For many Americans, additional COVID-19 relief can’t come soon enough

One-third of Americans — even bosses — cutting back on food, all nonessentials

In his late 30s, Jake Elsmore started thinking the construction work he’d done for 20 years was going to be hard on his body as he got older, though he loved it. He worried, too, about how construction “is notoriously feast or famine.” He thought a steadier income would be nice.

Elsmore’s a family man — husband and father of three — and wanted a business where he could be his own boss, with work-life balance and decent money. Four years ago, he and his wife bought a little laundry business in the Salt Lake City community of Sugar House that he ran. A year ago, Elsmore found bigger digs in the suburb of Millcreek and took on a business partner, Travis Sevy, another family man with three kids.

The two of them own Washmore Laundry and Pride Cleaners, the former a commercial laundry and the latter a dry cleaning business located in the same building.

They figured there’d always be hotels and ski resorts, catering companies and hospitals that send laundry out. And dressing up for weddings, funerals, church and work will never go away, right?

COVID-19 seems determined to prove them wrong. 

March was the best month in history for them, the following month, the worst —  “Almost a 98% downturn in business once restrictions were put in place,” Sevy said — and suddenly employee livelihoods were at risk. The early break from federal payroll stimulus help is long gone, and they’re burning through reserves they’d conservatively set aside to repair or buy equipment. 

Richard Aponte bags dry cleaning for customers to pick up at Pride Cleaners in Millcreek on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Neither has taken a paycheck from the laundry since the pandemic began, they’ve had to lay off some employees and dramatically cut hours for others and they’re not sure how the future will look or if their business will survive.

That, of course, puts them on the same footing as millions of workers and bosses with front-row seats to the financial devastation of the pandemic. The number of businesses teetering near closing — restaurants and bars, salons and retail stores, among others — is hard to calculate.

Small businesses employ nearly half of the private workforce, close to 60 million workers. And many have been badly damaged as a result of the pandemic. While bosses like Elsmore and Sevy worry about their employees, they know they’re helpless to fix the economy or the fraying safety net. That’s a grand-scale job for a Congress that remains divided on what more to do.

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Millions of workers and their families are struggling. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities just reported that U.S. unemployment is still painfully high, and the number doesn’t include those “sidelined by the crisis, such as those who are absent from their jobs without pay and jobless workers who want a job but aren’t currently looking for one.” Examples include owners of businesses closed by the pandemic, people with health concerns or caring for someone who is sick, and parents taking care of their children because school or child care closed. Close to 54 million people — one-sixth of the country — live in families with a sidelined worker. Even more have seen hours cut.

Struggling families

In September, Pew Research Center reported that six months into the pandemic, 25% of adults said they or someone they lived with had been laid off or lost their job because of the coronavirus. Its survey found 1 in 4 adults were having trouble paying bills, 1 in 3 had raided retirement accounts “to make ends meet” and 1 in 6 had borrowed from family and friends.

People with fewer resources before COVID-19 tended to be hardest hit; nearly half had trouble paying bills. Experts say one reason is they are most apt to work in hard-hit service industries.

Add in people who have had hours shaved or income otherwise reduced and estimates say close to 60% of Americans have been hurt financially.

Lenys Herrera sorts through dry cleaning waiting to be picked up at Pride Cleaners in Millcreek on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said 1 in 6 adults who have children at home didn’t have enough food in the last seven days, based on its November report. And nearly 1 in 5 said their children didn’t get enough to eat. Meanwhile, 12.4 million adults remain behind on rent; nearly a quarter of those living with children have fallen behind.

“Food insecurity rates have increased almost three times over the pre-COVID rates with almost a quarter of families reporting their food ‘just didn’t last’ and they did not have money to buy more,” the National Bureau of Economic Research reported.

Feeding America, a national food pantry network, noted a 70% increase in people needing food and lines often stretching for miles.

The Census Bureau said that close to 26 million adults said they didn’t have enough to eat in the most recent Household Pulse Survey, taken Nov. 11-23. And 83 million adults — a third of American adults — called it “somewhat or very difficult” for their household to cover their usual expenses during that week, the most recent available.

The Washington Post reported this week that some people “are stealing food to survive.” Retailers, police and researchers recount seeing people shoplift basics like meat and rice, rather than extravagant items. Diapers and feminine products are being taken, too.

Frayed safety net

Americans often speak of benefit programs like unemployment, public assistance and food stamps as the nation’s safety net. But the net that actually catches people in distress is far bigger than that: It includes nonprofit agencies like food banks, any relatives who will help out, stable child care programs that are accessible and extra measures governments take to provide relief, like the stimulus package that Congress enacted early in the year, among others.

Both the Families First Coronavirus Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act took aim at the pandemic fallout. Aid included boosting the payout from  unemployment insurance and extending the length of eligibility, as well as covering some unemployed who don’t normally qualify. Many Americans received a direct stimulus payment of $1,200 per adult and some received $500 for dependent children. And Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program payments increased, while a special program helped families whose children didn’t have access to free or reduced-price meals because their schools were closed.

In a year of extraordinary need, some of it is running out or set to expire. And while Congress is wrangling over details of a possible second stimulus package, it has yet to agree on the form or timing of more direct help.

The Washington Post reported on one federal aid program, born in the pandemic, that’s running out of resources. “The Farmers to Families Food Box program, a staple of food lines across America, was launched by the Trump administration in May to support struggling farmers and feed jobless Americans battered by the pandemic. It was supposed to provide food support through the end of the year. But because of soaring demand and a shortage of federal money, it is ending a month early in many regions of the country, leaving tens of thousands of families without a critical supply of food.”

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Angela Rachidi, Rowe Scholar in poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute, recently wrote that COVID-19 had driven some workers from their jobs because they need to care for their children. To avoid what she called “long-term labor force participation challenges,” she suggests Congress boost funding so childcare providers can stay open to help more families and also helping schools figure out how to stay open safely so their parents can continue to work.

Sevy has some income from another business and Elsmore’s wife is fully employed, so they know they’re faring better than lots of people, though they’ve put plans on hold and stopped buying anything they don’t have to.

While Congress debates, some folks are pinning hopes on vaccine availability to prompt a return to normalcy and to work for those who’ve taken a hit.

Elsmore and Sevy hope that means those people will be dressing up again.

Jake Elsmore and Travis Sevy, co-owners of Pride Cleaners and Washmore Laundry, pose for a photo at their business in Millcreek on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
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