Financial and health risks mount for those who can’t ‘telework’

Retail workers, drivers, event staff face layoffs, exposure to virus
Yana Lee-Fong, a co-owner of the Epicurean Cafe in Duluth, worries about how to keep her restaurant open and her workers employed as the coronavirus keeps metro Atlanta consumers from venturing out. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

Yana Lee-Fong, a co-owner of the Epicurean Cafe in Duluth, worries about how to keep her restaurant open and her workers employed as the coronavirus keeps metro Atlanta consumers from venturing out. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

Uber and Lyft driver Omar Holland gives strangers rides in his car. With people staying home, his income has been halved.

His wife is a chef at a Marriott hotel, but among the tens of thousands of workers the global chain is temporarily laying off.

The Marietta couple also have two kids depending on them. Holland plans to keep working as long as he can, despite risking exposure to the coronavirus and worrying about passing it along to his wife, who takes medicine that weakens her immune system.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

“The other day a lady got in the car,” the 42-year-old husband said. “She had a face mask on. She was hacking. She said she hoped her coronavirus test comes back negative. I think she was off a little bit. But still, the fear is real.”

Many companies have told employees to work from home to stem the spread of COVID-19 and avoid getting sick. For workers who just need a laptop and wifi, that’s not a problem.

But it is a different reality for nearly a million of metro Atlanta's frontline workers who may be unable to telework. Many of them are in low-paying hourly jobs, without health insurance or paid sick leave. From restaurant staff to event workers, store clerks, drivers and security guards, they often have few options to manage financially without being close to others, even as they navigate risks to their own health.

Lyft and Uber driver Omar Holland, picking up a rider in Doraville, worries about the chances of being exposed to COVID-19 on the job and then spreading it to his family at home in Marietta. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

icon to expand image

For some, financial circumstances became more dire Thursday, when Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms ordered the closure of bars, nightclubs, private social clubs, fitness centers, gyms, movie theaters, bowling alleys and arcades. Restaurants can only do takeout, delivery or drive through. Many restaurants — and stores — had closed or shortened their hours even before the mayor’s action.

With millions of Americans at risk of losing their jobs or already out of work, Congress and the White House raced to push through emergency financial measures, including sending out checks of more than $1,000 to most Americans and $500 for each child. The details were still being finalized as the weekend approached.

In Georgia, where newly laid-off workers have begun flooding the Georgia Department of Labor with jobless claims, unemployment benefits often don't fully cover lost wages and only last 14 weeks. Public health experts warn the coronavirus pandemic could last much longer than that. Many hourly workers who spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in recent days said they only had savings to last a couple of months at best.

» RELATED: Georgia jobs pushed toward home as employers respond to coronavirus

» MORE: Atlanta’s low-wage workers: most at risk, first to be cut in crisis

Roughly a third of metro Atlanta workers may not be able to work from home, according to an Atlanta Regional Commission analysis. Average wages for such jobs — including food preparation, construction and health care support - are 35% below the region’s average. And that was before some employers began cutting hours and pay and furloughed workers in recent days as sales plummeted.

Some, such as Havertys furniture stores and Falcons owner Arthur Blank, have said they will continue to pay all idled workers for at least some time. Others, such as Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A, have not made clear what will happen. Norcross-based Waffle House has said it doesn’t have enough money to carry non-working employees over the long haul.

About a third of Georgia waiters, cooks and hotel clerks are uninsured, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. So are more than half of dishwashers, nearly as many maids and housekeepers, a quarter of personal-care aids and janitors, and an even-bigger share of shuttle drivers and chauffeurs.

The coronavirus outbreak has cut into consumers’ willingness to venture out to restaurants and bars. That’s cutting into the work available for people like bartender Quan Smith, a Lawrenceville resident who attends Georgia Gwinnett College and works near Duluth. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

icon to expand image

A few days ago, Kanecia Hampton, a hostess at a Midtown restaurant, guessed her tipped-out pay would be half the usual as foot traffic slowed. She worried about being around customers, but she also doesn’t have any savings, so she was taking Vitamin C and drinking three cups of green tea a day to try to stay healthy.

“I have to risk my health to make sure I’m able to live,” Hampton said.

That was before the city of Atlanta banned dining at restaurants. Brookhaven, Clarkston, Dunwoody and other communities also have adopted in-restaurant dining bans in recent days.

Hospitality in metro Atlanta employs roughly 300,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are about 52,160 waiters and waitresses, 24,000 restaurant cooks and 75,670 people working in other kinds of food preparation, including fast food, where the average wage is $9.37 an hour.

» RELATED: Waffle House chairman criticizes coronavirus limits on business

» MORE: Laid-off workers flood Labor web site filing for benefits

But you don’t have to be connected to food to feel pinched.

Security guard and single mom Jasmin Smith of Riverdale said she usually works 70 hours a week at $12 an hour to cover her bills, including a car loan and her young daughter’s day care. The temporary closing of a business cost her one of her regular assignments: 16 hours of pay a week.

“I hope it’s not long,” the 25-year-old said. “I need my whole 70 hours.”

Another worry: that her daughter’s day care will temporarily close but still try to charge her.

