Weeks before any cancellations were announced, as a public speaker I knew the fate of my job was not going to fare well, if at all, as the coronavirus outbreak spread. For weeks, I had a news channel on in both the kitchen and my bedroom, waiting for some kind of doomsday to happen. No more gatherings of 250 or more, then 50, then 10, for eight weeks or more. Possibly to July. I turned to my husband, who stayed at home to care for our kids, house and everything else so I could travel several times a month, and said, “We’re screwed.”
Before we were married last year, my husband and I were both full-time single parents. We knew what it was like to barely make ends meet, watch your life savings dwindle to nothing, and panic over bills coming out of bank accounts before expected payments were deposited.
Things had been going well for me financially since my book, about working as a housekeeper while living in poverty, was a success, paving a way for a career as a public speaker and watching an adaptation of my story on Netflix. Still, losing several months of expected income was enough for me to feel a sort of panic that can only be described as familiar.
Shortly after my first daughter was born in 2007, we had to move into a homeless shelter. For the next decade, I fought for security in all things: Food, housing, employment, transportation, child care, medical care and our future. We never had any of those at the same time, but I remember almost every time we got close, like discovering my child care grant would cover the hours I spent in class at college, or when we received a boost in our SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps) allotment after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009.
Because of my experience with living under the poverty level, as realized the gravity of the current situation, I immediately went into action: I made a list of our monthly bills, crossed out subscriptions, made grocery lists for food that would last for weeks or months, then I went back into freelance writer mode and started pitching pieces to editors. My husband began a periodic search for employment that, in our tourism-driven college town, could be described as abysmal and grim. We discussed selling one of our vehicles, or refinancing loans. Gone was the talk of purchasing our first house together in a few months, or taking a family vacation in July.
For me, this was a pretty seamless transition. It wasn’t too long ago that I couldn’t afford to go out to eat. When restaurants began closing their doors, I expected people to endlessly complain. Americans, if anything, do not like to be told to cut back.
As a poor person and someone who now writes extensively about social and economic justice, I’ve often noticed a lack of a focus on poverty appearing in news cycles or in debates among White House contenders. While politicians raise their voices for universal health care, they rarely discuss that millions of Americans are forced to prove they work 20 hours a week in order to be able to afford to take their children to the doctor.
When I saw that restaurants were closing, I didn’t think of the patrons. When people were told to shelter at home and work remotely, and when kids were kept out of school, I didn’t think about how the family living in that home was affected. I thought of the housekeeper who is undocumented and can’t apply for food stamps or any kind of government assistance who lost all of her clients.
I also thought of the single mom who works as a waitress who now can’t pay the bills. I thought of the families who are barely making ends meet, who have no savings and whose income relies entirely on one thing: them showing up to work.
“These are the workers who invisibly clean up after us at all hours of the day. They vacuum and polish the airport floors, they collect trash in parks; they sweep up the crumbs our children spread all over the place during brunch.”
As Americans had to hunker down, and felt the panic of possibly running out of household staples, they seemed to be thinking about these affected people, too. After the Bay Area began its Shelter At Home ordinance, people tweeted about still paying their dog walker because they needed that income to survive.
I heard news anchors discussing how difficult these closures would be on the workers. And former Vice President Joe Biden, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, tweeted that it was a “disgrace” that millions of workers don’t have a single day of paid sick leave.
Bewildered parents who now had to homeschool their kids cried out that teachers should be paid a million dollars. Athletes donated salaries to cover the workers in stadiums who were out of a job. This wasn’t your average donation to a local food bank. This was something I’d been waiting to see for several years: a recognition that minimum-wage, hourly work exists, and without it people cannot survive.
These are the workers who invisibly clean up after us at all hours of the day. They vacuum and polish the airport floors, they collect trash in parks; they sweep up the crumbs our children spread all over the place during brunch.
We’ve become so accustomed to having these people work to make our lives easier that we rarely talk about them or notice them. Yet, when politicians claim tighter work requirements for various forms of government aid are necessary, when they try to make it more difficult for families to receive assistance for paying for their heat during the winter, those are the ones they’re mostly affecting.
What’s going to happen to those workers who now have no job? For most, a clock starts ticking. Each SNAP recipient, if they’re able-bodied, between 18 and 59 years of age and without a child younger than six at home is allowed only three months out of any three-year period to work under 20 hours a week. If a person has already used up that three-month period, say, looking for the job they just lost, they will not be able to apply for help with food, pandemic or not.
In our rebuilding from this epidemic, my hope is that the empathy that has surfaced will lead to a lasting compassion. That we’ll remember the stadium workers and bartenders who suddenly had no way to pay rent and feed their families.
After our lives go back to normal, so will theirs: working hour by hour for no benefits and too little pay, unless we lift our voices in outrage. It shouldn’t take a pandemic for us to take notice that millions of people can’t afford a single sick day. But now that we have, it’s time for change.
Stephanie Land is the author of “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive” and a fellow at Community Change.
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