I lost my job for the foreseeable future when Belltower Coffeehouse and Studio closed on March 26. I went to bed that night full of worry and fear.
I don’t want to downplay the significance of the health impact of this pandemic, but in that moment my concerns were entirely financial.
Belltower pays me $12.50 an hour for 20 hours a week, which covers about half of my bills and makes it possible for me to make the other half through my own pottery business. All of a sudden, I could no longer count on that income.
For the past few years, I’ve worked as a part-time studio manager at Belltower, near the University of Memphis, and run my own pottery business, Brukie Studio. At Belltower, I processed pottery — including sanding, glazing and firing — created by students during our weekend classes, assisted studio members, maintained and fired the kilns, and performed a variety of other tasks that helped things run smoothly.
Working part-time in a small business is rarely a high-paying job, but my employers have worked hard to make sure I am paid well and have access to free materials and supplies to pursue my own business goals.
I have been incredibly grateful for this job, the friendships with my bosses and co-workers, the creative space and sense of community that often happens at local small businesses as customers become regulars who become friends.
In addition to losing my job, my online sales dropped to almost zero, and many of the places that sell my pottery had to close. On top of that, the places I could usually approach for part-time work had to close as well, and many of my friends are in the same situation as I am.
Belltower, along with many other small businesses, would absolutely pay all of its employees for the time we can’t work in the midst of this pandemic if they were able to: But most small businesses, no matter how strategic they are, do not have that kind of money just sitting around.
At 32, with somewhere between half and all of my regular income gone, I am very grateful to have some savings I can fall back on. At the same time, I have an old car, a 2001 Chevy Malibu, which makes me incredibly grateful for my trustworthy mechanics at J&L Auto Services, a new mortgage and subpar health insurance.
I got my insurance through the marketplace, but I have one of the plans with a lower monthly payment. This is, in part, because I am rarely sick and my budget is tight, since I am still paying off a hospital bill from a few years ago: I accidentally went to an out-of-network emergency room. But I also have a high deductible, around $4,500. I would have to pay quite a bit out of my own pocket before the insurance kicked in, which worries me.
I keep thinking I am totally fine for a few months, but what if the pandemic lasts longer than that?
What if, even after we discover ways to move past the health concerns, the economy doesn’t go back to what it was? Will Belltower be able to reopen after weeks or months of being closed? Will anyone still have the expendable income to buy pottery?
What if I use up my savings over the next few months and things are still bad, unemployment is still high and I no longer have anything to fall back on? I share my two-bedroom, two-bathroom 1940s bungalow with a roommate, but I still worry.
What if my home suddenly needs repairs, or I have to stay at the hospital or my car breaks down? It’s taken so long and so much work to scratch together my savings, and it feels like it is all going to disappear in the midst of this pandemic. What happens after that?
While losing my job was an incredible low point for me, the days that followed retained a bittersweet beauty. My employers and co-workers at Belltower have gone above and beyond to look out for one another and try to meet each other’s needs as best as possible. This includes things like sharing information about possible job openings, sharing food and helping one another figure out how to file for unemployment.
I have seen the same thing in my neighborhood with neighbors sharing food and supplies and checking in on each other. Likewise, my family, friends and church have been comforting and grounding as they have been willing to mourn changes with me and have offered all sorts of help.
One couple said they’d make sure I am OK with the mortgage if it gets to that (though we didn’t specify if that meant they’d pay it for me or give me a loan). Either way, those offers of help were definitely genuine and have given me peace of mind. I also have a text thread with a few friends who have told me about job openings or similar resources they hear about.
The CARES Act passed by Congress, which will give each adult $1,200, resolves a lot of my initial fears.
That emergency assistance check itself will provide some additional cushion, which I am grateful for, but it is the unemployment benefit that will really make the difference. The CARES Act supplements weekly unemployment checks by an additional $600 for most workers for up to four months. I am not certain yet whether I qualify. If so, this would cover the amount I typically make and allow me to put a bit aside in case the economy continues to impact both my job at Belltower and my pottery sales beyond the four months.
And in the midst of all of this, I am so grateful for community, and I am challenged to notice the people around me. We are all going through this; it affects each of us differently, but it affects us nonetheless.
While I still feel the weight of these challenges, and I’m sure when I look back this will be a significant marker in my life and in the lives of many (maybe all) of us, I also reflect upon my life up to this point with hope. It is usually the hardest times that also include growth and refining in the midst of pain that I am grateful for.
In collaboration with High Ground News, MLK50 is running first-person essays from area workers whose income and livelihoods have been rattled by the coronavirus pandemic. Here are some of their stories.
This story is brought to you by High Ground News and MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy, Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.