Wage workers hit hard by coronavirus

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Julie West had only been at her new job for two months, when the coronavirus pandemic hit. A retired social worker on a fixed income and a lesbian with no partner, she works as a companion to a client with early-onset Alzheimer’s. But the pandemic ended the job when the client’s wife was forced to shut down her small business for the next two weeks — or longer.

“The job was important for me,” West, who retired two years ago, said. “I need the income to supplement what I get from Social Security. This was ideal. And now, being over 60, I really need to be staying in to protect myself from COVID-19, so I can’t consider anything else.”

West is not alone. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018, 80.4 million workers were paid hourly rates, and 58.4 percent of all workers were paid hourly. West is one of an estimated 30 percent of American hourly wage workers and as many as 38 percent of Philadelphia hourly wage workers who have been immediately impacted by the widespread closings of non-essential businesses. Retail shops and the hospitality business — restaurants, bars, clubs, hotels — were among the first casualties of the new COVID-19 normal. President Trump, the Centers for Disease Control, Gov. Tom Wolf and Mayor Kenney have all instructed people to stay home for the next two weeks to attempt to flatten the curve of the coronavirus pandemic to lessen the impact on hospitals and other medical facilities, as well as healthcare workers. Two regional doctors are in critical condition due to COVID-19.

Keeping inessential businesses closed and people off the streets will help lessen the spread of the virus, which has overwhelmed Europe in the past few weeks. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases and director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Health, has been directing the science aspect of the Trump administration’s campaign against the coronavirus.

Fauci, who is world-renowned for his handling of the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s and 1990s, has been explicit for weeks that Americans of every age must stay in and avoid contact with other people outside their own homes as much as possible. It is a stance that was initially resisted by the President, resulting in a delay in testing.

That dictate was also ignored by Mayor Kenney, who, as recently as March 13, was urging Philadelphians to go out and eat at a restaurant to help support local businesses, while Gov. Wolf was urging self-isolation, and Montgomery County was put on virtual lockdown.

The shift came March 16 when the number of cases in Pennsylvania exploded and Gov. Wolf, siding with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, made getting people off the streets and in their houses a top priority.

Kenney told local media that his concern had been for wage workers in the city, which has the highest poverty rate of any big city in the U.S. at 31 percent. Minimum wage workers will be particularly impacted, and LGBTQ Philadelphians are already struggling with higher rates of poverty even than others in the city, according to HRC.

Kenney is still working on plans for wage workers and others in Philadelphia hit by the pandemic. Lauren Cox, Deputy Communications Director for the Mayor, told PGN March 18, “We are still exploring options to support solo-businesses and workers through State/Federal funds, but there is nothing available at this time.”

Councilperson Helen Gym addressed some of the issues facing low-wage workers in the city with a resolution. On March 18, she announced on Twitter that she had been successful. Gym said, “Last week, I introduced a resolution to protect Philadelphians’ right to housing during the COVID-19 outbreak, and I’m proud to say that our City agencies and utility companies have answered that call.”

She added, “The best way to protect ourselves is by protecting each other.”

Gym provided a chart listing what her resolution provided for Philadelphians. Among the protections Gym acquired: Courts stopped evictions for two weeks, PHA (Philadelphia Housing Authority) stopped evictions for 30 days, and Sheriff sales and foreclosures were rescheduled for April. Also, utility companies stopped shut-offs of power, water, gas, internet and phone services.

Emma Morris, a single lesbian, living in Northwest Philadelphia, “with a stereotypical number of cats,” is grateful for Gym’s work, as she’s worried she will need that assistance.

An hourly wage worker, Morris said the stress of the abrupt changes of the past week were being deeply felt at her job. “The car dealership I work for is still open because it is allowed to run its repair department,” she said. “Some workers have been laid off outright. Others have had their hours cut from 40 to 30, with further cuts expected.”

Morris said, “I’m anticipating my job going to half-time soon. All of us are hourly workers, and this is hitting us hard. It means rent and mortgage payments are delayed, workers with kids are scrambling for some sort of child care. Our receptionist is in her 70s, and I worry about her health.”

She explained the dilemma that many workers and business owners in the region are faced with as the pandemic changes every aspect of daily life. She said, “The company should shut down, but that means no one can afford to pay their bills, and I do think the general manager is trying to keep us open as long as he can so that we have some income. But that can’t last for long, and when the recession hits, car sales will be a fraction of what they were, so many will be without jobs.”

On March 18, the Senate was scheduled to vote on the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which is designed to help workers like Morris and West provide for themselves and their families during this national crisis. Trump supports the bill, which he deemed “good teamwork” between Democrats and Republicans. At press time, Republicans in the Senate were holding up the votes by adding extraneous amendments to it.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is also working on a plan to cut checks for people to help maintain their finances during the pandemic. The amount being discussed is $1,000 for anyone making under $125,000. Trump has also approved this idea, which Mnuchin said March 18 could be effective by April.

In Philadelphia, a 24-hour helpline has been set up for up-to-date information on COVID-19: 1-800-722-7112. For the latest CDC information, visit: cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov

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