You may not need your dog walker, trainer, or housekeeper while quarantining, but guess what: They still need you.

By Kaelyn Forde
Updated Mar 16, 2020 @ 5:30 pm
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The Coronavirus pandemic has already shed light on a lot of things about us: our penchant for panic-buying, how infrequently some people used to wash their hands (ick), our steadfast belief that toilet paper is a panacea for all ills, and just how much we all touch our damn faces. But it's also thrown into sharp relief just how little of a safety net the people we depend on to make our lives better, more convenient, and more stylish really have.

I'm talking about gig workers, the estimated 57 million Americans who walk our dogs, watch our kids, care for our elderly relatives, style our hair, deliver our takeout, wax our eyebrows, and perform myriad other services. They're our people who hustle every day as yoga teachers, freelance writers (hello!), estheticians, ride-share drivers and more. They depend on clients like you and me to feed their families and pay their bills. So if someone regularly relies on you for a paycheck, listen up: they're also relying on you to help them make it through this public health crisis.

Some 36% of Americans work in the gig economy, and while these jobs have long been branded as side-hustles, the reality is that an increasing number of people depend on them to survive, says Erin Hatton, an associate professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo who focuses on the sociology of work. Nationwide, women make up about half of all gig workers, and do the lion's share of childcare work. Of the 2 million childcare workers who care for 10 million kids from birth to age 5, 40% are women of color and many are gig workers, without full-time stability or benefits.

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"Most of these workers are working to support themselves and their families, and they need this money," Hatton tells InStyle. "These are crucial service providers in our service economy today. They provide crucial services and interact with a ton of people, including vulnerable people."

But while their work consists of caring for others — including those, like the eldery, who are hit hardest by the coronavirus — gig workers and independent contractors have few guarantees when it comes to caring for themselves, including no paid sick leave, no employer-provided health insurance, and no unemployment insurance to fall back on when times get tough. When times call for entire cities of Americans to suddenly call off the dog walker, sitter, and housekeeper and work from home, it means no income for those workers to cover their expenses. Period.

That's the case for Janel DuRoss, a full-time yoga and meditation teacher and Thai bodywork practitioner in Hoboken, New Jersey. On Saturday, March 14, the mayor of DuRoss' small city across the river from Manhattan ordered all yoga studios to close indefinitely, and her weekly private client canceled for the entire month out of concern for her 4-month-old daughter and elderly mom.

"My income immediately went to zero," DuRoss tells InStyle. "My rent and bills are around $2,600 a month, and that doesn't include food and transportation. I haven't been sleeping well, to say the least. In the media, I hear about relief packages: Does that include me? Bartenders? Everyone that doesn't have a corporate job? We are people that matter, too."

Over the weekend, the House of Representatives passed a major bill aimed at providing free coronavirus testing, food assistance, and emergency paid sick leave, providing relief for the more than 40% of service workers who didn't have any paid sick leave in 2019. And while the House's plan does cover paid sick leave for self-employed workers, who previously also had none, it excludes as many as 20 million other Americans, including people who work for companies with more than 500 employees or fewer than 50 employees.

That's worrisome for many small business owners. Sarah Nash is the owner of Pup Strut, a dog-walking service in Takoma Park, Maryland. She usually has 35 regular clients, employs four other dog walkers who each work 20 hours per week, and puts in 35 to 40 hours per week herself. But as much of the Washington, D.C. metro area where she lives skips their commute and practices social distancing, Nash says the work is drying up. On Friday, she told InStyle, "My clients have begun letting me know that they are working from home and will be walking their own dogs." Now she estimates she's already lost 80% of her clients as growing fears over the spread of germs also lead people to cancel. "This weekend changed everything," she says.

And without income, Nash says she's worried about paying her employees. "All of my walkers have second or third jobs, which are all gig-based as well," she says. "Independent contractors must budget their lives in a very different way to compensate for lack of employee benefits. During times like this when incomes are lowered, any unexpected costs or bills can be devastating." Those unexpected costs can include getting sick; more than 27 million Americans have no health insurance, and the average stay in the hospital costs $10,000 per day, regardless of whether or not there is a pandemic. And while the House bill includes free coronavirus testing, it doesn't include free treatment. Nor does it cover the expected costs these workers handle every day: the rent, food, childcare and other basics.

"We are only as healthy as our most vulnerable workers, and we have a lot of vulnerable workers because there are very significant gaps in our social safety net, including lack of paid time off," Hatton says, adding that the majority of workers in America just can't afford to go weeks without pay, and may try to work even if they are ill to make ends meet. "The onus here is not on individual workers. The onus here is, of course, on the system, which is falling short of them."

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Does our system need an overhaul so that gig workers have paid sick time, health insurance, and unemployment insurance they can count on year-round? Absolutely. But in the meantime, it's up to us to take care of the people who take care of us.

That's why Bridget McClain Venmoed her dog walker and house cleaner already, even though neither will be coming to her Maplewood, New Jersey home in the near future. "We consider these women to be essential members of our 'village,'" McClain tells InStyle. "As a working mom of a toddler, infant, and dog, I depend on our twice-monthly house cleaner and our dog walker to help keep our house running while my husband and I commute to New York City." She says she included a note for her walker about how much her dog misses her, and plans to pay her house cleaner a bonus when she comes back after weeks of the family of four being at home full-time.

As an executive assistant at a tech company, McClain says she and her husband "are both lucky enough to work for companies that support remote work. We will continue to be paid, business as usual, even in the event that everything around us shuts down. If my employer is supporting me, why should I turn my back on people under my employ?"

Nash says that before you go out and panic-buy at a big chain like Target, set aside the money you need to pay the people who empower you to function year-round. "If you are not also experiencing lower income, continue spending the way you normally would," Nash says. "It can be frustrating to see people investing in superfluous items like [extra] toilet paper and alcohol, and then not be able to 'afford' the services they normally need."

DuRoss, who is working to set up virtual yoga lessons for her clients, hopes her students step up to practice what they preach, even during this uncertain time. "It's clear how much we need people from all over, with the markets and the virus affecting everyone in every part of the world," she says. "Strip away everything material, and we need our kula, our tribe. That is how we'll survive this, with compassion."

So use this time to grow out your eyebrows, walk your own dog, and scrub your own countertops. But keep those payments to your circle coming: They're depending on you, and it's the right thing to do.

The Coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.