» RELATED: Jobless claims soar in Georgia — worse likely coming

» MORE: Atlanta Mayor Bottoms orders ban on in-person restaurant dining

Many other metro-area workers are still trying to fathom the economic fallout ahead. A worker at a gas station in Gwinnett County described putting aside an extra $400, hoping it will cover some medical costs. A Hall County hair stylist said she continues to show up for work despite chronic respiratory issues and protests from her husband and son.

And in Conyers, substitute teacher Jean Sadler said, “If we don’t work, we don’t get paid. Period.”

When Rockdale County closed schools, her work dried up. She had teaching jobs virtually every day at Memorial Middle School. That helped supplement the 72-year-old’s Social Security benefits. Her husband, Aldren Salder, is a pastor, so their family still has steady income. But the lack of teaching income will make it hard to pay bills, she said.

One job that seems somewhat safe at the moment: grocery store worker. Keeping stores open to sell food seems essential. But showing up for work is a doubled-edged sword.

» RELATED: Workers laid off as airport restaurants and shops close

» FROM 2017: Atlanta's scars from recession remain

A young cashier at a metro Atlanta Walmart said he thinks about the coronavirus as consumers rush to stock up on supplies. Where once 100 to 200 people might come through his line during a shift, he said on some recent days he was facing 300 to 500 people, all of them less than the six-feet distance that infectious diseases experts recommend.

He said a supervisor told him not to wear a mask because it would cause “cross contamination.” He said he worries about spreading COVID-19 to less-healthy family members, including a younger brother with asthma.

“If it got passed on, it would be from me,” said the man, who is in his 20s. “I’m the only one at home dealing with people, dealing with money.”

Still, he said, he knows friends who are trying to find work, and that he gets paid sick time and has the option of health insurance. “I’m counting my blessings at this point,” he added.

The cancellation of some events at Gwinnett’s Infinite Energy Center meant part-time technician Clay Smith was working his last shift for the foreseeable future. He was looking for other work options as the coronavirus oubreak scrambled metro Atlanta’s job picture. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

icon to expand image

Clay Smith would like just about any job right now. He already was out of work in recent months after losing an IT help-desk job and expending his unemployment benefits for the year, he said. The 34-year-old landed part-time work as a technician at Gwinnett’s Infinite Energy Center. But as events were canceled, his shifts were cut. “In two hours I have zero income coming in for the foreseeable future,” he said two days after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic.

Nearby, 54-year-old Marc Briley was packing up at the same civic center. The third-generation owner of a store — Ashby Sewing Machine Company in Kennesaw — bemoaned the abrupt early ending of a sewing and quilting expo. Fewer consumers showed up than normal.

Briley said he lost money on the event. Still, having been around so many people, he and his wife decided to temporarily self quarantine, keeping the shop closed and staying clear of his aging in-laws who live in their home.

He also asked his two part-time workers to do the same and said he would pay them as if they were working their normal shifts. “I feel like we are family.”

If the shop stays closed longer, he said, he will pay them for a full month. “I’ve figured it out. After that they will have to draw unemployment ‘cause there’s no way I can afford to pay them longer than that if I’m not open.”

Marc Briley, the third-generation owner of Kennesaw-based Ashby Sewing Machine Company, had to clear out early from a quilting and sewing expo in Gwinnett County. The event ended early as coronavirus concerns grew. If he has to temporarily close his shop, Briley said he intends to still pay his hourly workers for an additional month. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

icon to expand image

Yana Lee-Fong, who co-owns the Epicurean Café in Duluth, said she can’t afford to pay wages if the restaurant in a historic home in downtown Duluth temporarily closes.

As it is, she said, business is down sharply. She is trying to keep the doors open to keep her employees paid. “They have no safety net. That keeps me up at night.”

She and co-owner Omar Powell are shifting menu items and adding online ordering with pickup curbside, hoping to find new ways to entice worried members of the public. Even in good times, margins are thin, they said. They don’t offer hourly workers paid sick time or health insurance. They don’t have health insurance for themselves either. And if business stays depressed, Lee-Fong said the restaurant won’t last two months.

On Friday, the city of Duluth barred in-person dining in restaurants.

Amanda Gabrell works as a server at the Epicurean Cafe in Duluth. The part-time work helps supplement what she makes at her full-time job in billing. With restaurant goers scaling back during the coronavirus outbreak, Gabrell has contemplated how to navigate the potential financial setback. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

icon to expand image

Plenty of hourly workers string together multiple sources of income. But that’s not always protection.

Christina Berry of Lawrenceville has been working this year as a clerk at a clothing store and on weekends as a professional singer, often at weddings. She and her mother also care for Berry’s 89-year-old grandfather. During work and before coming home, she would grab hand sanitizer, worried shoppers with coronavirus would infect her and then her mother and him. “I know my cleanliness, but I don’t know others’.”

Then a few days ago the retail chain announced plans to close its stores for two weeks and to pay associates during that time. But Berry said that doesn’t include some hourly workers like her.

Even before then she was watching her phone, dreading the potential wedding cancellations she was afraid were sure to come. By Thursday, all of her singing gigs until mid-May had been canceled.

She’s joining what’s likely to be a flood of other performers applying for artist relief funds. She’s also asking — and getting — some companies to defer her bills or lower payments because she’s paid on time in the past.

“Prepare for the worst. Hope for the best,” she wrote in a text. Emoji crossed fingers.

— Data specialist John Perry contributed to this article.

About the Authors