The local library near McHenry, Ill., is slashing Helaine Oleksy’s hours.
As millions of Americans return to work amid the worst economic crisis in a generation, they’re unexpectedly discovering their old positions are far more burdensome than they used to be. Their hours have been cut, their pay has been slashed and their responsibilities are now magnitudes greater. And their job security — despite President Trump’s recent proclamations about an economy on the mend — remains anything but guaranteed.
New economic data released Friday has fueled the White House’s fresh optimism, as the U.S. jobless rate unexpectedly declined, with the official rate at 13.3 percent in May from 14.7 percent in April. Over the same period, the country also added more than 2.5 million jobs, the Labor Department said, shocking experts who had expected a worsening in the market as a result of the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
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But economists contend the federal indicators mask a far grimmer reality at a time when millions of Americans are still facing the prospect of prolonged unemployment. For those who did maintain their old jobs, newly unfavorable conditions have left many workers trading one set of anxieties for another, now fearful for their financial and physical safety.
“People are coming back to work in jobs that are very different than they were three months ago,” said Robert Scott, a senior economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. “They’re very risky and there’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s to come. There’s a rocky road ahead, and a lot of work on the economy left to be done.”
While roughly 30 million Americans are receiving unemployment benefits, some are retaking their old jobs as their states start to reopen. Their return to the workplace coincides with improving employment figures in hard-hit sectors such as retail and hospitality, said Nick Bunker, the economic research director for the job-listing site Indeed, who described the numbers as a sign of a “partial bounce-back.” The data offers early, encouraging news, suggesting federal programs had helped in preventing even more widespread, lasting unemployment, experts said.
At the same time, though, Bunker said there was a higher-than-expected spike in part-time employment, one of a few indicators that “suggests there has not been a full return to work” for some people. Indeed also found that the highest rate of job growth has occurred within the lowest-wage industries, including some food and beverage stores, raising questions about the extent to which some Americans may be falling behind financially.
Still, top Trump administration officials heartily celebrated Friday’s jobs numbers. “Millions of Americans are still out of work, and the department remains focused on bringing Americans safely back to work and helping states deliver unemployment benefits to those who need them,” Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia said in a statement Friday. “However, it appears the worst of the coronavirus’s impact on the nation’s job markets is behind us.”
For workers in some of those jobs, their headaches actually are just beginning.
When the weather turns warm, and the golfers hit the courses in Pennsylvania, Claudia Martin typically gets back to work at her local country club in the southwestern corner of the state. The 66-year-old Latrobe resident puts in roughly 30 hours a week each season, bartending and helping out with administrative office tasks, supplementing her monthly Social Security check.
But the coronavirus greatly threatened the club’s operations, and Martin’s hours have been halved since she returned to work just this week. “It’s significantly less,” she said of her resulting pay, threatening her ability to save for the offseason when they are closed and she is out of work.
“The money I earned in tips, I would put away to help me get through the winter,” Martin said, later adding: “The economy is working for some people. But it's not working for many lower-wage workers."
Restaurant servers, bartenders and other workers who rely on a steady stream of customers — and often the tips they leave — have been disproportionately affected by a pandemic that is spread by social proximity. So too has the coronavirus decimated the retail sector, as online purchases cut into some major brands’ in-store revenue. Some major employers, including J.Crew and J.C. Penney, have fallen into bankruptcy, and others have slashed their workforce, cut the hours of those they keep on staff or changed their job responsibilities entirely.
“Retailers have to be more flexible in terms of bringing their workforce back online,” said Mark Mathews, the vice president of research development and industry analytics at the National Retail Federation. He said employees that once stocked shelves and managed registers, for example, now may be bringing some of those purchases out to customers’ cars.
But the effects of the economic downturn are far more widespread, leaving virtually no industry untouched in the broader U.S. economy. A report prepared by the Federal Reserve System, called the Beige Book, found in its May release that sharp reductions to hours and wages have troubled employees nationwide.
