Centering On Coronavirus Podcast: Gig Workers Are Facing Unique Challenges

The New Center · Centering on Coronavirus: The Gig Economy

Twenty-two million people filed for unemployment in the last month, and many of them are gig workers who had never before been eligible for these benefits.

In our latest installment of the Centering on Coronavirus issue series, The New Center policy analyst Olive Morris sat down with a member of the nontraditional workforce, a restaurant worker named Katherine from central Georgia, to discuss the financial and employment hardships brought on by coronavirus. After you listen, be sure to check out the accompanying issue brief, “Centering on Coronavirus: The Gig Economy,” to understand the unique challenge the coronavirus pandemic poses for America’s nontraditional workers—many of whom aren’t afforded the same financial, regulatory, and legal protections as the traditional labor force.

Olive Morris: My sister-in-law, Katherine Makuch, is a wife and mother of three children, all under the age of 4. She and her husband, my brother, are servers at [a restaurant called] Texas Roadhouse in Macon, Georgia. She makes the bulk of her income from tips, which have been increasingly hard to come by since the outbreak of coronavirus. This pandemic has forced millions in unemployment and totally upended work across America. Here’s Katherine, as she tells it. 

Katherine Makuch: We took a vacation before Georgia’s governor issued a state of emergency and locked down the state. We were out of town, and I had already taken off two weeks, so I finished my two-week vacation and came home. I worked a weekend before they closed our dining room and when I came back to work, they had taken everything off the tables. The sugar caddies, the salt and pepper shakers, the menu, all the stake sauces—the tables were just bare. 

KM: They put black linen cloths over every other booth, so people had to remain six feet apart. They offered that for a few weeks before they finally closed down their dining room.

OM: And you just came into work one day and saw that?

KM: Yeah. I had asked a few of my coworkers what the situation was and they kind of prepared me, but it was very dramatic. I’m used to seeing my job a certain way, and it was completely different when I came back from vacation. 

OM: Not only was Katherine’s job different, her entire city was different. She expected people to panic buy, but she didn’t expect the type of things they would be buying, like guns. As soon as the coronavirus outbreak started getting widespread attention, her handgun was stolen out of her truck. She tells me this story about trying to buy a new gun, and finding the shops flooded with people. 

KM: I went to a gun store here in Macon to buy a new firearm. It was really busy, and I didn’t expect it to be busy. I remember, I went to two different gun stores—a pawn shop, then I went to an actual gun store. The pawn shop was packed; it was full of people. I really was not expecting that. Usually, in pawn shops, it’s usually pretty empty. It’s never full like that unless it’s a flea market or a gun show. They had the guns that I was looking for, something small and compact that could fit in a purse. The gun store had a lot of amateurs, people who had obviously never handled a firearm by themselves. They were purchasing Glocks, looking at ARs, or shotguns. It was a lot. I called my husband and I asked if I needed to buy any extra ammo for the house and he told me, “yeah, see what they have in bulk.” But they didn’t have any ammo in bulk. They had small boxes of 22’s and 9mm, but nothing in bulk at all. The guy at the gun store said if I was going to buy ammo, I should do it now because it’s being sold out all across the city. 

OM: More than 22 million Americans have had to apply for unemployment insurance in the past month. I asked Katherine, had she had to? And what had that process been like?

KM: We did, probably about a week after we got back from [vacation], about five days after they closed our dining room. We realized that we were not going back to work anytime soon, so we applied for unemployment. We still have not gotten it. That was probably about three and a half weeks ago.

OM: Katherine then described how she reached out to her company’s hotline, which was helping workers get unemployment benefits. 

KM: Texas Roadhouse has a support hotline called “Roadie Support”. We were instructed by our general manager to call Roadie Support, and they would be able to push our unemployment application further on their end to get it approved or processed faster. I remember, I applied on a Friday and called Roadie Support that following Monday, and then by Tuesday, I received an email that my application was processed. I got an amount for how much I was supposed to be receiving weekly, which was about $200 for myself, a week.

OM: Since the outbreak of coronavirus and applying for unemployment, Katherine has since gone back to work, but it’s different than how she left it. 

KM: Texas Roadhouse is doing a “curbside to go” thing, where you can call in to place an order or order online. We will have somebody bag it up for you and bring it to your car. Or, what they have me doing is working under this giant tent where cars drive through. If they haven’t placed an order, but they want to place an order in person, they park off to the left. I bring them menus and peanuts and drinks. They have picnic tables set up outside and you can order through me and you can sit outside and eat, but it’s not full-service. It’s minimum wage and they have anywhere from nine to 19 servers working and we all pool tips. 

OM: So since you’ve gone back to work, do you still expect to get unemployment?

KM: Yes. My boss told me that [the state of Georgia] is not going to be withholding unemployment from anybody. You just cannot work more than 31 hours a week.

