would range from three days to five days.

When did the news events surrounding COVID-19 start to impact your work?

I would say about two to three weeks ago. March and April are when everyone starts having spring galas, bar mitzvahs, spring cocktail parties—you name it. And I was like, “These aren’t coming in.” Events were being canceled. And at my production design company, brands we were coordinating with were asking about news of coronavirus. And within days, the biggest project that we were working on this year was canceled.

It sounds like it went from a lot of uncertainty to pretty fast people pulling the plug.

I have another friend who works in production design, and we had some friends over last Friday for RuPaul’s Drag Race. He said that they lost $800,000 of events within one hour. From Friday to Tuesday morning, we had seven events canceled.

I thought that it was a big hit but that my role might switch from planning to debriefing. And we talked a lot about our company transitioning to see what we can do about events like mailers to editors and influencers. Those were extra projects we did simultaneously with events.

But by Thursday, we were told the company was working from home for the foreseeable future. We had individual meetings, and the first thing my boss said was, “This is going to suck.” I loved working for that company, but the reason I was brought on was gone, and that income flow wasn’t there. So they couldn’t afford to keep me on.

What adjustments have you made so you can generate income? What does that look like?

When I started noticing that no one in catering was getting work, I was thinking, “Okay, I have my production design company, and let’s say they keep me for three days a week, for eight hours a day. That’s something but not enough.” So I started thinking about something that would be easy to jump in, and that’s bar and restaurant work.

A friend told me he was opening a new bar, and I reached out the second our major event was canceled. I went in to see him later that day, and he offered me a job on the spot. The bar was having training on Thursday and Friday this past week, and I couldn’t make it because of my event planning job. But I got let go on 11 a.m. on Thursday and texted my friend, “Just kidding. I can come into training.” I went to the training and then [on Saturday], he sent out a message they were postponing the opening for two weeks.

My other options have been stockroom jobs at fashion stores or temp agencies that are looking for people. I’ll be updating my résumé later this day and looking into those.

How are you handling this personally?

Each day of last week it felt like I was getting punched and then immediately getting up and trying to walk forward. But starting this Friday evening, I felt those punches and felt physically exhausted. I feel a different level of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion that I haven’t ever experienced. I’m trying to be positive, but it doesn’t alleviate all the problems that have come up.

What actions can be taken by employers and the government to help people like yourself and provide a floor of support?

It is difficult because in terms of health care, there have been measures taken by some companies that allow you to accrue sick hours. But those hours can’t apply if there is no work to call in sick to. And there’s no way to have an aggregate amount of work with a variety of companies to get health care. You need to work with one company to qualify for that health plan. It is almost necessary for cater waiters and the service industry to have a union where you can work for multiple companies, and at the same time, that union would provide the health care. It feels like a random idea, but beyond this crisis, there are no rules to a lot of gig-economy jobs.

Thankfully, I have a support system—my parents have offered to help should I really need it. I have support structures, including from David [Stack’s boyfriend], who is thankfully able to teach from home. But there are people who are in my catering shoes who are completely out in the cold. They only have unemployment, and it is tough to get the maximum when you have flexible income from so many different places.

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

How to get a refund on your Broadway tickets after coronavirus shut down
—The oil sector takes its next hit: Coronavirus on offshore rigs
—Some of the most extreme ways companies are combating coronavirus
—How luxury designers in Italy’s fashion heartland are facing coronavirus
—Amazon tells employees to work from home if they can. Warehouse workers can’t
—Why Dollar General thinks coronavirus can help business
—Coronavirus may not be all bad for tech. Consider the “stay at home” stocks

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