Hospitals have placed doctors and support staff on irregular shifts, seeking to save money at a moment of sky-high expenses, threatening some in the medical industry with gaps in their pay. Gig-economy companies including Uber that once offered the promise of a little extra monthly income no longer seem particularly alluring to some Americans, threatening to expose drivers and other workers to strangers who may be sick. Some Uber drivers still on the ride-hailing app say the demand has declined dramatically.
“There is almost nothing on the road. I start my system and I have to spend a long time waiting for a job. There’s nothing to do right now,” said Pedro Acosta, a 52-year-old Brooklyn resident who’s driven for Uber for nearly eight years.
Often, the companies that have continued to operate have demanded more from their workers — without sizable increases in their take-home wages.
At the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami, roughly 70 people previously helped clean the tower where Iracema Arrieta has served as a housekeeper, she said. But fewer than half of them have returned to the job since the coronavirus struck, she said, even though Arrieta and her peers must now do systematic, deeper cleanings of rooms to prevent the spread of the disease. The work is harder, and the cleaning solution sometimes makes it difficult to breathe, she said. Plus, the tips are much less than they used to be, leaving Arrieta to conclude that the state rushed to reopen.
“I have bills to pay, I have a house, I’m a widow, so I really feel I had no choice but to return to work because I had no other options,” added Arrieta, a native Spanish speaker. She spoke with The Washington Post through the aid of a translator from UNITE HERE, a labor union of which she is a member.
For other workers, though, these critical new safety measures meant to stop the spread of the coronavirus have also cut into their paychecks.
When local companies began to close in the opening days of the pandemic — and Georgia residents began to hunker down with them — sanitation worker Greg Dowis saw a drop-off in the number of dumpsters he serviced in Cumming, Ga. The 57-year-old and his colleagues ultimately took personal vacation and sick days when there wasn’t enough work to go around, all the while wondering whether their employer, Republic Services, could supply the protective equipment to keep them safe.
“A lot of times that worried us when we had to open those doors, because of any liquid that would come and squirt out,” Dowis said. “That was nerve-racking.”
Since Georgia has reopened, more work has followed, but Dowis said that doing the job safely in pandemic conditions takes more time and eats into their take-home pay. Workers’ incentive bonuses are based on the number of large dumpsters they can service each day. The increased vigilance can mean an extra 10 or 15 minutes spent on each container, and with regulations in place limiting hours that sanitation vehicles can be on the streets, it can mean missing stops and much-needed cash.
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Shuttered businesses, slowdowns in spending and sharp declines in tourism have also cleaved massive holes into local governments’ budgets. Last month alone, governments cut more than half a million jobs from their payrolls, according to the new federal data released Friday. The figure does not include those who have seen their hours and wages dramatically cut, putting their financial futures at risk.
Before the coronavirus arrived in the United States, Helaine Oleksy was the “lady behind the desk” at a local library near her hometown of McHenry, Ill., an hour outside Chicago. She worked about 15 hours each week helping residents find books and sorting the novels they returned, often taking on more hours when her colleagues were sick or on vacation.
Then came the coronavirus, which shuttered the branch in early March. The state library system, funded in part through local property taxes, still paid employees like Oleksy some of their hours while it was closed, leaving her “extremely lucky,” she said. But Oleksy added she is still struggling along with her husband, who owns a local auto shop, to pay some of their bills.
“There were a couple of [times] I had to call and say it's going to be late,” she said.
The library is set to reopen next week, converting into a drive-through service so that readers can drop off and pick up new books. When it does, Oleksy will be there handling potentially contaminated materials. She praised the library and its safety measures, but she said she’ll only be working eight hours each week, a far cry from the fuller employment she once enjoyed.
“Anybody who’s going back to work, and not going back to their full hours,” she said, “I don’t know if that counts as a job.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Mark Mathews, vice president of research development and industry analytics at the National Retail Federation.