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How To Help The People Who (Used To) Help You

"For Sale By Owner" and "Closed Due to Virus" signs are displayed in a storefront in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich. on April 2, 2020. The coronavirus has triggered a stunning collapse in the U.S. workforce.
Paul Sancya
"For Sale By Owner" and "Closed Due to Virus" signs are displayed in a storefront in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich. on April 2, 2020. The coronavirus has triggered a stunning collapse in the U.S. workforce.

Across the country, millions of people are either out of work or working a lot less, especially in service jobs that make up a huge share of the U.S. economy. That includes waiters, bartenders, rideshare drivers, nannies, domestic workers, barbersand hairdressers — the list goes on.

At the same time, many people under orders to stay at home aredoing more of their own cooking and cleaning and getting family members to cut their hair.

While there are a number of charities aiding those in need, some people are trying to offer direct assistance to the people and small businesses that used to serve them. They're ordering takeout from restaurants they used to frequent, buying gift cards and tipping extra.

But these options don't guarantee workers or businesses will recoup all they've lost, nor do they always help those who need it most, according labor advocates and ethicists.

"Those things are wonderful when we can do them," says Erica Smiley, executive director of Jobs With Justice, which advocates for employment security. "But they are really just short term solutions."

So let's say you want to help the workers or small businesses you're unable to patronize now because you're stuck at home. Where do you start? With your hair stylist? Your nanny? What about all the Lyft or Uber drivers who have given you rides?

Who might benefit the most?

Rather than trying to make everyone around you whole, focus on the people you have depended on the most, says Ann Skeet of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

"If you have been relying on somebody to come in and do a high-touch, personal level of service in your home, you want to maintain a good, long-term relationship with them," she says. "That's really the way to think about it, what is my relationship with this person? How regular is it? And how much are they relying on me?"

In other words, if you had someone caring for your children or cleaning your home and they are no longer coming, they may not have many other places to turn for help. Skeet, who teaches and consults on business ethics, says these types of workers are often independent contractors, and lack the kind of safety net a business might provide, such as paid sick days.

Although self-employed workers are eligible for unemploymentcompensation under the the coronavirus rescue package passed by Congress, the money has been slow in coming.And those domestic workers who are undocumented immigrants aren't covered.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance has set up a Coronavirus Care Fund which has raised nearly $4 million for domestic workers in need.

But Smiley, the workers' rights advocate, says a more direct way to help is to "continue paying your domestic worker," even if they are not working.

"Consider it a paid leave," she says. "This is something we would get, many of us who are in full-time, formal positions where we have paid leave. Why wouldn't we also offer that to the people who provide us immediate services?"

You want to help, but don't have the money

Sala Ivey owns a hair salon in Detroit and has no job security. Business before the coronavirus came with ups and downs, but there were always customers.

"Some days I had two or three clients, and some days I had 10, 12 clients a day," she says.

Her salon is called Knot Just Locs — it specializes in dreadlocks — and like salons and barber shops across the country, the clientele is gone and the doors are shut. Her customers are loyal, Ivey says, but she realizes asking them for help might be difficult. "I imagine everybody's going through something," she says.

So what can you do if you are like them, or simply don't have money to spare, but you still want to help?

One option may be sources of cash that are freed up because you're spending more time at home. Some people are donating money they no longer spend to get to work; it's even become a hashtag on social media: #donateyourcommute. Other ideas being circulated are giving away the money you're not spending going out for coffee or throwing parties, or even recovering coins lost behind the sofa.

If you are unable to give, it's still possible to help. Mainly, Skeet says, by staying in touch.

"Just talking to people, at a very human level, and finding out how they're doing, finding out if they're safe, if they have the support they need," she says. "Anything you can do to reduce that kind of anxiety and provide more security for other people is a good thing to be doing at this point in time."

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Jerome Socolovsky is the Audio Storytelling Specialist for NPR Training. He has been a reporter and editor for more than two decades, mostly overseas. Socolovsky filed stories for NPR on bullfighting, bullet trains, the Madrid bombings and much more from Spain between 2002 and 2010. He has also been a foreign and international justice correspondent for The Associated Press, religion reporter for the Voice of America and editor-in-chief of Religion News Service. He won the Religion News Association's TV reporting award in 2013 and 2014 and an honorable mention from the Association of International Broadcasters in 2011. Socolovsky speaks five languages in addition to his native Spanish and English. He holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, and graduate degrees from Hebrew University and the Harvard Kennedy School. He's also a sculler and a home DIY nut.