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For Tucson's 'new blue collar workforce,' coronavirus has hit a little harder
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For Tucson's 'new blue collar workforce,' coronavirus has hit a little harder

From the April's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: 1,200+ Pima County cases, stay-home order extended series

Since St. Patrick’s Day, musician Chris Pierce’s routine has consisted of hanging out at his Armory Park home, gardening, cooking and playing his bass in his room.

It’s a far stretch from the go, go, go lifestyle he practiced before, moving from rehearsals for the handful of local bands he plays in, or jetting around Tucson trying to fill venues as a booker.

He figures he’s lost thousands of dollars since March as his entire spring calendar was essentially wiped out by moratoriums put on large gatherings to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“Our day-to-day is a little bit different, but we’re not alone in this,” he said. “It is what it is, I guess. ... It’s a bit of new territory, for sure.”

Those like Pierce represent the “new blue-collar workforce,” the working-class sector of the economy that typically includes traditional blue-collar jobs, like manual labor, but now also includes members of the gig economy, such as retail and service workers, musicians and artists.

While the vast majority of the workforce has been affected in some way, shape or form by business closures and social changes spawned by the virus, that sector has been hit a little harder — at least in Tucson and Pima County, according to University of Arizona sociology professor Brian Mayer.

“Machinists, the trade unionists, that’s not sort of what represents that segment of the economic sector anymore,” he said. “It’s really folks in the service sector and the gig economy that are kind of playing those roles in society today. Especially for those in temporary or spec work, this is an incredibly difficult time.

“Compared to other cities of our size, we have more substantial labor force in the service sector, or jobs that are clearly being affected by this. That really is making our county and our city more susceptible to economic effects than perhaps other places.”

That’s been especially true for those in Tucson’s vibrant artistic community. Many musicians were cobbling together gigs to make enough income, according to Ben Nisbet, who is the orchestra and artistic mentor for the Tucson Symphony Orchestra.

Nisbet, a violinist and guitar player; his singer-songwriter girlfriend Katie Haverly; and KXCI personality Hannah Levin, teamed up to create a GoFundMe account to serve as a grant for musicians that’s raised nearly $30,000 as of Friday. They’ve also raised additional funds through private donations.

They’ve given out about $5,000, Nisbet said, but those who have applied to receive a portion of the money noted they’ve lost out on about $100,000 as a result of the virus.

“There’s a really wide spectrum of circumstances that people are in,” he said. “One of the common denominators, and it’s not as if we’re dealing with a particularly well-off subset of people, is that working musicians, for the most part, are kind of going paycheck to paycheck.”

Pierce applied for the grant and for unemployment for the first time in his life. He and his partner have some money saved and are fine for the time being, but he’s hoping to get back to work soon.

He said he tries not to dwell on socioeconomic factors but did admit those with a little more money have been able to weather the pandemic better than others.

“My partner and I are by no means living high off the hog, but we are in a position where we’re OK. We’ll kind of do our own things, navigate these things and we’ll be fine,” Pierce said.

“Working ’cause they have to”

At the start of each shift, Jonathan Schlecht punches in, jumps into his 25-ton side-loading truck and heads out on the Tucson roads.

Four days a week, 10 hours at a time, he makes his rounds. He goes house to house, sometimes picking up trash and other times recycling. American Disabilities Act requirements sometimes force him to get out of the truck and physically roll bins to dump into the truck.

“We have to get the job done at any cost,” said Schlecht, who works for the city’s Environmental Services Department. “Our people weren’t the ones on the hoarding end because they had to pay their bills. Most people in our occupations are working ’cause they have to.”

Schlecht is the head of the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employee union, which has more than 200 local members who pave roads or maintain city parks. Many are considered essential employees and can’t work from home. Most are working paycheck to paycheck.

He said the workers are concerned. They would like hazard pay to account for possibly coming into physical contact with someone who has the virus. It’s been hard to get personal protective equipment, such as gloves or hand sanitizer. They’ve forgone raises and are scared they’ll get laid off as the city has acknowledged a sharp drop in revenue.

“You get stressed. It’s easier to get sick the more you get stressed, the more tired you get,” he said. “The big thing, and it’s really unnerving, is the job itself is more important than the worker. It shouldn’t be that way. ... One of the good things about this job is we’ll be one of the last people to go because people need their garbage picked up.”

Carlos De La Torre, head of the Environmental Services Department, said there is no shortage of protective equipment, but the department had to ration supplies and equally distribute it to everyone because of supply-chain disruptions.

