Mary Roberts is not immune to the hustle as an artist. But the coronavirus pandemic has presented a challenge like she's never seen before.
Roberts, 39, is a choreographer and director for the cruise line industry. Before the pandemic, she enjoyed a busy career working as an independent contractor for multiple cruise lines, directing and choreographing parties and shows on ships.
At the beginning of March, all the contracts she had lined up for the rest of the year were suspended one by one. Eventually, more than $60,000 in jobs that she'd secured for the rest of the year disappeared, she said.
"I kept waiting," said Roberts. "I kept thinking my work is going to come back."
Damage to lower- and middle-class Americans
The coronavirus pandemic has affected employment for millions of Americans and has been concentrated in industries most impacted by the virus, such as leisure and hospitality, restaurants, entertainment and travel.
While the pandemic has hit the lowest-paid workers the hardest, it's also had an impact on middle-income earners, especially those who lost work. In August, 44% of low-income workers used money from a savings or retirement account to pay bills, and 46% had trouble paying bills, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center.
In the same month, 33% of middle-income workers drew down savings or retirement to pay bills, and 26% had trouble paying bills, the survey showed. Middle-income refers to families of three with annual income between $39,800 and $119,400, according to the Pew Research Center's methodology.
Working 5 jobs at once
As an independent contractor, Roberts couldn't apply for unemployment insurance until after the CARES Act passed in March. Then, it took her more than three months to submit the application for benefits, and she didn't get her first check until July.
Luckily, she had some savings to fall back on, but also racked up debt while she waited. In November — nearly eight months after she first applied — Roberts finally received $7,500 in back-dated payments from March through when she started getting unemployment in July.
"While I'm grateful, that's how much I was going to make for just the month of March alone," she said.
In addition, Florida, where she lives when she's not on a cruise ship, only gave her $113 per week in unemployment benefits. And, she discovered that if she made more than that in a week, she wasn't eligible for any benefits, including the additional $600 per week established by the CARES Act.
Since August, Roberts has been working five jobs and not applying for any unemployment insurance.
She's been choreographing for local arts groups, working as a dance teacher for a kid's theater program and at a local studio, is a facilities manager at a yoga studio where she also teaches Pilates, hosts virtual trivia games and just started driving for Uber.
In addition, she picks up occasional jobs cleaning office buildings, she said.
"I'm still making just over half of what I expected to make per month," she said. "It's survival mode."
Situation could get worse for middle class
The situation could get worse. While the first jobs lost in the coronavirus pandemic where disproportionately low-wage ones, as the recession continues, higher-paying jobs are increasingly on the chopping block.
"The average middle-income worker is going to be adversely affected by what I think is going to be the second leg of all this," said Daniel Alpert, managing partner at Westwood Capital in New York. "The only way to spur recovery at the top line is to make sure that employers have jobs for folks and that workers can resume earning incomes."
Companies such as Disney, Royal Dutch Shell and Dow Inc. have announced thousands of job cuts due to the pandemic. At the end of September, American Airlines and United Airlines moved ahead with plans to furlough a combined 32,000 workers after government failed to pass another round of stimulus including aid to the industry. One-quarter of the cuts were flight attendant positions.
As cases spike, more businesses and jobs are at risk.
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To be sure, many middle-wage earners may have had more savings to fall back on during times of hardship, and other options to keep them going. They will also likely bounce back from this recession faster than their lower-income peers.
But as the pandemic stretches into its ninth month and millions of jobs still haven't come back, safety nets are running out, and many in the middle-class may also be grappling with significant debt that can become crushing, according to Bob Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union.
"The big fear for next year is that we're going to see bankruptcy rates skyrocket," he said.
There's also the fear that without a robust recovery, more Americans will fall out of the already shrinking middle class and into a lower economic tier — something that happened after the Great Recession, said Frick.
"One of the things that we really need to reverse is people moving from middle income to lower income," he said. "We need to reverse that as a country, and I'm afraid this is going to be a step back."
Lack of support
Roberts is still struggling to pay her bills, even though she's working so much.
To continue to pay her mortgage, she had to ask the lender of her private student loans to forgive payments until January. She also asked for partial forgiveness from one of her credit card companies, which gave her a year to pay off her debt at a lower interest rate. This year, she accrued $10,000 in credit card debt, adding to the $8,000 of debt she had previously.
She's focused on making it through the end of the year and waiting to see if the cruise line industry will be able to return in 2021.
"I was thriving, and very excited to be thriving and prove that as a dancer, as a choreographer, you can have financial viability in really awesome cool ways, and then I'm back to surviving," she said. "This is on me to sink or swim."
In the meantime, she's also become more involved with the National Dance Education Organization, on which she serves as a member of the independent sector committee. The organization recently joined a campaign calling for federal relief for the arts, called Stand For The Arts.
"I made a choice to be an independent contractor, I made a choice to be in this life to have a more artistically satisfying existence," Roberts said. "But going through this, it definitely calls into question what kind of support networks that are out there."
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