In New York, the epicenter of the nation’s coronavirus outbreak, the lucky ones work at home.

But that’s often not an option for the 1.4 million New Yorkers who freelance, work project to project or find gigs through apps like Lyft and Wag. Much of their work has evaporated, and they may not be entitled to unemployment benefits or be covered by health insurance.

From a caterer whose event-based business lost the next two months of bookings, to a production assistant hoping his food-delivery gig allows him to keep paying the bills, workers have had to adjust their routines — sometimes drastically — as they cope with economic uncertainty. Here are their stories:


Over the last few years, Josh Taylor has found steady work as a production assistant in movies and television, part of that army of 20-somethings with clipboards and radios who watch over equipment or shoo pedestrians away from location shoots. That changed a few weeks ago when production after production in the city closed down.

While he always had side gigs to earn extra money, he now has recourse to only one: riding a bike through empty Manhattan streets delivering for Uber Eats in the evenings. The tips have been good, but they’re still not enough to make up for the anxiety he feels when he returns home near Yankee Stadium, where he has been living with his 80-year-old grandmother to save money.

“I should be inside,” Mr. Taylor said. “I try to keep my distance since I’m outside every day. I’m making money. But I’m more worried about my grandmother getting sick.”

He had stumbled into production work as a teenager when his sister, who was working on a Spiderman movie, asked if he was interested in becoming an assistant like her. It went well, and within a few years he was finding steady work on productions by NBC, Comedy Central and Netflix.

But three weeks ago, the work vanished. “I don’t think anyone is working right now,” he said.

One of his backup gigs — dog walking — also dried up around the same time. “So I turned to my other job delivering food for Uber Eats,” he said. “I’m concerned. But I’ve noticed that whenever I go downtown now, there’s virtually no one outside. I wear medical gloves. I’m not hugging or high-fiving anyone. I keep my distance and don’t interact with people.”

He takes more protective measures when he returns home to his grandmother.

“When I get home I take off the gloves and my clothes, wash my hands and jump in the shower,” he said. “I keep the clothes I wore outside in a safe place in my room. My grandmother doesn’t go in my room anymore.”

So far, he isn’t afraid of being unable to pay rent, thanks to a higher rate from Uber and a noticeable increase in tips.

“People are afraid not to tip, because all of us are working outside where corona is,” he said. “Honestly, I’m making money.”

Until when, however, is a nagging question.

“I can do deliveries every day,” he said. “Unless they shut down the city. That would make it impossible for me.”


When Jen Abbate divorced her husband four years ago, she kept the two-bedroom apartment they had shared in Park Slope. Ms. Abbate, an educator at a nearby private school in Brooklyn, knew it would be hard to make the $3,000 monthly rent, so she took in a roommate. Then she started side gigs tutoring and babysitting to make ends meet. Finally, she took in a second roommate.


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“Even sharing with one person wasn’t enough if you’re trying to live in New York City,” said Ms. Abbate.

Then, a week ago, one of Ms. Abbate’s roommates moved out with little explanation, taking the Clorox wipes she had purchased for the apartment, though she later contributed her part of April’s rent. And while Ms. Abbate is grateful that her school continues to pay her salary, her anxiety over an uncertain future was jarring, especially since her side gigs dried up.

“My divorce messed with my finances, and I was just starting to recover from that,” she said. “What I realized with this coronavirus situation is how vulnerable I am to not making ends meet. Without those side gigs, I have no security. I’m 36, living this roommate, side-hustle life I never thought I’d have to do at this age.”

In March, she started to cut back on anything that was a luxury, including her gym membership, Hulu and Netflix. She has autoimmune issues, though, so she is keeping, for now, her monthly $100 membership fee at a medical group.

Worse, she has no idea how long this will last. She applied for federal help with student loan forbearance, and she expects to save $450 monthly in payments starting in May, though eventually she will have to make the postponed payments. Still, she wonders if her landlord will ease up on the rent, if things drag on.

“My biggest worry is sliding back into personal debt,” she said. “Since I’ve been working part time tutoring and babysitting, I’ve been able to make enough to stay out of credit card debt. At 36, what I’d like to do is have money to move out on my own and have emergency funds if something like this happens.”

She knows that despite these hardships, there are people who are in much more tenuous situations. “Being an educator, this just highlights educational inequality,” she said. “You see the differences families have, from wealthy families who can pay you during a shutdown to families without laptops or internet.”

Being close to her own family, especially her 92-year-old grandmother Helen Losapio, who lives by herself in Yonkers, was the main reason she returned to New York. She used to visit her weekly. Not anymore.

“My biggest worry is my grandma,” she said. “Because I have been exposed to multiple people, I can’t spend time with her. She’s really lonely, and not being able to see her makes it even harder.”


Boyvi, a day laborer or, “jornalero,” originally from Guatemala, has been without a construction job for almost three weeks.

