Living Paycheck To Paycheck During The Coronavirus Crisis

Download Audio
A waiter prepares a capuccino at a cafe in downtown Milan on March 10, 2020. (MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images)
A waiter prepares a capuccino at a cafe in downtown Milan on March 10, 2020. (MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images)

For resources on the coronavirus, visit the CDC's page here. NPR's coverage of the coronavirus outbreak is available here

The coronavirus is illuminating workplace inequality and labor vulnerabilities in our economy. What happens when workers can’t afford to take time off, or don’t have paid sick leave?


Jay Shambaugh, director of The Hamilton Project. Senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. (@JayCShambaugh)

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Tricia Petit, server at a bar and restaurant in Bloomington, Ind.

Andrew Yost, manager at a restaurant. He has also signed up to be a census worker and is starting a position as a contractor at the Department of Homeland Security.

Living Paycheck To Paycheck During The Coronavirus Crisis

Tricia Petit, a student and restaurant server living in Bloomington, Indiana, is nervous about coronavirus. She’s not worried that she’ll get sick and die — she’s concerned that the disease, whether she contracts it or it spreads throughout the state, will make it nearly impossible for her to pay her bills.

Petit is one of approximately 23 million American workers living paycheck to paycheck (which includes mostly hourly-paid employees working in the service industry, many working multiple jobs to make ends meet). Over half of these workers don’t receive paid sick leave, leaving them without an income in the event that they contract coronavirus and have to self-quarantine.

If either of those situations came to fruition, Petit says she’s not sure how she would manage. For her co-workers, many of whom aren’t still on their parents’ healthcare plans — as Petit is — it could be even worse.

“If I didn't have health care [through] my parents, I don't know what I would do if I got sick,” she says. “I don't know how I would pay for that.”

Petit, Hamilton Project director Jay Shambaugh, On Point news analyst Jack Beatty and restaurant manager Andrew Yost joined On Point’s Meghna Chakrabarti to discuss how the coronavirus will impact vulnerable American workers.

Interview Highlights

On living paycheck to paycheck during a pandemic

Tricia Petit: “I'm a student in Bloomington, Indiana. And like you said, I work at a restaurant and bar. I pretty much work paycheck to paycheck with that. I usually have some savings, but I was pretty sick last month and had to take some time off work and depleted most of my savings. So I am kind of worried that if I should take some time off work for being sick again, or if a lot of people stop coming out, that I'm not going to get the tips I need to pay the bills.”

"... I know most service industry workers, including myself, work on very, very low wages cause we're just expected to make our living on tips. So if nobody came out, I really wouldn't be making any money even if I was still able to be at work.”

“… We have so many local food banks here in Bloomington that I would be able to rely on thankfully, but I would have to ask friends to help out with rent. I really don't know what I would do.”

On healthcare insecurity in the face of a public health crisis

Tricia Petit: “I am lucky enough to have health care through my parents since I'm still under that age. But if I didn't have health care from my parents, I don't know what I would do if I got sick. I don't know how I would pay for that. Obviously, I don't have any more savings to pay for rent. If I were to be out of work, I don't know how I would pay for any medical bills.”

On the people most vulnerable to coronavirus’ social and economic effects

Jack Beatty: “Tricia is a member of the American precariat, the 23 million, mostly hourly-paid workers who work in the hotel and food service industries and who do not receive any sick pay or sick days compared to 97% of people who work in the financial industry. So 45% in restaurants and service, 97% in finance, get sick pay. And who are their employers? Burger King, Chick-Fil-A, Jack in the Box, Wendy's, Panera, no sick leave. And why is that? It's been, according to one account, 16 years that Congress --Democrats in Congress — have tried to get this. But the other NRA, the National Restaurant Association, has successfully lobbied against it, which gives mostly to Republicans. And no less than 30 of its 36 leading lobbyists have former government or Capitol Hill connections. So it's a very well-wired lobby that has beaten back attempts to give more security to this large and growing population of Americans.”

Jay Shambaugh: “I think when we look at any situation where there is a potential downturn in the economy, one thing it really reveals is the extent of vulnerability in the population, that there are a lot of people really kind of living on the edge of just getting by. And it highlights that we need, when we face a crisis like this, we need to do everything we can to backstop those people, to make sure that they have the resources they need. It's not about getting them to go on a shopping spree. It's about making sure they have enough resources to pay rent, to feed their family and to provide health care.”

On President Trump’s payroll tax cut solution

Jay Shambaugh: “A payroll tax cut, you and Jack talked about some of the flaws in it, and they're just really important to re-emphasize. Which is: it only goes to people who are working. And so that's a real problem. It's biased towards higher-income people. And if you earn $100,000 a year, a 2% payroll tax cut is $2000. That's great. But if you earn $10,000, it's $200 dollars. It also gets phased in slowly because you're only getting your paycheck in dribs and drabs.

