Graphic via Shutterstock
Graphic via Shutterstock

Many furloughed, unemployed, and freelance or gig workers have turned to the only businesses still hiring—essential jobs on the frontlines of the pandemic.

Betsy Jones is a social worker in Ohio. Because her hours were dramatically reduced at her regular job, which she has held for almost a decade, she also now works in the garden department at Lowe’s. Before major shut-down measures had gone into effect in Ohio, Jones was already concerned she wouldn’t be able to cover the costs of her lengthy divorce. When her boss called with the bad news and her income was reduced to a small fraction, she had no choice but to get another job.

Like many other Americans, Jones has been hurt financially by the novel coronavirus pandemic. Last week, the U.S. Labor Department reported that roughly 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits in the past five weeks. Approximately one in six workers have lost their jobs due to coronavirus, and economists predict that the unemployment rate for April could be as high as 20%.

As a result, many furloughed, unemployed, and freelance or gig workers have turned to the only businesses still hiring—essential jobs on the frontlines of the pandemic.  

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At the independent social work agency where she is employed, Jones provides on-site counseling to people in nursing homes, and in particular to people with disabilities. While counselors have shifted to telemedicine and phone sessions as much as possible, this isn’t a realistic possibility for the majority of Jones’ clients.

“My boss told us if we needed to find other jobs we could do it, but I need to keep my job where I’m kind of furloughed because I also still have both my sons on my health insurance. So I had to try to balance it all out,” she told COURIER. “I didn’t know if I was going to get unemployment. I didn’t know how much unemployment I would get—you know, if it was like $300 a week. I’m the only one here working, and I just got divorced.”

She’s worked out a complicated patchwork of income.  

“I’m working 10 hours a week for my original job because I’m getting credit for making phone calls, like case-management kind of phone calls. And then I’m working 20 hours a week for Lowe’s. And then I’m getting half unemployment because I’m working 30 hours instead of 40. And because at Lowe’s I’m paid $11.50 an hour, whereas in therapy I would be paid 40 dollars an hour.”

Jones said she’s still not sure how Lowe’s qualifies as an essential business, and at first, before the strictest social distancing measures went into place, it was a little surreal. “I’m going to work [thinking], ‘Why am I selling flowers in a pandemic? Why am I doing this? Why isn’t Lowe’s closed?’”

Hannah DeGiovanni, the chief marketing officer at New York-based recruitment firm Execu-Search, told COURIER that since the pandemic began, her firm has placed hundreds of people in support roles, such as medical assistants at coronavirus testing sites.  

Some of those people, she explained, are contract workers looking for their next project at the time. “A lot of them are also people who may have been furloughed or self-employed, and based on everything that’s going on they don’t know when their next paycheck is coming in.”

One makeup artist her firm has worked with, DeGiovanni recalled, doesn’t know when she’s going to be able to return to her full-time work. “She mentioned to us, she just is so incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to have income during this time,” DeGiovanni said, even if it’s temporary work on the front lines of the pandemic. 

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The work essential workers do has been referred to as “heroic,” but this word implies these workers can always choose not to do these jobs. “Some people naturally are really, really driven to help, whether clinically or non-clinically,” DeGiovanni said. “And there’s also people who might not normally jump into the fire to do something potentially dangerous, but are desperate for income at this point and are happy they’re able to help, along with getting a paycheck obviously.”

Lauren Cox, a writer in New Jersey, was hired as a “seasonal worker” in an Amazon fulfillment center. Because she is a “flex” employee, she doesn’t get the same benefits as the workers employed year-round, and she does not have paid sick leave. (Amazon has announced an Amazon Relief Fund, where flex and seasonal employees can apply for grants for up to two weeks’ pay). 

Cox said she feels reassured by the protection and social distancing measures the fulfillment center has in place, explaining she gets her temperature taken before starting her shift, physical distancing is enforced, and she’s provided a fresh mask and gloves for each shift.

But she still worries every day about taking the virus home to her mom.

As media companies tightened their belts, freelance and full-time work for writers became even more scarce. Then, the clothing retail store where Cox had also been working was forced to close.

Cox said she tried to supplement unemployment benefits with part-time work at first, but this eventually became untenable because of strict unemployment guidelines that restricted how much she could earn. 

When asked if she’d be able to theoretically afford two weeks without work, Cox said, “Oh God, oh no.” 

“I’m just saving as much money as I possibly can because I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if I’m going to get sick. I also live with my mom and I don’t know if she’s going to get sick. I do not want to leave the house so she can’t get sick.” Unfortunately, she added, that’s not economically feasible. 

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To protect her mom as much as possible, Cox’s daily sanitation routine is extensive. “It actually starts before I leave work. I get rid of my clothes and I go and I wash my hands, and then I grab my stuff and I leave because I also don’t want to touch my stuff with anything even if I’m wearing gloves all day. I drive home and when I get home I use the Lysol wipe to wipe down the inside of the car. Like everything from the radio to the blinker, door handles, everything. And then when I get inside my house, at the door I actually keep Lysol spray and I spray the bottom of my shoes. My shoes stay at the door. And then I immediately beeline for my room and strip. Everything goes in the laundry and then I take a shower.”

She added: “You would think I was working with biohazard chemicals or something.”