‘I chose to keep going’: Resilience of New York workers tested by pandemic

Alexandra Maruri has seen New York bounce back before. She and her mother arrived from Ecuador in the 1970s “in search of the American dream” as the city was edging toward bankruptcy. And in the recession in 2007, Ms. Maruri lost her marketing job and had to rebuild again.

Now, as the founder of Bronx Historical Tours, she is applying for assistance to keep herself and her small business afloat. At one point this spring, her bank account was down to $1.77.

New York’s pandemic saga is in many ways a tale of two cities. Yes, midtown Manhattan is emptier than in the past, but workers in tech and finance are among those who have fared best in job security, nimbly adjusting to remote work. 

By contrast, as the city’s overall jobless rate pushes 20%, workers with the least have lost the most. The economic disruption of city life has generally landed hardest on lower-paid, public-facing jobs such as in restaurants, retail, and hotels – held by workers who tend to live outside Manhattan in largely nonwhite neighborhoods.

Like many Bronx locals, Ms. Maruri is banking on resilience. “You either keep going or you cave in,” she says. “I chose to keep going.”

New York

Hangouts resume on South Bronx stoops as the sun staves off the rain. The grunt of buses fades behind a block of public housing, where a Saturday basketball game is in full swing and a cluster of cops looks on. Nearby a man removes his hat at the sidewalk shrine of a saint.

Alexandra Maruri has walked East 138th Street for decades as a local and a tour guide. But today there are no tours. One out of 4 Bronxites like her are unemployed; she and thousands of others are survivors of COVID-19. In March, her bank account held only $1.77, after she reimbursed 50 customers who had signed up for her walking tours before a ban on travel.

“It was so sudden. I didn’t really have a plan,” she says. 

New York’s saga is a tale of two cities. Yes, Midtown Manhattan is emptier than in the past, but as the Monitor reported last week, many of its mainstay businesses are adapting. Workers in tech and finance are among those who have fared best in terms of job security, nimbly adjusting to remote work. 

By contrast, as the city’s overall jobless rate pushes 20%, workers with the least have lost the most. It’s true on the health front, where the city’s more than 23,600 deaths have fallen heaviest on Latino and Black residents, who account for about half of the city’s population but are dying from COVID-19 at around twice the rate of white New Yorkers. And the economic disruption of city life has generally landed hardest on lower-paid, public-facing jobs such as those in restaurants, retail, and hotels – held by workers who tend to live outside Manhattan in largely nonwhite neighborhoods.

“There’s no question that New Yorkers who were often living paycheck to paycheck are the ones that have sustained the greatest job losses under the pandemic,” says Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future. For example, half of the city’s more than 3 million immigrants lost their main source of income, the think tank estimates.

Meanwhile, New Yorkers like Ms. Maruri are banking on resilience. It helps to have the long view.

Ms. Maruri has seen New York bounce back before. She and her mother arrived from Ecuador in the 1970s “in search of the American dream” as the city teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. During the infamous decade of fires that engulfed the South Bronx’s housing, she says her family escaped their own building’s blaze. Three decades later came the recession in 2007, when Ms. Maruri lost her marketing job and had to rebuild again.

Now, as the Bronx Historical Tours founder applies for assistance to keep herself and her small business afloat, she revives her survival skills. She finds peace in parks and eats one meal a day. 

“You either keep going or you cave in,” she says. “I chose to keep going.”

Testing the safety net

Locals who stuck out the outbreak have found varying degrees of struggle and stability in New York City, where, by one pre-pandemic estimate, a family of four needs $10,344 a month to sustain a modest living. 

Previous recessions in the city tended to begin with layoffs in higher-income sectors like finance, followed by a ripple effect in lower-wage industries when consumer spending shrank, says economist James Parrott. 

In the current crisis, job losses are flipped. Although high-wage earners aren’t generally unemployed, they have largely changed the office-lunch and business-travel habits that sustained lower-wage workers. 

“We’re testing the viability of the safety net right now,” says Mr. Parrott, director of economy and fiscal policies at The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. “We’re beginning an unfortunate experiment when you take away the $600 weekly [federal] supplement.”

New York state on Monday was approved for a federal weekly $300 supplemental check for those unemployed, but when the rollout begins is unclear. 

Experts worry that enduring job losses and shrinking safety nets like the expired $600 federal unemployment benefit may further magnify the city’s inequality.

Ms. Maruri says she spent her $1,200 federal stimulus check on bills, saving only $10 to treat herself to dinner. The additional federal unemployment benefit that expired at the end of July had also gone toward payments that were falling behind.

“It’s a very difficult time without the extra $600,” says Ms. Maruri, who shares an apartment with her mother. That amount was three times what she receives in state unemployment insurance.

Faced with a potential $9 billion deficit within two years, Mayor Bill de Blasio is seeking permission from the state to borrow funds for operating costs. Without more aid, a layoff of 22,000 municipal workers could come next month.

“Scared to come back” 

Ms. Maruri began Bronx Historical Tours in 2011 to help reverse decades of negative press and preconceptions about her home borough. It’s been a tough task.

“I’ve had people bring food with them because they thought we didn’t have restaurants here,” she says.

After applying to numerous financing opportunities while sick with COVID-19, Ms. Maruri won a $6,500 Small Business Administration loan and $2,500 Facebook cash grant this spring. She hopes to revive tours no later than November.

“We’re going to see jobs that involve a lot of social contact like restaurants, hotels, tourism … be very depressed until we get a vaccine or effective treatment,” says Heidi Shierholz, former chief economist of the Obama administration’s Labor Department and director of policy at the Economy Policy Institute.

While the city’s COVID-19 caseload has plummeted (with 1,723 new hospitalizations on April 6 and only 32 on Aug. 6), New Yorkers who are able to resume their jobs still weigh the risks. On her subway and bus commute from Queens to Manhattan to make strangers’ beds, Nudolma Lama Sherpa is afraid to sit down. 

Ms. Lama Sherpa, a room attendant at a midtown hotel, says she stopped getting called to work in mid-March. The federal stimulus check and weekly $600 federal payments were extra boosts for her household, which she shares with her mother and two young adult daughters. Two and a half months passed.

“We got a text from work that they want us to come back,” she says. “But we’re scared to come back.”

Ms. Lama Sherpa says she returned to work for financial security. She reasoned a new gig would be tough to find amid citywide layoffs. 

“Without work, nobody can survive,” says Ms. Lama Sherpa, who recently worked nine days straight.

A dozen blocks downtown, Cindy Jaimangal labors at a hospital. The majority of the city’s million “essential” workers are like her: women and people of color. While her uninterrupted employment lent financial security during the crisis, new stresses were added at work and at home.