Coronavirus and gig workers: When the band stops playing


May 11, 2020

Editor’s note: The Coalition on Human Needs recently asked our online supporters how coronavirus has affected their families. Hundreds wrote in to share their stories. This is one of a continuing series of stories about the personal effects of the pandemic – and what must be done to help people in need. If you have a coronavirus story you would like to share, please click here. 

Kathryn of Santa Rosa, California and her husband are both musicians, working gigs in California’s tourism-rich wine country — until the pandemic happened, drying up their work.

“We were having a great start to our bookings for the year when news of the coronavirus started coming in,” she says. “We performed our last job on March 6. All jobs were cancelled and all inquiries for future work stopped coming in. Our business relies heavily on corporate travel in the fall. With a probable return of COVID-19 in the fall, we anticipate little to no work for the rest of the year.”

Like as many as one in three working Americans, Kathryn and her husband are independent contractors – also sometimes referred to as gig workers, temporary workers, online platform workers, on-call workers, or other such designations. One thing that distinguishes them from traditional workplace employees is that they are much less likely to receive workplace benefits, like heath care coverage or access to unemployment insurance if they lose their job (but more about that in a minute!)

A number of people who shared their coronavirus stories with CHN are gig workers – workers who have lost either their primary or secondary source of income – and they are worried.

Jennifer of Seattle, Washington also is a self-employed musician who has seen all of her performances cancelled, at least for the time being. “This is how I make my living and pay my bills, which don’t stop just because my income has stopped,” she says. “It’s my sense that I will need to draw from my savings, for which I am grateful to have but would rather not take from them, since there’s no backup after that.”

Venue/stage closures bring a grim outlook for many gig workers. 

Acadia of Brooklyn, New York, which has been particularly hard-hit by COVID-19, has worked in the hospitality industry for years, frequently putting in more than 60 hours a week to establish her career. “I am ineligible for unemployment like many others as I was doing contract work abroad and planning to come back to my job in NYC that was promised to always be there for me here – it is not,” she says.

Acadia says “many” of her friends and family have been infected, have no health insurance, and, at the time when she submitted her story to CHN, had no access to tests to see if they actually had COVID-19. “Some had less than a month security padding in the bank,” she says. “Some are suicidal or may be stuck in living situations with abusers due to financial needs alone. Personally, my federal student loan servicer is still trying to take my monthly payment of approximately $400. My rent alone is $1,600. My total bills come to over $2,000 a month. The one-time [stimulus] check will be a mere band aid on a massive wound and I am so terrified we are taking the lives of thousands of poor, previously working-class, and uninfected just by the handling of this pandemic in America.”

Ginger of Deltona, Florida has been a self-employed singer/entertainer for more than 30 years. “All of my shows are either in public restaurants, private parties of anywhere from 50-100-plus people, or in senior facilities,” she says. “Since mid-March, I have lost 100 percent of my shows, and one of the restaurants where I perform is possibly even closing permanently. To make matters tougher, even when I’m able to start doing shows again, my checks won’t start coming in for 15-30 days, so that will put me that much more behind. And although I get a Social Security payment each month, it’s not even enough to cover just my mortgage. Like most people, I’m praying that this doesn’t last much longer, and that I don’t end up losing everything I’ve worked for all my life. I just don’t know how I’d start over at my age.”

Like Ginger, Jacquie of Fort Collins, Colorado is also an older American – she is 77 and her husband is 82. Her husband was laid off from his job as a home care worker, and she used to supplement their income by doing travelling art shows. But this season, all of her art festivals have been cancelled.

“We do collect Social Security, but all that pays is our house payment, which is good,” she says. “But we still need to work to earn the rest of the income we need to pay our bills. We earn around $1,200 per show, and do 14 shows a year. This allows us to stay independent and live a full life without needing public assistance.”

Jacquie is hoping that the art shows will pick up after June. For now, she is trying to sell her wildlife paintings from her website.

So will gig workers get relief from Congress? Well, members of Congress definitely intended it that way. In late March, Congress passed and President Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which includes three new federal unemployment insurance programs. One of these, called Pandemic Unemployment Insurance (PUA), offers up to 39 weeks of UI to those who are immediately eligible – including self-employed workers, which could cover independent contractors, freelancers, workers seeking part-time work, and workers who do not have a long-enough work history to qualify for state UI benefits.

But there have been complications in states’ abilities to implement the legislation.

The U.S. unemployment rate jumped to 14.7 percent in April, the highest level since the Great Depression.

For one thing, many states were not set up to clear payments to gig workers, many of whom have yet to see a single UI payment. And there are other technical hurdles. In California, where there are nearly three million self-employed workers, gig workers and independent contractors who should be eligible for the relief, many if not most will not find it.

One major catch: If workers were on an employer’s payroll and earned wages of $1,300 or more during any quarter in the previous 18 months, that so-called W-2 amount would become the basis for unemployment benefits — and disqualify them from claiming their self-employment income.

Kyle Petrozza, 38, a Los Angeles freelance commercial photographer, is one such worker. He told the Los Angeles Times that he had W-2 income of about $3,400 in 2019, a fraction of the net income from his commercial photography business. That translated to a regular unemployment benefit of $159 a week, far less than he would have received through Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, he said.

Petrozza calculated that the difference in benefits will cost him thousands of dollars. “For folks having to deal with this, it has been insanely frustrating,” he said. The Times reported that more than 100,000 musicians alone in California could be affected, along with countless other gig workers.

That could include people such as Jacqueline of Fullerton, California, who shared her story with CHN. Jacqueline picks up gigs working team-building events, “but with the outbreak, the entire entertainment industry has been shut down, thus eliminating an entire source of financial security for me and my family. This excludes me from qualifying for rental assistance since I wasn’t technically laid off or furloughed as an independent contractor. It’s been extremely stressful.”