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Low-Income Clevelanders Are Either Jobless — Or Working More than Ever

Charles Pinson of Cleveland has lost construction work because of canceled jobs and childcare obligations. [Justin Glanville / ideastream]
Charles Pinson stands in the parking lot of Dave's Shaker Square Market

Charles Pinson wears a surgical mask and gloves as he unloads groceries into his car at the Dave’s Market on Shaker Square.

Catching the coronavirus isn't the only thing he's feeling nervous about these days, he said.

He's a construction worker, and Friday was the latest in a string of days he’s been unable to report to a job site. He shares childcare duties for his kids, who are now home from school indefinitely.

"I can’t go to work," he said. "Like sometimes I gotta go to work [and] stay like 13 hours. I can’t do that if I have my kids."

On top of that, some construction clients are canceling altogether.

"Work is slow," he said. "And with this coronavirus, everything is terrible now — people don’t even want you in their house."

Coronavirus is changing the work lives of many of Northeast Ohioans. But while for white-collar and higher-income workers that means working from home, lower-income workers have less flexibility.

Only about 29 percent of American workers have the ability to work from home, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among the lowest earners, only 8 percent spend some time each day working from home, compared with 35 percent of the highest earners.

People with college degrees are more likely have a job where they can work from home than those with a high school diploma or less education. [U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics]

The anxiety Pinson is feeling is typical of what concerns a lot of people without the ability to earn from home, according to John Corlett of the Center for Community Solutions, a nonprofit think tank based in Cleveland.

"I think people are worried about the stuff that's right in front of them," Corlett says. "I think they're worried about, 'How am I going to pay my rent? How am I going to maintain my health insurance?' if they get health insurance through work."

Those worries are especially strong in a city like Cleveland, he says. The city has the highest rate of childhood poverty among large U.S. cities, according to a 2019 analysis. It also has the second-highest poverty rate among working age adults and the third-highest poverty rate among older adults.

A Thinner Cushion

Low-income households, or those in poverty, tend to have less of a financial cushion to carry them through tough economic times. It’s the same for workers who depend on contract work, which tends to fluctuate based on the strength of the economy.

With contracting work drying up, Pinson said he thinks he has enough saved for a month of expenses — two at most.

Uncertainty is part of the reason Jackie Austin, a resident of Cleveland's Woodhill Homes public housing estate, started looking for another job to add to the 20 or so hours a week she works as a home health aide.

Some of her clients are elderly, and if they get sick with coronavirus, "they might not send an aide over there," she said. "If it's the virus, they might not have that home health aide go back to the house until everything’s taken care of."

And because Austin is paid by the hour, that would mean lost wages. So she’s starting a second job, packing boxes 40 hours a week at the Amazon fulfillment center in North Randall.

Amazon is looking to hire 100,000 workers nationwide to meet demand during the coronavirus crisis. [Annie Wu / ideastream]

Hiring at Amazon has continued full speed ahead. The company recently announced it wants to add 100,000 workers nationwide to meet "a surge in demand" from nervous consumers stocking up on everything from baby wipes to canned food.

Austin said wages are pretty good at Amazon — between $15 and $17 an hour — and the company also offers healthcare and a retirement plan.

But there’s a trade-off, she says, with all those people working long hours together in one space. It's lucky, she says, that she and her boyfriend, who also works at Amazon, got some safety supplies from a friend.

"She gave us some bleach wipes and some face masks and some gloves to keep us protected," Austin says. "So I think I might just keep that on hand when I go to work."

Help on the Back End

Stories like Austin’s are on the other end of the spectrum of the pressures felt by most low-wage workers, according to Corlett and the Center for Community Solutions. Far from losing work, the pandemic has them feeling pressure to work as much as, or more than ever, and in settings where they could be at increased risk of exposure.

"People who work at gas stations, who run our utilities — I mean, all those folks don't really have much of a choice in terms of going to work or not, or at least don't seem to have a choice," Corlett says. "And they may need support on the back end."

Grocery store employees, such as those at Lucky's Market in Cleveland, do not have the option to work from home. [Justin Glanville / ideastream]

Supermarket and manufacturing workers also fall into the category of those who must physically report to work every day. It's unclear for now how much leeway employers will provide if those workers fall ill, though some are vowing to be accommodating.

"We've relaxed our attendance policies," said Dan Donovan, a spokesman for the supermarket chain Giant Eagle. "If you're a team member who doesn't feel well [and need to stay home], when you're ready and able to come back, we will welcome you with open arms."

But Corlett said employment protections should also come from local, state and federal governments. He wants to see both immediate and long-term changes to assistance programs.

For example, he thinks income restrictions for Medicaid and food assistance programs should be loosened, so that more people qualify.

He also believes more Ohio counties should follow Cuyahoga County’s lead in not requiring families on federal assistance to prove they’re working — not when jobs are scarce, and the ones that are available could put people’s health at risk.

Justin Glanville is the deputy editor of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.