How a wide swath of workers are seeing their pocketbooks hit hard by the coronavirus: ‘We are all so connected’
The struggles of domestic workers and stand-up comics, Uber drivers and wedding bands shows the impact of COVID-19 across the city’s economy.
When Lenny Sanchez started feeling sick about a week ago, he faced a difficult decision — one that many people in service industries across the Chicago area are also facing.
Should he work?
With events canceled left and right, restaurant and bar workers furloughed and people avoiding unnecessary travel, workers from stand-up comics to wedding planners to housekeepers are finding themselves suddenly unemployed. And those who haven’t been told to stay home say they are being left with the choice between earning a paycheck and doing their part to promote social distancing and stop the spread of the virus.
“If I got someone sick, I would feel terrible,” Sanchez, a driver for Uber and Lyft, said from his home Wednesday, where he is in quarantine and waiting the result of his COVID-19 test, which he took after he realized he was exposed to someone who is infected.
As a founder of Gig Workers Matter, a group that organizes and advocates for gig workers, he said coronavirus has shined a light on the struggles faced by workers with no company support services to fall back on, no healthcare and limited savings.
“It shows how much we need something throughout the year, not just during a pandemic,” said Sanchez, 40.
Another rideshare driver, Marion Dollar, 50, said she decided to stop driving for two weeks to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. She said she can’t last more than a month without a paycheck.
“It’s very important to social distance,” Dollar said of her decision to stay inside at her Pilsen home. “We all have to work together for the benefit of everyone right now.”
That said, the Airbnb host has also seen her home bookings drop off a cliff since coronavirus exploded across the county.
“At least I have some savings. Those people who are working now, they probably have no other choice,” Dollar said.
Other rideshare drivers who spoke with the Sun-Times said they’ve seen their earnings plummet as events are canceled, bars are closed and airports have slowed to a crawl.
When those industries close, the effect on the wages of workers who support them are felt far and wide.
Alydar Skyy, a 30-year-old bartender and stand-up comic from Arlington Heights, said she’s effectively unemployed coming out of the already slow months of January and February.
Not only have her shifts been suspended, her stand-up gigs are canceled, too.
“I would have made about $400 this weekend,” she said of her comedy work.
Shar Pazand, owner of Citygirl Events, said event planners, in addition to suffering huge losses from cancellations, have a daunting number of balls in the air as countless events are postponed or rescheduled.
A postponed wedding, for example, can impact up to 15 different vendors, from hotels to caterers to transportation companies to DJs. If an event is rescheduled, there is no guarantee the original vendors will be available. The uncertainty is the hardest part, she said.
“What this has proven to me is that we are all so connected,” Pazand said. For better or for worse, “we are all in this together.”
Temp worker can’t get unemployment
Canceled events have led to layoffs in workers in a host of jobs. Maria Morales, a mother of six who lives in Gage Park, was let go last week from her job with a cleaning crew at McCormick Place, when her boss called to say since no events were scheduled, there was no work for her.
Morales said she is not eligible for unemployment insurance, since her company pays her as a temporary worker.
“They told us we might not get work again until June,” she said from home Wednesday.
Her husband works mostly during the warmer months as a construction contractor. Morales recently got approved for food assistance, which was her biggest worry.
“Rent, yes. Bills, yes. But feeding my children” is her biggest worry, she said. “We’re living a decent life, but it’s hard for us. People need to put on our shoes and see how we struggle.”
Morales said any additional federal or state assistance would be a huge help to her and her family.
“They’re going to bail out the airlines, but what about us?” she wondered.
No homes to clean
Meanwhile, despite all the “deep cleaning” taking places at many businesses and other spaces, domestic workers who clean houses and apartments are actually seeing their work dry up as residents become fearful of letting outsiders into their homes.
Lety Tellez, an organizer with the Latino Union of Chicago, a nonprofit based in Albany Park, said the nearly 100 domestic workers — most of whom are immigrant women with children — in her group are “being left without work.”
Cecilia Garcia said she had four houses penciled in for this week, but they’ve all canceled.
“I have three for next week too, but I think those are going to get canceled, too,” she said of the jobs, which pay $100-$150 each.
Garcia’s husband, an auto mechanic, is also out of work.
“Everything’s paralyzed,” she said. “We can’t pay the bills if we’re not working.”
Multiple jobs, all impacted
Carolina Sanchez, like many workers interviewed by the Sun-Times, has two jobs to make ends meet. But what makes this situation so difficult is both of her sources of income are seriously threatened by the pandemic.
Sanchez, 28, works part-time at a vintage clothing store in Pilsen that has seen its business drop dramatically. She’s also a professional photographer, but her 15 photoshoots in March and April have all been canceled.
“My main concern right now is being safe, but if the store closes or if nothing happens with photography, I will most likely end up moving back in with my parents in Michigan,” she said.
Finding other ways to make money
Other impacted workers say they have been forced to find ways to recoup lost income or remodel their businesses to remain active.
David Rothstein, a bandleader who performs at corporate events and weddings, said many of his gigs have been canceled or postponed.
“We’ve lost some corporate events which many times don’t reschedule,” he said. “As time goes on and we get deeper into wedding season, then it starts to get even more challenging. It’s had a huge impact.”
He added: “It’s not one random wedding where the couple broke up. It’s affecting everything.”
To make up for lost income, some musicians he knows have started teaching music lessons using online video services. His own company is developing an option for video streaming services so that older family members who are more susceptible to coronavirus can still experience a wedding or event from a remote location.
“They only ones that are going to survive this are the ones who are going to adapt,” he said.