By Hadassah Bauerle, CFCC Student Fellow (2019-2020)
With the threat of COVID-19 spreading globally, governors across the United States have strongly encouraged citizens to stay home and stay safe. Some states have even issued “shelter in place” orders, by which people are not permitted to leave their homes except for rare “essential” functions. For many people, this means snuggling under a blanket and working on a laptop at home. For others, especially for the one in eight Americans living beneath the poverty line, it is not so simple. Nearly five percent of Americans are considered “working poor,” or individuals who work but still live beneath the poverty line. For these people, “shelter in place” orders mean something different than what it means to those privileged enough to comfortably work from home. Many jobs that employ the working poor are considered essential in this pandemic. Even for jobs that are not essential, many employees are unable to work from home. This post takes a look at life for those living near or below the poverty line and how their jobs may be impacted in the current crisis.
For jobs that are considered essential, employees do not have the leisure to work from home, but, instead, must report to work as usual. Most government officials agree that trades, such as plumbing and exterminating, as well as grocery stores, gas stations, banks, and laundromats are essential businesses. Restaurants are also not closed, as long as curbside pickup or delivery are offered. Most of these essential jobs have employees who live near or beneath the poverty line.
For employees still working, many issues arise. The first issue is childcare. With schools closed across the country, and the chance of their reopening this year unlikely, many parents are faced with tough decisions. In Maryland, all childcare facilities are shut down, unless essential employees are sending their children to the facility. If a childcare facility is not an option, parents are forced to send their children to relatives, who often are grandparents. Sending children to grandparents increases the grandparents’ risk of exposure to the virus.
Essential employees working during this time face an increased risk of exposure to the virus in other ways, as well. For many of the working poor, public transit is their primary method of transportation. This means repeated exposure to public surfaces and multiple people who may be carriers of the virus. For the more privileged Americans with cars, their risk of exposure is lower.
Additionally, access to transportation is another hurdle for many essential employees. Prior to the current pandemic, lack of access to reliable transportation was already a major struggle for the working poor. Now, it is even more so. In Maryland, although public transportation is still running, the schedule is greatly reduced. Initially, Baltimore City announced that 23 bus routes would be suspended, but after public feedback, this decision was delayed. Baltimore’s Metro subway and its light rail are currently running on the reduced weekend schedule, and the MARC commuter trains are also operating less frequently than usual. These reduced schedules place anxiety and stress on the people who rely on public transportation to get work.
Non-essential jobs that cannot be done from home
For employees who are not working for essential businesses, they either must work at home or, if they are unable to perform their job from home, they are unable to work. For many of the working poor, this means not working at all. Many jobs, such as theater, stadium, and concert hall employees, are simply not in existence during a time when everyone is engaging in “social distancing” to protect against infection. Other jobs, such as retail workers and housekeepers, have been curtained by the actions of local governments, and it is impossible to do these jobs from home. Often, in each of these circumstances, when employees are not working, they do not get paid.
For childcare workers, the essential businesses classification creates further questions. Sates have chosen to handle the issue differently, with some states telling all providers to close, and some states telling providers to do everything in their power to remain open. For the programs that are still open, data suggest that, across the country, providers lost nearly 70% of their attendance due to “social distancing” efforts.
Many local governments have classified childcare for essential employees as an essential business. In that situation, childcare facilities can choose whether to remain open and offer childcare for these workers, or they can close and risk financial strain. For the facilities that choose to remain open, they are often still not operating at full capacity.
For employees who may be lucky enough to have jobs that may be done from home during this time, there are other problems: 10% of Americans, or 33 million people, do not have internet at home. While a third of these people live without internet because they do not wish to have internet at home, 19% of people without internet do so because of cost. Almost 44% of households that make less than $30,000 a year do not have internet access. Many states have attempted to find creative solutions to assist people to gain access to the internet. Various providers across the country have low-income internet options available, and many are offering promotional deals during this time when people are at home and in need of the internet to stay connected to others. For example, in Maryland, Comcast is offering two months of free internet for qualified low-income households due to the coronavirus outbreak. For more information, please visit: https://internetessentials.com/covid19#thingstoknow.
If a person engages in a job that cannot be done from home or operates a non-essential business that has closed due to COVID-19, employees may be temporarily laid off. Last week, a record 3.3 million Americans filed unemployment claims. Experts are worried about a “catastrophic unemployment crisis” after the unemployment numbers rose from 281,000 the week prior. The current unemployment rate is the highest that has ever been reported, with the previous record at 695,000 in October 1982. The Maryland Department of Labor has defined “unemployment” to include “a reduction of both work hours and earnings,” and not merely the loss of a job. This definition is important especially for workers who rely on tips for wages, rather than standard hourly wages or a salary.
For those in Maryland who are unemployed, the Enoch Pratt library has put together a list of resources. These resources can be found at: https://www.prattlibrary.org/research/tools/index.aspx?cat=113&id=8370.
COVID-19 has created a completely new reality for the entire world. For those living near or below the poverty line, this new reality is very difficult. In terms of employment, the working poor are facing tremendous obstacles including working at essential businesses and risking exposure, or being laid off indefinitely, or unemployment. Although everyone can hope that this pandemic and the negative effects end soon, the challenges and subsequent negative consequences the working poor face will not soon disappear.
 Pam Fessler, U.S. Census Bureau Reports Poverty Rate Down, But Millions Still Poor, National Public Radio (September 10, 2019), https://www.npr.org/2019/09/10/759512938/u-s-census-bureau-reports-poverty-rate-down-but-millions-still-poor.
 A Profile of the Working Poor, 2016, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (July 2018), https://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/working-poor/2016/home.htm.
 Liz Bowie & Daniel Oyefusi, Maryland Will Close Child Care For All But Essential Workers After Friday to Slow Spread of Coronavirus, The Baltimore Sun (March 26, 2020), https://www.baltimoresun.com/coronavirus/bs-md-daycare-closed-20200326-4xjk5ifhc5ahrjglklj25rzr4y-story.html.
 Pedro Nicolaci de Costa, There’s a major hurdle to employment that many Americans don’t even think about – and it’s holding the economy back, Business Insider (January 27, 2018), https://www.businessinsider.com/lack-of-transport-is-a-major-obstacle-to-employment-for-americas-poor-2018-1.
 Jean Marbella, Jeff Barker, and Colin Campbell, Public transit service reduced, new drive-through coronavirus testing sites planned, The Baltimore Sun (March 17, 2020), https://www.baltimoresun.com/coronavirus/bs-md-coronavirus-tuesday-20200317-e64ccvxngfbojlr3yh3cm43bke-story.html.
 Kendra Hurley, The Last Daycare Standing, CityLab (March 28, 2020), https://www.citylab.com/equity/2020/03/coronavirus-daycare-closed-home-child-care-business-covid-19/608956/.
 Samantha Cossick, Who’s not using the internet? Ask the nearly 33 million Americans who aren’t!, Allconnect (June 19, 2019), https://www.allconnect.com/blog/33-million-americans-dont-use-internet
 Dominic Rushe and Amanda Holpuch, Record 3.3m Americans file for unemployment as the US tries to contain Covid-19, The Guardian (March 26, 2020), https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/mar/26/us-unemployment-rate-coronavirus-business.
 Frequently Asked Questions about COVID-19 and Maryland’s Unemployment Insurance Benefits Administration – Unemployment Insurance, Maryland Department of Labor (March 30, 2020), https://www.dllr.state.md.us/employment/uicovidfaqs.shtml.