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As downtown Tucson's restaurants crumble, a talented wine buff's life is upended

Oscar Saenz struggles to get unemployment and shift careers as a pandemic forces him to abandon his passion.

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  • 7 min to read
Oscar Saenz

Oscar Saenz, a sommelier who lost his job due to the pandemic, looks for work on Craigslist and other sites on September 18, 2020

Until the pandemic, Oscar Elijo Saenz, 26, was a certified sommelier and server at a downtown Tucson restaurant and an account manager for an alcoholic beverage distributor. #ThisIsTucson's Andi Berlin has been checking in regularly with Saenz since August. He tells his story below in his own words.

Americans have endured economic crises before but none quite like this. To capture the depths of the suffering, The New York Times teamed up with local news organizations across the country, including the Arizona Daily Star and #ThisIsTucson, to document the lives of a dozen Americans who found themselves out of work.

Find the entire project with The New York Times here.

Aug. 12: Opening a window on the world

We grew up on a reservation just outside of Tucson, The Pascua Yaqui. My grandmother owned a walk-up hamburger stand. I worked there for a number of summers and then a position opened up at the Four Star, Four Diamond property that the tribe owned, Casino del Sol. At PY Steakhouse I just started off as a busser and I worked my way into a serving position, and then a sommelier. I do that and also work for an alcoholic beverage distributor. For the first time, this little Native American boy is working with these exotic ingredients and beverages and these things that I could barely pronounce that were from these far-off distant lands. It was this window on the world, this way for me to travel. 

At the highest level, the master sommelier certification, you’re part of a very small group of people. At one point, Forbes said it was the hardest test in the world, and I think that really got me super excited about it. I think I was one of about 150 that were chosen to show up for this advanced sommelier course in Dallas. There were like a thousand applicants across North and South America. It was a really coveted position, so when I got it, it was really like a big boost to the ego.

I grew up around beer drinking people, not wine drinking people, so it was this totally foreign thing. It was about learning all the intricacies of, “This is this grape and it’s grown in this exotic place and it’s made in this exotic fashion.” The romanticism of it all, it’s quite amazing, in my opinion. The idea of being able to pick up a bottle and being able to taste the terroir, and the essence and the spirit of a place totally across the world. 

2019 was one of the best years of my life professionally. I had a savings set aside that I was going to use to buy a house. I had good credit, I had all the things that you’re supposed to do. I was able to take my daughter on trips, to do some traveling for research about the broader world of beverage and fine dining.

I was working as a server for Elvira’s and as an account manager for Action Wine and Spirits. Elvira’s was a beautiful restaurant to look at - glass teardrops hanging from all over the ceiling, Venetian-style mirrors, antique wood carvings of Jesus Christ. It very much felt like a place where people went out when they wanted to be seen. There was a lot of development, a lot of people really excited about pushing the culinary scene of downtown Tucson to its highest potential. Then we start to hear the first looming whispers of COVID-19. And of course, very quickly Arizona became the epitome of all the things that you should not do in a big outbreak. 

The first quarantine hit and I got laid off from both positions. I immediately went and filed for unemployment. For us in the industry, there was a sense of imposed guilt because a lot of people assumed that we just wanted to mooch off unemployment. But that certainly was not it. It was that we were on the front lines, and we were the ones that were going to be affected. Our families were going to be affected.

I got called back to work at Action, but Elvira’s stayed closed. So I was working half the amount of hours, at half the amount of income, and I was draining my savings to pay the bills. A lot of the accounts that I was working with at the time were really struggling. And a lot of them were reaching out to me for help because they were sitting on all this alcohol that was rotting away in their storage. And I literally had almost no answers. The thought of being able to sell a case of wine to an account in the downtown area was as fantastical a belief as a unicorn.

Once the Paycheck Protection Program loans started to end, pretty much the day after, the second quarantine went into play and bars were shut down across the state. That’s when I had long and difficult conversations with the ownership at Action. I told them, “Hey I really love your company. I’m really sad that I can’t work for you guys anymore, but financially I just can’t do it.” 

That reopened the wound all over again. I applied for unemployment. And there was no response. The first week we got through was fine, the second week I was getting antsy, but I guess it’s okay. The third week, fourth week, fifth week, sixth week … no response.

If you were to call the DES office, you got a canned response from this recording saying that they weren’t accepting any calls. 