The city has provided additional paid sick leave for employees, moved most employees to work from home and signed an agreement with a local hotel to provide rooms for those who may fear they contracted the virus and have concerns they could infect family members.

De La Torre admitted the situation disproportionately affects many of the workers in his department, but he’s been impressed with their work, despite the circumstances.

“They really are demonstrating their fiber, their culture of service and, as a city, we’re extremely proud of them for really doing what we’re asking them to do in this crisis,” he said. “I think the city is doing everything they can to protect workers and their employees. ... They are the unsung heroes that on a regular basis we take for granted.”

Schlecht acknowledged that conditions are improving for the workers, but still feels the city was unprepared.

“This is a scary situation and having that thrust on the people in charge? They could have done worse,” he said. “It’s easy to sit and complain and point the finger, but at least they keep trying to change what is wrong.”

Food or bills?

Mari Martinez’s job as a recruiter for a local call center shifted to work from home around the same time as her 16-year-old son’s schooling. The two take turns on their only laptop, forcing her son to do his homework on his cellphone or her to work outside her regular schedule to get everything done.

She said her son’s Sahuarita Unified School District teachers have been accommodating, especially so for her son, who already has special accommodations to account for his focus and organization difficulties. He struggles with math, and while Martinez reached pre-calculus, she’s had trouble teaching him in the methods that work for him.

“If we had better resources, I would be able to access an online tutor for him and obviously his own laptop would be an option at that point,” Martinez said.

While Martinez described her financial situation as “stable,” she’s had to make sacrifices. The single mother skipped a mortgage payment in favor of buying whatever extra food they could fit into their refrigerator. She was able to pay the mortgage, as well as lofty homeowners association fees, with help from a stimulus check.

“I’m trying to keep up with bills as much as possible, but I find myself making a choice: Do I pay my bill or do I make sure we have the food and resources we need for the next three weeks?” she said.

Then there are the social issues for a kid her son’s age. She admittedly tried not scaring him with the realities of the situation at first. She later opted to pull from experiences from her family in Spain, which imposed harsh quarantine protocols, as a way to explain to him the severity of the situation.

She said he keeps his trips out of the house limited to visits his dad, who lives nearby. But they’ve been unable to visit her parents, or her sister and his cousins, limiting their interactions to phone or Zoom calls.

“We are a very close family. We see each other very regularly,” she said. “I think that’s what been the most challenging.”

Asking for help

Meredith Elsberry thought she’d be able to get some help, and quickly. She’d been working as an Uber driver and was about to start a new job when the health crisis hit.

She applied for unemployment, but that was denied because she was told she had no base wages. So far she hasn’t been able to get anything.

“When the CARES Act passed, I got really excited,” she said. “I thought it was for someone in my position.”

Elsberry and her toddler son moved from Texas to Arizona a little over a year ago, ready for a new start after some challenging years there.

She’s been living with her parents while she gets her bearings and was excited to begin a new job as a night auditor in March. But those plans fell through when the hotel she’d been planning to work for withdrew the offer.

“They said they were freezing any hiring and said hopefully we’ll see you when this is all done,” she said. “And I still don’t have the stimulus check. My son and I are just sitting in limbo.”

Elsberry tried to make some money through Uber again but found she was always just waiting around, with no one calling for rides anymore.

She has been doing some work delivering groceries for Instacart, but she’s worried about her parents, who both have health issues.

“The governor is saying, ‘Stay home,’ and so what do I do? How do I put food on the table?” she asked.

It’s a similar story for Becky Blacher. She had been working part time at Crate & Barrel since November, but her last day of in-person work for the time being was in mid-March.

She had taken the job to jump back into the workforce after spending the previous two years dealing with her own health issues, as well as those of her parents, primarily making money during that period through gig work like Airbnb or contract landscaping.

She recently tried unemployment, too, but was told she was monetarily ineligible based on previous wages during her time off, not the three months since she rejoined the workforce.

She said she’s gone into “survival mode,” spending savings on bills, food and other necessities. She’s lucky in that her parents own the home she’s living in.

She’s been unable to go into their home, out of concerns for their health issues, staying outside and sticking to what she’s dubbed her quarantine chair on their porch.

She estimates she has enough money to get through May.

“If I had a huge savings right now, I would be a lot less worried and anxious,” she said. “It’s definitely partly on me for sure. We are where we are in life, and stuff happens.”

Star reporter Patty Machelor contributed to this story. Contact reporter Justin Sayers at jsayers1@tucson.com or 573-4192. Twitter: @_JustinSayers. Facebook: JustinSSayers.

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