"We actually know how to do something better. We've done it twice before, which is just actually sending checks to people. This was done in a bipartisan way in 2008. President Bush, a Republican, and a Democratic Congress, joined together and they sent checks out. And the research suggests it was actually quite helpful, helpful to households to give them a buffer but also helpful to the economy.

"And so I would be really hopeful that people could kind of switch their views around on this a little and recognize that what we want to do is get resources to people, you can just send the same amount of money to everybody. That way, if someone's lost their job, they still get it. If it's a worker like Tricia that you spoke to earlier who is relying on tips and commission and her actual payroll tax may not be that high. She's getting a check that is a meaningful amount. That's giving her a cushion.

"And so it's the kind of thing we could do that, if you're giving people a cushion it means, if you think maybe you shouldn't go to work because you might be sick, it might be the thing that lets you make that good decision as opposed to putting people in these impossible positions where ‘I think I might have a fever, but if I don't go to work, I'm going to get evicted.’ That's not where you want people to be in a public health crisis.”

Liam Knox adapted this show for the web.

From The Reading List

NPR: "'Who's Going To Help Them?': Caregivers Brace For The Spread Of Coronavirus" — "Shelly Hughes says three things are required to do her job: a strong back, a strong stomach and a big heart.

"She's a certified nurse's aide at a nursing home in Washington state, which also means another requirement: To get her work done, she has to physically be there.

"'You're helping residents that may not be able to dress themselves, feed themselves, toilet themselves,' Hughes says. 'The great stuff is that you get to know wonderful people. I have so many grandmas and grandpas now, let me tell you.'

"For many companies, the first call to slow the spread of the coronavirus is telling employees to hunker down and work remotely. But that's simply not an option for workers like Hughes — home or health aides, who look after some of the most vulnerable, sometimes themselves without health insurance and earning very little."

Austin Chronicle: "SXSW Lays Off Some 50 Employees After Cancellation of 2020 Festival" — "South by Southwest laid off about one-third of its staff, around 50 people, this afternoon. A senior employee at the organization, who only agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the layoffs to the Chronicle in the dinnertime hour.

"The high-ranking official characterized the mass termination as “the only way to stop the bleeding” after the city of Austin forced SXSW into cancellation late Friday afternoon over concerns of the coronavirus spreading.

"The terminated employees spanned multiple departments with the company and included both veteran staffers and newer hires. Anyone not working on something immediate was let go. Some people had been working there for months and others for over a decade."

The Washington Post: "A fast, simple way to get support to workers without paid leave" — "The biggest threat posed by the covid-19 outbreak is, of course, the health risks it poses. But that is not the only risk: Avoidance, social distancing and panic may have enormous economic consequences, large enough to significantly slow growth, push up unemployment and even tip the economy into a recession.

"On this front, the most vulnerable people are low-wage workers in low-income households without paid leave. Many employers are already telling their white-collar workers to work from home. But low-wage workers such as janitors, food service workers and retail cashiers can’t work remotely, and they also often work for contractors with less-enlightened policies.

"If these workers are temporarily idled by specific quarantines, school closures affecting their children or workplace closures motivated by general social distancing efforts, they won’t get paid. Their families tend to have little savings and live in an economically precarious state even in good times. Without work, these families face near-term risks of intense economic hardship and possible eviction."

Time: "'If We Don't Work, We Don't Get Paid.' How the Coronavirus Is Exposing Inequality Among America's Workers" — "There are many things that worry Fina Kao about working in a busy donut shop in an age of fear about a spreading virus. The elderly customer who shuffles across the brown linoleum floor of the shop, orders a glazed donut, and then coughs. The parents sitting at a table sharing a breakfast sandwich as their small child touches the tables and the floor and the drinks fridge with her dirty fingers. The regulars who come in and who Kao knows travel annually to China—one of whom proceeds to sit at the window and cut his fingernails. The fact that California now has 53 confirmed cases of coronavirus, more than any other state.

"But Kao and her fellow workers at All Stars Donuts in the Richmond district of San Francisco don’t have much choice but to show up to work, their only shield from potential coronavirus carriers a 24-ounce bottle of aloe hand sanitizer they’ve put near the register. Kao works five days a week from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. 'If we don’t work,' says Kao, 31, 'we don’t get paid.'

"While employees of companies like Twitter are being encouraged to work from home to protect themselves from the virus, known as COVID-19, people like Kao, whose jobs depend on in-person interaction, feel more exposed than ever. In this way, the spread of the coronavirus exposes a widening chasm in the U.S. economy between college-educated workers, whose jobs can be done from anywhere on a computer, and less-educated workers who increasingly find themselves in jobs that require human contact."

This program aired on March 12, 2020.


Wes Martin Freelance Producer
Wes Martin is a freelance producer for On Point.


Headshot of Meghna Chakrabarti

Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



More from On Point

Listen Live