As the coronavirus crisis stresses almost every facet of American life, we’re featuring the stories of people who are struggling to stay afloat, finding unexpected financial opportunities or simply changing the way they’re thinking about money, the economy and our country’s social safety net. To do that, we need your help — we want to hear how the coronavirus crisis is affecting you economically. Please share your experience with us.
Over the past two months and change, millions of Americans have found themselves in highly vulnerable employment positions. Among those feeling the most pressure are people with ties to the live entertainment industry, which has been brought to its knees by its inability to generate ticket revenue, and people who rely on in-person interaction.
Then there’s Brandi Davidson, who held multiple jobs and earned a solid income but whose gigs fall right in the center of that unfortunate Venn diagram. She worked in public relations for arts festivals, many of which have been canceled by now, and drove part time for Uber.
The 46-year-old D.C. resident has stopped her Uber work for now: Bookings have fallen as people stay home, and Davidson doesn’t feel safe driving anyway. And her husband, who also drives for Uber to earn part-time income, has a few underlying health conditions that would put him at greater risk if he were to come down with the highly contagious virus.
Of course, the flipside of that vigilance is that the family of three — they serve as guardians for their 9-year-old godson — is generating no income at the moment. “I took most of my cash out of the bank when this thing started,” Davidson said. “Part of it was me being nervous. But that pile of cash is almost gone.”
Davidson first noticed something strange in her routing back in late February or early March. She also works as a driver for HopSkipDrive, an Uber-like transportation service that provides rides for young children. Because she lives in the D.C. area, Davidson often drives the kids of dignitaries — some of whom were beginning to cancel their pre-scheduled rides. A week and a half into March, “I lost about 50 percent of the rides I’d normally get that week,” she said. That was when she realized that her earlier cancellations may have stemmed from a handful of high-ranking federal workers understanding the extent of the virus sooner — and pulling their kids out of school accordingly.
Each time Davidson looked at her dwindling pile of cash, she thought about getting back in her car. No, she wouldn’t pick up and drop off people, which she considers too risky. But maybe sign up to deliver food for Uber? Then she considered where she lives — right near a hospital — and the fact that she’d likely have to deliver to people who are working on patients who may be infected with the virus.
It’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t sort of feeling, she says. Many things have felt that way. Back in March, as the virus spread and it was clear that Davidson would have no money coming in, she took the step of filing for unemployment. She got an almost instant rejection. “I knew that couldn’t be the end of the answer,” said Davidson, who has consistently made from $60,000 to $65,000 a year.
She then called the unemployment office and waited 6½ hours on hold. As long as the wait was, the advice she ended up getting was helpful. She was told that her rejection was likely related to the unusual filing situations of Davidson and her husband: Their Uber roles are considered non-wage jobs, and their consultant positions are seen as independent contractors. Complicated unemployment filings from people in those positions can’t be greenlighted as easily, and first-time rejections are common. Davidson’s adviser told her that the unemployment office would need more time to implement a better-fitting set of filing options for non-wage employees.
“The system wasn’t made for people like us,” said Davidson, who files quarterly income statements for her work with Uber, which doesn’t report worker income to the government.
Even in light of the marathon call with the unemployment office, Davidson has kept a level head despite the stressful situation. She’s not unfamiliar with being forced to make a situation more workable, having once negotiated a $700 medical bill down to closer to $100.
Her persistence paid off: Aside from receiving their $1,200 stimulus checks, Davidson and her husband finally qualified for unemployment, which has translated into checks for a little less than $800 a week each. “I don’t know what I’d do without unemployment,” she said. “It’s not my salary, and of course I’d need to make more at some point, but I feel completely blessed that it eventually came through.”
Davidson and her family have been able to avoid one key challenge facing many American families: They recently moved into a home her husband inherited from his grandmother, eliminating any concerns about monthly housing payments.
Still, as someone whose livelihood depends heavily on people having to be somewhere — be it a summer festival, or even just needing a ride-sharing option to make it to that festival — Davidson looks forward to being able to earn again. But she just doesn’t want the reopening process to happen too soon, which could put people like her husband at risk.
Davidson takes that step seriously, so much so that she told her godson’s mother that, because of the risks involved, they couldn’t continue to shuttle the 9-year-old between their homes anymore — essentially saying either his mother would have to wait out the pandemic to visit with the child again, or that Davidson and her husband would need to.
“I probably cried for three days after that,” she said, adding they decided it would be best for Davidson and her husband to keep the boy for the time being. “But that’s how strongly I feel about it. My thought is, when hospitals say it’s safe to go visit a loved one, then I’ll think it’s safe to go out and have things return to normal again.”