Even before Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered residential and commercial construction sites to shut down, Boyvi’s boss began scaling back. First, he gradually cut hours; then, he told the crew they were no longer needed at the site. Now Boyvi and other workers wait to resume construction on the 30-floor residential building in Manhattan. But his finances cannot wait until then.

“There’s bills to pay,” Boyvi said. “There are too many worries.”

He has contacted other employers who sometimes call him for construction side gigs, but the answer is always the same: nothing available.

Boyvi, who is undocumented and was paid in cash, worries about not being eligible for any federal aid. He spent the remainder of his savings on groceries that are supposed to last him a week. After that, he is unsure how he will eat and pay his share of the rent of the four-bedroom apartment he occupies with four other family members in Brooklyn. Altogether, his monthly bills add up to $2,000.

“This is,” he said, “the most expensive city on earth.”

And if he were to get sick with Covid-19, he has no idea how he would pay for the hospital bills. Boyvi, like most undocumented immigrants, has no health insurance.

“It’s a circle of worries. There are no words,” he said. “I am trapped at home. It’s like a trauma of all these things piling up.”

To help workers like Boyvi amid the outbreak, the Workers Justice Project, a Brooklyn based organization that represents day laborers and domestic workers, has created a relief fund for donations.


After five years of running dineDK, a high-end catering business, from his Hoboken home, David Kirschner thought this would be his breakout year. He and a roster of experienced freelance chefs worked with clients to create unique culinary experiences from intimate at-home dinners for two to receptions for 200 people. Business was so good, he was negotiating a lease for an 1,800-square-foot space in downtown Jersey City that would have had a culinary studio with a large kitchen, as well as an event space under one roof.

But after seeing at least his next two months of events vanish because of coronavirus-related shutdowns, he’s using the $30,000 that would have been his security deposit to keep his business afloat.

“We’re an event business,” said Mr. Kirschner. “Now we’re facing hard decisions. What if this economic downturn affects our ability to move forward? Parties have already been pushed back to June or July. Right now, we’re staring down a hole of zero revenue.”

He and his wife, Allison, a freelance casting associate, had thought this year would bring financial stability, but instead they are tapping into their savings. They have tightened their belts, giving up the nanny who used to come by twice a week to help care for Ava, their 21-month old child.

His company employs only three people, relying on freelance chefs and partnerships with agencies in different cities to provide wait staff.

Although 85 percent of his clients are across the river in New York City, his company cannot tap into small business relief the city offers.

“We pay our taxes to New York,” he said. “But we’re not getting access to any of the relief efforts they rolled out quickly. And New Jersey hasn’t released any individual packages.”

He’s been looking into federal small business loans, though he’s worried about taking on debt with no idea when he can reopen. He just set up a GoFundMe page to raise $100,000 that he said would help the business move forward and support his staff, whom he still employs.

But as long as the virus continues to spread and claim victims, he cannot in good conscience expect his chefs and servers — many of whom live in Brooklyn — to venture out to work and risk getting infected or infecting someone else.

“This isn’t just a business,” he said. “It’s a business with people.”


Yulan Grant used to spend half of her week earning $25 an hour as an art handler at the New Museum, where she carefully transported heavy pieces of contemporary art. But her days at galleries, warehouses and museums ended in early March, and with that, part of her income.

She has not stepped foot in an art gallery for more than three weeks.

“We just can’t work,” said Ms. Grant, who has had respiratory issues since she was a child in Jamaica. “It’s really unsafe for us to do so. If you are taking care of a piece that requires more than one person — which most pieces require — you can’t do social distancing.”

In addition to her gig at the museum, she had been supplementing her income by working as a D.J. Under the moniker SHYBOI, Ms. Grant played techno, house and soca music at Brooklyn nightspots and toured overseas where she also played festivals. But as clubs were forced to close, festivals canceled or postponed and global travel restrictions enacted, she lost another source of income.

Ms. Grant was supposed to be touring in Europe until April, for which she would have earned $5,000.

Now, she spends hours in the Brooklyn apartment she shares with two other roommates, one of whom also works in the nightlife business, searching for online jobs. So far, she has earned some income doing mixes and playing one show online, but that is not enough to cover rent and her private health insurance.

“Even though I have absolutely no work right now,” she said, “I still need to find money every month to make sure my policy doesn’t run out during the middle of a pandemic.”

She hopes she can use her knowledge of art to find archiving work for magazines and galleries, but the search has been fruitless. Many freelancers like her are competing for the same jobs.

Her worries go beyond how she will pay her bills if there is an extended shutdown. Even after that, she fears what will happen to nightclubs and galleries when the pandemic passes.

“It’s tricky because there’s no foreseeable income,” Ms. Grant said. “No one knows when the museums and galleries will be open again. We just don’t know when the clubs will be open or especially in New York, if they will able to survive being closed for more than a month.”

She said she has savings to pay for two months of rent, groceries and other bills. After that, she does not know what she would do, she said: “That would basically be me going through every dollar I have.”

Source: NY TIMES RSS FEED