Young and hungry - The Orca
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Young and hungry

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Jody Vance: Many young service industry workers already work paycheque to paycheque and tip to tip. Rather than blame them, the province should extend a hand.

Monday’s Circuit Breaker press conference sparked a rather visceral memory. Here’s the story:

It was 1980-something. Having flown the family coop shortly after graduation, it was time to spread my wings – my first foray into adulting.

Free to live and learn, and I had a blast doing both. Freedom to make my own choices, and forced to count pennies (which existed back then) while gaining a fresh circle of friends who would become like family.

Ah , youth.

Our crew’s biggest stress-inducer was navigating our way into the neighbourhood hot spot each night (no earlier than 11pm) to dance, play pool, and drink a bit too much. You know the drill. We partied hardy and somehow still managed to get up for more-often-than-not two minimum wage jobs on basically zero sleep.

For the majority of my 20s and 30s, mine was a six- or seven-day work week.

Being super fancy, I made the leap early to live solo. Decadent, I know! Living large in a teeny-tiny 400 square foot ground-floor-alley facing Kitsilano studio apartment furnished with my teen bedroom furniture.

God, I loved my shabby garage sale chic space.

Just barely able to afford rent, I immediately learned a massive lesson: bills are extra! Those two minimum wage, tip-driven, jobs saw me living on the most precarious of financial fine lines.

The days were long: early morning prep-cook at Earl’s with lunch service, and nights waitressing at Kits Pub. It was hard work, but worth it: I had my freedom, and could count on my staff meal when the ends still didn’t meet.

I somehow avoided credit card debt. If going without food here and there would keep me out of the red, no big deal. I was only going to bed hungry a maybe once or twice a week, but Tuesdays were tough. Tuesdays were my one day off.

I didn’t really have savings. That meant getting to work big money nights at the pub: St Paddy’s, Halloween, New Year’s, or a long weekend bonanza.

At one point I badly sprained my ankle, and had to miss two weeks of work. BOOM. The stress grew, as did the hole in my bank account. Minimum wage without tips doesn’t pay the bills and doesn’t come with paid sick days.

Suddenly my rent was all I could afford. Bills would have to wait, and my meals would suffer. My diet consisted of one head of lettuce and a bottle of salad dressing per week at home, and free staff meals – which meant one meal per day, with one day missing.

One Wednesday my co-worker Jamie noticed me ravenously devouring a gross staff meal and asked to meet for lunch on Tuesdays.

He knew I didn’t work that day, and also that I’d be too proud to ask for help. The next four Tuesdays, I would reach for the bill, and he would say “this is on me, no strings. Just promise to pay it forward to someone in future, whenever you can.”

Jamie, I’m looking at you buddy. Over the decades since, I’ve thought a lot about his kindness, and paying it forward. So I’m using my platform here to call for government supports in these next three weeks of circuit breaker, specifically for those who might suffer serious food insecurity due to bar and restaurant closures.

Because my story isn’t unique, or even dated. Thousands and thousands of young people already lived on that same fine line. Three weeks of closures will make it much worse.

I can only imagine the level of anxiety for 20-somethings living through COVID, having rug after rug pulled out from out from under them, with no net. Not allowed to go work, not allowed to travel to find a better situation, not allowed pull up a chair at someone else’s dinner table — no Jamie.

Our government needs to think like Jamie. Urgently.

As someone who’s consistently (if you read this space regularly) tried to follow public health orders with an #inthistogether attitude, Monday’s message of blame feels like a slap to hardworking and tightly-bubbled youth. Help them.

No one will dispute that some young people are breaking the rules — as are plenty of older adults. We all know some GenX and Boomers living la vida loca and loopholing like the pandemic can’t touch them. (Or the people they care about.)

So, rather than finger-wagging young adults, how about a plan to educate and offer support for what promises to be a lean stretch after a year of lean stretches.

And that’s why this Middle asks that the Premier offer a safety net for those looking for their next meal.

Jody Vance is a born and raised Vancouverite who’s spent 30 years in both local and national media. The first woman in the history of Canadian TV to host her own sports show in primetime, since 2011 she’s been working in both TV and radio covering news and current affairs.

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