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What The Coronavirus Crisis Means For Those Already Struggling

A person looks at of their window on March 24, 2020 in New York City. U.S. lawmakers closed in on a deal Tuesday to help save the teetering economy by injecting nearly $2 trillion into pockets of struggling Americans, devastated businesses and hospitals struggling to contain the coronavirus pandemic. (ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)
A person looks at of their window on March 24, 2020 in New York City. U.S. lawmakers closed in on a deal Tuesday to help save the teetering economy by injecting nearly $2 trillion into pockets of struggling Americans, devastated businesses and hospitals struggling to contain the coronavirus pandemic. (ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

There was plenty of economic hardship before coronavirus hit. We’ll discuss what the crisis means for people who were already struggling.


Alissa Quart, executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Author of the 2018 book, “Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America.” (@lisquart)

What The Coronavirus Crisis Means For Those Already Struggling

The coronavirus crisis will have economic effects for almost all Americans. But for those who were already struggling, or who work in vulnerable or unstable industries — like gig economy workers, service industry workers and retail workers — the pandemic may well be financially devastating. 

Some of these workers are on the front lines of the coronavirus response. Take Instacart “shoppers,” gig workers for an app that lets those with the means order groceries for home delivery through a surrogate in-person shopper. This morning, workers with the companyannounced that they would be organizing a full walk-offif they were not provided with hazard pay and appropriate gear to protect them from infection. 

Vanessa Bain, an Instacart worker and leader of the Gig Workers Collective, a non-profit organization advocating for fair pay and better treatment for independent contract workers, toldOn Point’s Jane Clayson that she and other “shoppers” have effectively been functioning as first responders in a crisis where people are afraid to go to the store. 

“We’re keeping families fed. It’s not people at Instacart’s corporate headquarters that are out there personally risking their health and safety; it’s shoppers,” she said. “And Instacart has really failed to protect us in this situation, and so we’ve had to take matters into our own hands.” 

Other vulnerable workers include those in the service industry. Roushaunda Williams worked in a Chicago Hilton Hotel as a bartender for nearly two decades. Now, with drastically reduced demand for hotel services, she’s officially on “layoff status” and her job is in limbo. 

Still, others are being forced to work when they don’t have to. Marvin, a caller from Detroit, Michigan, said he’s a “luxury service worker” and, despite being obviously nonessential, is still being asked by the owner of his company to travel to dozens of clients’ houses each day. He’s afraid that if he refuses, he’ll be replaced. 

Alissa Quart, director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, spoke withOn Point’s Jane Clayson — along with Vanessa Bain, Roushanda Williams, and a handful of other workers — about how the coronavirus crisis is affecting America’s most economically vulnerable. 

Interview Highlights

On the structural problems in the American economy that coronavirus exposes

Alissa Quart:“I think we’ve had a structural failure, and this is part of how Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have gotten so far in the primary campaigns to begin with. People realize there’s something very wrong in this country: that they can’t afford health care; that they are drowning in debt from their student days and from any kind of medical bills they might have; that they can’t afford to own homes when they’re millennials. So this has been happening. And the cheery job numbers — I feel like an angry Cassandra at this point because I was constantly saying, hey, these are for retail work or these are contingent work, these are not great secure jobs. If anything was to happen, we’re one crisis away from people losing their jobs — at that point, I thought on a minor scale, but now a mass scale. So this is just shining a light on that on the fragility of this economy and the lack of social support we have.”

On the plight of gig economy workers during a pandemic

Vanessa Bain: “Every time we enter a grocery store, we’re exposing ourselves to an inherent set of risks that’s significantly higher than most other places that we could be. The stock at stores is just depleted into almost nonexistent ability to fulfill orders as they’re ordered. And as I’m sure I don’t have to tell listeners, you know, there’s not toilet paper in stores. There’s not a lot of canned goods in stores. There’s no sanitizers, no disinfectants, and these are the things that people are most commonly ordering. The entire system has really been thrown out of whack, and the folks that are continuing to do this work are doing it under profound stress and anxiety as well as risks to their physical well-being.”

On how the federal relief package would help working class people

Vanessa Bain: “I would say overall it’s woefully inadequate. I mean, a one-time $1200 payment is not going to keep people who out of work for several months, potentially, afloat. I guess it’s better than absolutely nothing, but one of the problems is that we’re misclassified workers and we should have access to things like state social safety nets, paid family leave, sick time, etc. And I think that crisis is doing a phenomenal job of highlighting the urgency with which we need these things. And, you know, workers have been screaming into a void about this for years and decades. And I’m hoping that if anything positive is to come from this crisis, it’s immediate and swift action to remedy the issues that we’ve been dealing with.”

