LGBTQ and Out of Work: Coronavirus’ Devastating Financial Toll

“I have to be very careful about rationing out food because I am not sure when I'll be able to afford to go to the grocery store next."

By Sam Manzella and Kate Sosin

Last Saturday, Wes Staley inked what will likely be their last tattoo for many months. The nonbinary Nebraskan took home their equipment as the tattoo parlor where they and so many others work shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The crux of that is that as tattooers, if you’re not tattooing, you’re not making money,” Staley tells NewNowNext. “There is no PTO; there’s no sick leave. There’s no insurance built into the job.”

Staley thinks they have enough money to make rent for two months. After that, they don’t know how they will get by.

Staley is among a disproportionate number of LGBTQ Americans facing dire consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. Of the multiple sources NewNowNext spoke to, most are fear-stricken, sharing that their access to liveable income, health care, or basic necessities like food or safe housing are in jeopardy.

On Friday, HRC reported that just 29% of LGBTQ people reported being offered paid leave for medical reasons in a 2018 survey. The organization further found that one in five queer adults had avoided seeing a doctor because they couldn’t afford to.

As NewNowNext recently reported, advocates from more than 100 LGBTQ organizations signed an open letter to federal health officials highlighting the ways the queer community is uniquely vulnerable to the pandemic. Financial barriers aside, LGBTQ people are “already less likely than their heterosexual and cisgender peers to reach out to health and aging providers… and other programs designed to ensure their health and wellness, because they fear discrimination and harassment.”

Like Staley, Connor Braddock, a trans-masculine chef instructor living in Portland, Oregon, is also out of work. Pre-coronavirus, Braddock worked for Stone Soup, a local non-profit that offers 12-week industry training programs to people coming out of homelessness, incarceration, or other barriers to employment. When the need for social distancing became apparent, Braddock was given two choices by his employer: get laid off, or work irregular shifts that barely amount to a part-time income.

Braddock took the layoff. He does not have PTO and is struggling to file for unemployment through the Oregon government’s website, which keeps crashing.

Now, he fears “future houselessness,” a very real concern given the staggeringly high percentage of transgender Americans who face homelessness. The 2015 U.S. Trans Survey found that nearly one-third (30%) of respondents have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. Of those who stayed in a homeless shelter, 70% reported some form of mistreatment because of their gender identity.

“Even with a freeze on evictions [in Portland], the governor shuttered our only way of making a living,” Braddock tells NewNowNext. “But my landlord still expects rent on [the first of the month.] It’s wild out here.”

For J.E. Reich, a nonbinary Pittsburgh-based writer, the pandemic brought most of their income to a crushing halt, too. Reich had been stringing together an income with temp work and freelance writing projects.

“A lot of these positions, which are 100% in-office positions and not remote, just aren’t available anymore,” Reich tells NewNowNext. “And when it comes to working through a temp agency, it can get a little complicated when it comes to being able to file for unemployment. So I’m sort of at this stasis right now where I’m trying to see if I can file for unemployment.”

Reich worries about meeting basic needs like buying groceries and paying rent.

Peter Dazeley

“I have to be very careful about rationing out food because I am not sure when I’ll be able to afford to go to the grocery store next, which is embarrassing to admit, but that’s what my partner and I have come to,” they say.

Liz Arden, a nonbinary retail employee and visual artist in rural New York, is also struggling financially. Prior to the pandemic, they’d been piecing together a living wage working the storefronts of two small businesses. Initially, Arden’s work hours were cut. Now that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has ordered 100% of the state’s workforce (barring “essential workers” like health care providers or grocery store employees) to work remotely, they’re scrambling to make up for that lost income in other ways, like selling digital art prints through Etsy or re-selling clothes on Depop.

“As far as income goes,” they tell NewNowNext, “I don’t have one right now.”

Arden adds that there is a statewide freeze on mortgage payments in New York, but not rent payments. (State– and local-level officials in the Empire State have also issued temporary moratoriums on evictions, with lawmakers in major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco following suit.) They live with a partner and have a lenient landlord. However, Arden realizes many folks aren’t as lucky.

“I really hope to see a statewide rent freeze,” they say. “If I lived alone, or with somebody who was also out of work, we wouldn’t be able to pay.”

Marlene Melendez, a self-identified butch lesbian, lost all of her income from her dog-walking business when California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered residents to stay at home.

“My wife and I are expecting our first baby in May,” she tells NewNowNext. “Anxiety is running high.”

Melendez says she wants to do everything she can to help stop the spread of the virus, and part of that means not going to other people’s homes to take their dogs for walks. Still, she started her own business because being a tattooed butch lesbian made it hard for her to get a job.

“A few years ago I moved to San Diego and decided to start my own business,” Melendez recalls. “I wanted to put my future in my own hands, and not worry about facing stigmas from employers when looking for work.”

Now, she is just looking forward to the day when she can try to rebuild her business.

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