Every few days, I call my brother, who has always lived in a harder world than mine. He’s 60, does not have a college degree, and for years has lived from paycheck to paycheck setting up banquets at a suburban Detroit hotel.
He lost his job because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has shut down much of the economy. First, two events in a week were canceled. Then all events were canceled, and on March 16, his manager called to say there would be no more work.
The events I had lamented losing because of social distancing seemed inconsequential compared with my brother’s situation. My husband and I can work remotely. We both have graduate degrees and skills easily put to use in our home offices.
When I first checked in on my brother, he was using his paid time off to live and had only nine hours left. He was scrambling.
“Do you think I should apply for another job?” he asked, adding that he had heard of a part-time opening in a machine shop.
“Yes, do it now,” I said. “Things aren’t going to get better any time soon.”
My brother, like unskilled low-income workers around the country, will be one of the long-term casualties of COVID-19. He lost his job the same day Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan signed an executive order closing bars, restaurants, and many other gathering places through at least March 30. It was a day after Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts called for the same action, beginning on March 17. Most of us realize it’s unlikely any of this will be over by March 30. We may be still in shutdown mode well into the summer or longer.
My brother’s employer had little to offer in laying him off. He could use his remaining paid time off — now just four hours’ worth. He makes a little less than Michigan’s minimum wage of $9.65 an hour.
As the days have gone on, he has applied for unemployment. He stopped by a local pizza shop to see about a delivery job he saw advertised. He plans to put in applications at other pizza places, too, and check out grocery stores in need of help. He is competing with younger workers.
Politicians have been pitching ideas on how to help our country’s economy and debating what should be the right approach. Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah may be onto something with his plan proposing that the federal government give $1,000 to every American adult to help them pay bills and rescue the flailing economy. Congress is currently ironing out the details of such a proposal as part of a larger aid package. But that amount should be doubled for those most affected — such as hourly workers like my brother who rely on people flooding their workplaces for banquets, movies, meals, and other entertainment. Target the aid toward airline workers and the construction workers whose sites are shutting down in Boston. The list is endless.
My brother was pessimistic about what politicians could do. “A thousand dollars? That’s not enough to cover a month,” he said. He pays $1,000 a month just in rent for a room in a suburban Detroit condo he shares with two others, and neither of his roommates is on solid economic footing.
I live in a high-income Boston suburb and see chatter on Facebook groups. Parents are creating elaborate homeschooling schedules for their kids. Or, in my case, we’re letting our 12-year-old son mostly figure it out for himself as his own learning experience. We’re coming up with ways to entertain ourselves and reduce our isolation, adopting another city’s idea of rainbow hunts for kids. Kids can look for paper rainbows taped to windows of nearby homes and still practice social distancing.
But how many of us are thinking of the most vulnerable Americans? Let’s work hard to help those who lack the resources to easily bounce back from the pandemic’s economic punch. Admittedly, we also need all the rainbows we can find.
My brother, during our first conversation about the COVID-19 outbreak, wanted me to provide answers about when I thought all of this would blow over. I have none.
Linda K. Wertheimer, a former Globe education editor, is the author of “Faith Ed: Teaching about Religion in an Age of Intolerance.”
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