COVID-19 outbreaks have forced many businesses to adapt to different means of providing goods and services, including those in downtown Madison. Student employees said the pandemic has caused them a great deal of financial stress, forcing some to work multiple jobs.

According to the Brookings Institution, small business revenue in the U.S is down by 20% since January, coinciding with the CDC’s first piece of advice with regards to avoiding a COVID-19 infection — stay home. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the unemployment rate in Madison reached nearly 10% in May 2020, and as of September, decreased to 3.8%.

The pandemic kept Madisonians sheltered in place, and increased unemployment reduced the level of disposable income they had available to spend at the small businesses of downtown Madison. 

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As small businesses juggled financial losses, students employed by such businesses felt the ripple effect. 

One student, who chose to remain anonymous, is currently employed by Chaser’s Bar and Grille, located in downtown Madison. They said Chaser’s closed from the end of March until the end of May nearly two months. During that time period, Chaser’s student employees could collect unemployment checks — but only if Chaser’s was their only source of income. 

As of Nov. 6, Gov. Tony Evers issued a statewide mandate ordering any indoor gatherings including bars and restaurants — to only seat 25% capacity, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. While limited occupancy may decrease the number of patrons that employees come into contact with, this measure doesn’t eliminate the risk of contracting COVID-19 in the workplace.

At Chaser’s, the service structure currently requires all employees on the floor act as both bartenders and servers, according to the source. With this new structure, employees now approach tables to take orders where customers are not required to sit with their masks on, which provides a lack of protection for the server, the employee said. 

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“We are exposed to every table we go to,” they said. “If you multiply that by two to three shifts that means we are exposed to about 100 tables a week.” 

It’s hard to see any payoff with such risk, the employee said. Plus, the employee said many customers now tip on their whole tab as opposed to an individual drink, and since fewer customers come in on a daily basis, employees earn far less from tips. 

In Wisconsin, the minimum wage for tipped employees is $2.33 per hour, compared to the standard $7.25 per hour, according to the U.S Department of Labor. With the limited occupancy, employees see less customers each night, exacerbating the effect of smaller tips per customer. 

Student employees in other industries felt the financial constraints of the pandemic as well. One UW student, who chose to remain anonymous, works at Rethreads, a local thrift store, and also spoke with the Badger Herald about their experience working in the midst of the pandemic. 

Downtown Coordinating Committee discusses Madison business recovery, expansion of StreetariesDowntown Coordinating Committee members convened in a virtual meeting on Thursday to discuss the survival and recovery of downtown Madison Read…

 The employee said they experienced a major reduction in hours due to a steep decline in sales, but have been too preoccupied academically to apply for an additional job. 

“It’s so stressful not to earn as much,” they said. “I have enough trouble paying tuition and rent, but with reduced hours it’s even worse.”

While the majority of classes are online, UW has not reduced tuition, according to the university’s Office of the Bursar. With tuition rates flatlining, service workers who are unable to work remotely have little choice but to risk exposure to the virus to make ends meet. 

Many employees at Chaser’s Bar and Grille took on additional jobs since the start of the pandemic some working as much as 30 hours per week while being enrolled as a full-time student, the employee said. 

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“I know for the seniors, their course loads are courses that matter more, so a lot of them have been struggling to balance it all, but it’s difficult for everyone,” they said. “Money’s just tough.”

Cases continue to spike in Wisconsin. The Badger Herald reported that via a Natioanl Restaurant Association survey, one-third of Wisconsin restaurants believe they will be out of business in the next six months if the pandemic continues. Should a mass closure occur, students depending on Madison’s small businesses may lose their income altogether.