OM: And how many hours a week are you working now?

KM: My first week, I clocked in 29.75 hours. 

OM: You have such a good memory.

KM: Yeah, I kept up with it. I even had coworkers telling me, “Kat, you need to clock out.” I would clock out, but I would still do my work so that I could finish my job without exceeding my hours. This past week, I’ve gotten into the groove of how it works. I was able to break down the tents a lot quicker, so I averaged 25 hours last week. My hours were cut again this week, and now I’m down to about 18 hours. 

OM: Why were [your hours] cut again?

KM: Corporate got very serious about guest perception. Everybody has to wear masks and gloves. Now they’re doing a mandatory temperature check before I’m allowed to clock in. They’re going to take everyone that had already worked and split us into two groups, Group A and Group B. Group A was going to work Wednesday through Saturday, and Group B was going to work Sunday through Tuesday. Instead of doing two shifts a day, they’re going to change everybody to doubles, so we’d all go in at noon and close at 8, or 9 on the weekends. That’s just in case someone gets diagnosed with coronavirus in either Group A or Group B, they can go ahead and cut that entire group who’s been exposed. 

OM: So, right now, Katherine is working 18 hours a week at minimum wage, while trying to sustain three children. She’s acutely aware of the amount of money she’s making, and the hours she’s worked. Something you’ll come to see about her through this interview, Katherine has a near-photographic memory for numbers. She’s been this way since high school, as long as I’ve known her. She gave me a detailed breakdown of her financial situation since returning to part-time work. 

KM: I’m tired of working for minimum wage. $200 a week is nothing. 

OM: Is that how much you’re making with minimum wage right now? 

KM: Yeah. The week that I worked the most hours, after taxes, my paycheck was literally $123.57 [for the week]. As far as cash tips go, you go back and pick up your tips from the day before. And the cash tips average out to be about $8.

OM: What? Wait, $8 a day in tips? 

KM: $8 in cash and then credit card tips can be anywhere between $20 and $45. When this first started, I had three ladies on three different days come by and leave hundreds of dollars in tips for everybody to split. People were being very generous at first. Were making minimum wage, but they understood that it was nothing compared to what we were used to making. 

OM: Though Katherine hadn’t seen any state unemployment benefits yet, she did get $3,900 from her stimulus check, a financial package created by the CARES Act passed in March. This kind of money goes a long way in Macon, Georgia. I then asked Katherine if she knew about how the federal government is contributing additional funding to unemployment benefits. Also created through the CARES Act, unemployed Americans are eligible for $600 a week, on top of whatever their state unemployment benefits are. Remember, when she applied for unemployment, Georgia’s Department of Labor reported that she would receive $200 a week. Katherine should have been eligible for a federal boost of $600 a week until July, meaning she should be receiving around $800 a week, nearly four times what she’s making at [the restaurant] now. Katherine, like many Americans right now, isn’t sure if and when she’s going to receive state benefits or this federal boost. 

KM: I have no idea. Nobody has spoken to me about it. As far as I know, none of my coworkers have heard anything about it or given any kind of instruction. All of my coworkers have applied for unemployment. The last time that I checked the Georgia Department of Labor’s website, it did mention the extra $600 [a week] stimulus check, but it didn’t say how we were supposed to get it. But I would imagine that if you applied for unemployment, they would just send it to that bank account that you have attached to your application, or they would just use the account you have for your last tax return. 

KM: Do you want to know a fun fact?

OM: Yeah, go ahead. 

KM: The state of Georgia released emergency food stamps for anyone who has ever had an active food stamp card. They were giving out about $1,500 in emergency food stamps.

OM: Do you guys have that?

KM: Yes. I actually hadn’t received benefits since January, because I was finally in a place where I did not need to rely on food stamps to buy groceries for myself. I didn’t renew my application. I was unaware that they were doing that. One day, I decided to check the balance on my EBT card and just see what’s on it. I looked, and it was $1,500 that had been deposited three days prior. 

OM: And no one let you know about this?

KM: No, I wouldn’t have been aware. 

For more Context on Coronavirus, read the rest of our series:

Vaccine Development” is focused on how the typical vaccine development process is being accelerated–technologically, bureaucratically, and financially–to meet this unprecedented challenge.

Voting During a Pandemic” details the various implications of the coronavirus on our elections, how states have responded, and why a massive expansion of mail-in voting may be the only feasible way to conduct the November general election.

The Ventilator Shortage” gives an overview of the importance of ventilators in the fight against coronavirus, what is causing their current shortage, and how governments and the private sector are responding to it.

The Gig Economy” discusses the importance of the gig economy and the unique challenges of nontraditional workers in the fight against coronavirus.

Diagnostic and Antibody Testing” explores how the United States got behind the testing curve and how we might still be able to correct our course and move toward a safe reopening of our economy.