How 3 Shift Workers Are Dealing With Lost Hours & Paychecks Under COVID-19 Closures

by Maria Lewczyk
An empty restaurant with mid-century modern furniture, closed due to social distancing mandates. Her...
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At the beginning of March, Mary Catherine, a 33-year-old bartender, began to notice a dip in the money she was bringing home each night. The Atlanta, Georgia, resident, who supplements her income with freelance graphic design projects, says that on one particular evening, a single customer came in during her entire shift.

Now, the bar and restaurant where she works are closed until at least the end of the month — a trend gaining momentum in other cities working to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. In New York, starting the evening of March 16, restaurants can only provide delivery or takeout. Bars that don’t serve takeout must close entirely, along with businesses like movie theaters and gyms. Illinois, Ohio, Washington, California, and Massachusetts are doing the same.

“Isolation means no paycheck, no paycheck means no spending, no spending means not supporting businesses we care about, which means struggling small businesses,” Mary Catherine tells Bustle. “I’m less scared of the virus and more fearful of the effect it’s having on our day to day.”

Although gig workers make up a significant part of the workforce, they often lack the financial stability full-time employees have, along with benefits like healthcare, remote work, or paid time off.

“People whose jobs are directly interacting with customers — the service industry, restaurants, bars, coffee shops — they will get hit the worst,” says Jay Morris, a graduate researcher in Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences at Emory University. Between dropping off groceries at an isolated person’s house or serving drinks to potentially infectious people, these kinds of jobs necessarily put workers at risk of exposure, as one New York Times chart details. “Even if their job decides it’s going to socially distance, they’re missing out on a paycheck — and that puts them into a tough spot.”

Normalization is the only thing I know to do.

Without steady income from his server position at a restaurant, Jeremy* is contemplating selling drugs to make ends meet.

“I’m broke! I’m a server, and I haven’t worked all week because it’s been so slow,” says the 26-year-old. “I don’t have money for groceries.” Jeremy hasn’t been working at all since the restaurant cut his hours last week.

Maintaining regular routines gives people a sense of comfort even as their next steps are uncertain.

"Personally, I've not been thinking about it too much. [It] feels like there's not much I can do besides make sure I have enough food for my pets, my partner and myself to go through about a month of being quarantined, in case we go Italy's route," says Brenna, a 28-year-old veterinarian technician. “I'll not be eating out if I can help it. I don't spend much frivolously as is, so not too much to change." Brenna says clients have cancelled appointments because of coronavirus fears; in a potential shutdown situation, she says her hours would be cut, and she'd lose that income. Her fiancé, however, is a hospital lab technician, so she feels secure with his income as a temporary cushion.

Mary Catherine is also trying to keep up a semblance of normal. “I’m doing what I can — staying away from my older family members, washing my hands a lot. Normalization is the only thing I know to do. Normalize while maintaining a tighter budget — and cleaner hands.” For her, a tighter budget means buying in bulk, freezing meat, and purchasing items on sale with coupons. She’s also been leaning on her graphic design freelance work. “I’m helping restaurants redesign menus with social media posts to help spread the word that they are still open and doing the best they can,” she says.

Organizations focused on emergency assistance, financial support, and networking resources are stepping in to help service workers in need. As of March 16, Atlanta’s The Giving Kitchen and Brooklyn’s Service Workers Coalition have already served more than 4,000 people and raised more than $4,500 for industry workers, respectively.

Brenna hopes the government can step in to suspend mortgage payments with people out of work, while Mary Catherine calls on people with extra income to help.

“It’s time to band together and support each other. There are ways — we just have to be calm, aware, respectful, hopeful, and resilient.”

*Name has been changed to protect privacy

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and coughing, call NHS 111 in the UK or visit the CDC website in the U.S. for up-to-date information and resources. You can find all Bustle’s coverage of coronavirus here, and UK-specific updates on coronavirus here.