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

Why We Wrote This

Many Americans have seen images of a near-empty Times Square amid the pandemic. Yet the shutdown’s ripple effects are harshest in places outside New York City’s core – mostly communities of color. Part 2 of a series.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Alexandra Maruri, founder of Bronx Historical Tours, stands next to a stoop in a neighborhood where she gives tours on Aug. 22, 2020, in the Bronx borough of New York. Ms. Maruri’s tour business has suffered during the pandemic.

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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.”

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 Economic 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.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Cindy Jaimangal stands outside her home with her children, Julie and Ethan, on Aug. 15, 2020, in the Queens borough of New York. Most mornings, Ms. Jaimangal has a long commute on the subway from Queens to Manhattan, where she works as a patient care associate at an emergency room.

Neighbors

When the doorbell chimes, Ms. Jaimangal’s 4-year-old and 9-year-old retreat to their rooms. “It’s the coronavirus!” they say, even though it’s only Mom. No one can hug her until after she showers. 

The patient care associate spends eight-hour days at a Manhattan emergency room that swelled with COVID-19 patients this spring. A Christian music playlist helps pass the hourlong subway ride back to Queens. Home and exhausted, all she wants is curry chicken and jasmine rice. Unless she falls asleep in a chair. 

Ms. Jaimangal lives with her two children, husband, and parents in the middle-class neighborhood of South Richmond Hills. Since her husband, a software developer, has needed peace and quiet during his remote workday, she will soon resume her second job around dinnertime: homework police.

“I have to prepare mentally,” she says, for the prospect of managing more virtual schooling plus her career this fall.

Ms. Jaimangal became a citizen in 2005, and still sends remittances to family back in Guyana. Despite the outbreak’s grueling work-life balance, she says her household has been financially OK. If anything, they’ve saved, especially with an effort to live frugally. She cut her son’s winter sweatpants down to summer sweatshorts.

“We can manage,” she says.

Despite the demands of her job, Ms. Jaimangal never considered leaving. “I always wanted to help people,” she says. “When the day is over, I want to do something good for somebody. It’s not about pay for me.” 

She ended up helping a friend and neighbor who lives two streets away. When her daughter’s godfather, Dean Ragoonanan, spent 11 days at her hospital with COVID-19, Ms. Jaimangal filled in for family who weren't allowed to visit by tending to him at the start and end of each shift. 

She used to see Mr. Ragoonanan on Sundays as a fellow church member at Bethel Assembly of God. Now Ms. Jaimangal visited him in a hospital bed, praying by his side. He remembers that she even brushed his teeth.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Cindy Jaimangal stands in her backyard where her two children have a trampoline and small pool on Aug. 15, 2020, in Queens.

“I will be forever grateful for Cindy,” says Mr. Ragoonanan. “She never turned her back.”

Now, like so many others, Mr. Ragoonanan has a story that includes both trials and resilience in the face of an uncertain future.

He’s been back home since April. Yet during his recovery he’s had to send his résumé around. His quarter-century career in building maintenance ended this spring. 

He says he misses work. This month he called to tell Ms. Jaimangal that he’d been able to climb up to his roof. He reattached shingles that had scattered in a storm.

Part 1: What will happen to Big Apple’s core? Clues from reopening.

Editor’s note: As a public service, we have removed our paywall for all pandemic-related stories.

Reporters on the Job
Staff writer Sarah Matusek gives the inside scoop

I can see the Empire State Building from my living room. For several nights this spring, its lights pulsed red like a heartbeat in solidarity with front-line workers as New York became the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, half a year since the lockdown began, fear seems to be losing its grip. I take the subway – sparingly – in a mask to interview sources like Alexandra Maruri, who let me tag along a few socially distanced steps behind. She and I meet in Mott Haven, the South Bronx neighborhood where I worked as a newbie local reporter three years ago. Ms. Maruri can’t help but resume the role of tour guide, peeling back layers of history block by block.

She points out an abandoned lot, which was once a gas station frequented by her family, and a church, which used to be her childhood movie theater. She says one of her mom’s first jobs here in the 1970s was fixing buttons at a nearby factory. Some wonder if New York is dead, but her family’s resilience reminds me: It’s natural for the city to reinvent itself. Many of us came here to do just that for ourselves.

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