Newsletter: People are adapting their skills to find work in the COVID-19 era. Here’s how

Chef Cal Peternell and his sons Milo Henderson, Liam Peternell and Henderson Peternell
Chef Cal Peternell and his sons Milo Henderson, from left, Liam Peternell and Henderson Peternell in the kitchen of their Berkeley home in 2018.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning. I’m Rachel Schnalzer, the L.A. Times Business section’s audience engagement editor, with our weekly newsletter about how you and your bank account can weather the COVID-19 pandemic and prepare for whatever the economy might look like on the other side.

The pandemic-induced layoffs that began in the spring are still sweeping through California, leaving people scrambling for new jobs and side hustles. And a pair of announcements made Monday will only intensify workers’ need for flexibility: Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered a slew of restrictions that force many California businesses to shut again, and the L.A. Unified School District decided not to reopen campuses when the academic year begins next month, meaning parents who still have jobs must keep juggling work and childcare.

If you’re struggling with lost work or other financial stressors, it’s worth considering how you can adapt your professional skill set to earn some extra money. My colleague Ronald D. White, along with other Times journalists, spoke with several Californians about the ways they’re hustling to get by during the pandemic. Here are a few strategies you can try, inspired by their stories:

◆ Adapt a skill you already have: Chef Cal Peternell’s restaurant opened in September 2019 and was still struggling to make a profit when the coronavirus hit California and destroyed his business. So he pivoted to a new business model: He goes to people’s homes to cook intimate dinners, charging $65 for a three-course meal for two. Will Peternell continue his personal chef work? “It may require some capital investment if I’m really going to try this,” he says.

◆ Take your abilities online: Before the pandemic, magician Dean Apple performed mostly at corporate events and private parties. Now, Apple is serving a different audience: kids. He’s been hired by day camps to teach magic and perform shows online, and earned $2,400 for a month’s worth of videos for a school district in Alaska. “You learn to adapt the magic to whatever the current situation is,” he says. “I kind of like the virtual stuff.”


◆ Make a change: Advertising executive Jimmy Smith has won a pile of awards and accolades, but he has never been able to escape the racism he views as endemic to the ad business. So when the pandemic began hurting his agency’s revenue, he decided to move ahead with his diversification plan, which involves making products “rather than always waiting on a client to call.” One concept he’s looking to patent: a pair of augmented/virtual reality glasses.

◆ Use extra time to volunteer: With galas on pause, marketing and events organizer Christina Jimenez has found a meaningful way to fill her spare time: growing food for the less fortunate. Jimenez and three friends started a nonprofit that will use 5,500 square feet of donated land, soil, compost, plants and trees to create a community garden in Arleta and provide free vegetables to nearby residents. “It’s nice to be able to help feed people,” she says.

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◆ Los Angeles’ $103-million rent relief program is accepting applications through Friday, City News Service reports. The program aims to help people who are struggling financially as a result of the pandemic. If you’re interested in applying, visit the program’s website.

Some good news from reporter Deborah Netburn: The pandemic may be helping create better bosses — those who talk less and listen more. Netburn explains how many managers have changed their style in response to the coronavirus.

ICYMI: The IRS is in backlog hell, writes certified financial planner Liz Weston. Why? Shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, years of congressional budget cuts and the sheer effort needed to distribute the stimulus checks, Weston explains.

Black and Latino borrowers may suffer most as Trump tosses out a payday-loan rule, according to columnist David Lazarus. Lazarus outlines why he considers payday loans a form of “economic servitude” that can harm people of color disproportionately.

Are you a business owner or aspiring business owner in Ventura County? The Economic Development Collaborative has launched Business Forward Ventura County, intended to serve as a resource for entrepreneurs and existing businesses.

Reader question

A reader asked us: Can California workers who were laid off as a result of a COVID-19-related slowdown refuse a return-to-work offer and continue to receive federal and state unemployment payments?

It depends.

I reached out to California’s Employment Development Department for more information. According to the EDD, “an individual is disqualified for UI [benefits] if they refuse to accept ‘suitable’ employment when offered.”

Tia Koonse, legal and policy research manager at the UCLA Labor Center, backed this up, saying: “People are sort of screwed if they’re scared to go back to work but their employer is able to offer ‘suitable employment.’”

The EDD determines whether a particular job is “suitable” on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration the risk inherent in the work as well as the individual worker’s health. If an employer has followed California’s reopening requirements and all government regulations, the individual could be disqualified from receiving UI benefits for a while if they refuse to return to work.

However, if a worker is over 65, immunocompromised or has another serious health condition, their refusal to work could be considered good cause, and would therefore be able to collect unemployment benefits. Here’s a list of higher risk factors listed by the California Department of Public Health.

In addition, if a worker has “school-aged kids or elders whose daycare programs have closed due to the pandemic, they can remain on UI or PUA,” Koonse explains. “There are other options to stay home, too ... disability, paid family leave, paid sick leave. It’s really a case by case basis.”


If you refuse work, you must report this on your biweekly certification form. The EDD will consider your claim and might reach out to you and/or your employer for more information.

Interested in learning more about unemployment? David Lightman at the Sacramento Bee tackled a bunch of other commonly asked questions this week.

As always, if you have questions about work, business or finances in the COVID-19 era, email and we may use it in a future newsletter.

One more thing

Many college students gearing up for the fall semester are making housing decisions without knowing whether their classes will be in person, virtual or some mix of the two. But if you (or a college student you know) need to get out of an apartment or dorm arrangement, you may have options. Lila Seidman breaks down what to do.