Literally the first thing I do waking up is I go onto the Department of Economic Security website and I check the status of my pending application for unemployment benefits. It’s almost the worst way to start your day, because I know it’s going to say no. Then, applying for jobs. And I’ve applied for just about every job that I can possibly apply for. There’s a job that I’m considering at a funeral parlor. I don’t know if I’m equipped to deal with that sort of thing, but I’m desperate.

I’m going on week seven now, and all the savings that I had set aside to buy this house are almost all gone. We’re talking about going from $10,000 to less than $3,000. I feel like I’m on the cusp of losing everything. It’s just pure frustration. I’ve gone past the point of desperation, past the point of anger. And I just feel hopeless. I feel lost.

Oscar Saenz Elvira's restaurant in August, 2020, after he was laid off from his job due to the pandemic.

September 11: Forced to rethink a future in wine

Back in July, I shot an email to U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema. I read some stories online of people reaching out to senators and it working, and then about a month later, I got a call from someone in Washington D.C. Within two days I started getting unemployment checks. I was down to my last couple hundred dollars, so I’m very grateful.  

I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I want to do with my future. I decided that I’m actually not going to pursue the sommelier thing. I’m gonna go back into what I was originally going to do, which is software engineering. With this pandemic, I was faced with some harsh realities: When I start to achieve my higher level sommelier certifications, there’s not really going to be any jobs available for me.

A lot of people have told me I’m being a little bit too harsh on the industry. But I don’t have hopes that it’s going to come back. Seeing how many restaurants are drowning, and how many in Tucson are on the brink of totally collapsing, it’s sad because I really love wine. But this whole pandemic has been very taxing on my mental health. I’ve needed to take some serious looks at where I want to be in 10 years, and if I can come out the other side successfully. I’m not entirely sure that I can.  

Oscar Saenz leans to get a good look at the problem as he helps his daughter Sophia Estrella with her schoolwork on October 14, 2020. Saenz, a level two sommelier, was laid off from his job at Elvira's restaurant and his job with beer and wine distributor Action during the first wave of COVID19.

Sept. 24: 'Basically I’m trying to figure out my life'

My girlfriend came in contact with someone who had coronavirus. I had a weird tickle in my throat and I was having breathing problems. We wanted to go and get checked. There was a waiting period of a few days or so, but we were all cleared. I think the real scare was ensuring that my daughter didn’t come over, and wasn’t exposed to it. We were both really relieved, not necessarily that we didn’t have COVID, but that I didn’t have to stay a month longer on unemployment. 

In September my weekly unemployment payments dropped to $240. It’s basically living on a thousand dollars a month. I’ve done it in the past but, man, it’s pretty brutal. It’s cutting costs wherever you can. Buying in bulk, cheap meals, things like that. I basically just don’t do anything. It’s just bare bones, food and rent. I’m confident that I’ll be able to have a legitimate source of income pretty soon. I actually ended up getting some interviews lined up. The University of Arizona is opening some sort of a five-star concept and they’re looking for a “som.” 

I’ve realized, I don’t know what my schedule is going to be like when I start working. If my daughter is going to be in online school, then that would put me to work at night. Who’s gonna watch her when I’m at work? I might have to send her to school. She’s asthmatic, and she has had lung problems for awhile. I try not to think about it a lot because it really scares me and stresses me out. That’s probably the hardest aspect of this whole thing — basically I’m trying to figure out my life, and on top of that trying to figure out my daughter’s life. 

October 12: From five-year-plan to no plan at all

We’re going to lose a great American tradition of service and cuisine. America for a long time has been the place where service for the most part can be perfected. We have awesome restaurants, great chefs, awesome sommeliers. We have access to great wine, beer and spirits from all around the world. It’s really not one of those things that we’ll truly understand until it’s gone.  

I had a really strong five year plan a year ago, and now I don’t have one at all because I have no idea what’s going to happen. I’m taking an online course on using animation and 3D modeling. My hopes are that I can find something out of the restaurant industry, to see what other things pique my interest. I’ll be able to get through the week, or two weeks or so. Something will pop up soon. I can usually reach out to somebody and get some kind of temp, two-day job covering someone’s shift of something like that. 

I used to think very long term, but I’m really just looking at things in terms of what is directly in front of my feet. There’s no illumination on the world around me right now, and I’m just trying to get by and keep my head down. There was a time when I had big dreams, where I wanted to go places and do things. I don’t really care about that anymore. I just want to survive.

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