Alissa Quart: “We need a lot more. You know, we don’t even have a moratorium on water and electricity shutoffs in the new stimulus bill, or relief of student debt. There are things that are missing. So I think that’s the kind of stuff that we’re going to need for people like the bartenders and the restaurant workers.”

On bosses asking nonessential employees to work

Alissa Quart: “I think it’s a COVD-19 Catch-22, where it’s either, at this point, you have a financial pinch, or you have an epidemiological pinch. And it’s sort of either you’re going to be exposing yourself either because your employer is asking you to or you have to to support your family by going to work, or you’re going to be, you know, on the other side risking economic suffering. So it’s really a bind.”

On getting laid off without a feasible back-up plan

Ellie Shanahan:“When I graduated from college and before that, I spent a lot of time in the restaurant industry, which is obviously not something you can go back to right now. And then I also was babysitting, and that’s not something I necessarily feel comfortable doing, not only for myself and my family, but if I am unlucky and contract something, I wouldn’t want to bring that into somebody’s house.”

On the importance of solidarity and support among vulnerable workers

Roushaunda Williams: “People are very worried right now. And if I can be compassionate and empathetic, even going through the same things that they are, now is the time to be [that]. I just want to be the best human being that I can be for my coworkers and other people in the industry in terms of trying to relax fears as best as possible.”

Liam Knox adapted this interview for the web. 

Resources For Struggling Workers

If you or someone you know has lost their job or fears losing their job due to coronavirus, here are some resources to help them:

Mutual Aid Groups around the country are citizen-organized and can help deliver groceries and medicine, provide emotional and social comfort, and more. Check to see if there’s one near you.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness lists free and affordable therapy on its website

United Way set up a211 hotline, something of a clearinghouse for emergency funds. Many localities have created such funds.

The United States Bartenders Guild has established a Bartender Emergency Assistance program.

And if you’re struggling and want to tell your story, you can apply for a grant from the Economic Hardship Reporting Fellowship’s emergency fund, which gives assignments to experienced reporters facing economic struggle. Send a message to economichardshipreporting@gmail.com.

In addition, if you may be evicted due to the coronavirus or previous economic insecurity, or are dealing with unstable housing, or you are a journalist with a story about eviction in the time of coronavirus, EHRP has a special grant for this. Write to them atevictionstories@gmail.com.


From The Reading List

Slate: “Gig Economy Workers Are Our Newest First Responders” — “To take a trip to Whole Foods or any major grocery store right now, especially in more affluent areas, is to see dozens of usually young people with baskets and carts staring at their iPhone screens and then searching for black beans or frozen macaroni and cheese. A few wear masks and carry hand sanitizer. They may walk the same aisles more than once—a larger number of items than usual are sold-out at stores.

“These people aren’t buying for themselves, though: They are Instacart shoppers. Their job is to purchase these goods and drive them to strangers who have ordered this food virtually, perhaps out of overwork or laziness but increasingly out of legitimate physical fear of being in crowded social places and catching the virus.

“These low-paid, unsung workers—Instacart shoppers but also the Amazon delivery folks and everyone else who is doing gig work today that helps other people engage in self-protective social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic—are now the equivalent of first responders.”

The Wall Street Journal: “‘I Have Bills I Have to Pay.’ Low-Wage Workers Face Brunt of Coronavirus Crisis” — “As coronavirus shutdowns halt commerce across the U.S., low-wage workers, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck, are being quickly stung.

“The affected jobs, by their nature, often require broad personal contact, such as running a cash register or cleaning hotel rooms. That substantially raises the risk of infection.

“Many such workers also hold positions most vulnerable to quick job cuts and pay cuts, especially in service industries.

“That includes restaurant workers, hotel maids, dog walkers and child-care providers. In many cases, the cuts are tied to shutdowns and cancellations of events in sports stadiums, industry conventions, casinos, music festivals and other public gatherings.

“The group encompasses many workers who were late beneficiaries of the surge in hiring as the labor market tightened in recent years—including members of minority groups or people with less education and skills—during one of the longest and most lucrative growth phases in U.S. history.”

POLITICO: “Who is most at risk in the coronavirus crisis: 24 million of the lowest-income workers” — “This week, unemployment claims soared as state and federal officials restricted public gatherings and shuttered stores to prevent the spread of the COVID-19. Using wage data from the U.S. Department of Labor and working conditions surveys from O*NET, we analyzed those who are most vulnerable.

“First, we looked at the bottom quarter of earners — people in jobs that pay less than $35,000 a year. Next, we narrowed that list to people who work at an arm’s length or less from others during their regular shifts, according to workforce survey data.

“This group, nearly 24 million people — or about 15 percent of the American workforce — is at the highest risk of suffering injury from the COVID-19 pandemic. Among them are bartenders, paramedics, home health aides, janitors, drivers and more.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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