Impossible Choices: Balancing Your Health and Finances During the Pandemic

essential workers

Shelter-in-place and social distancing guidelines are changing how we work, learn, and live during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. While many are able to stay home, nearly one-third of workers are considered “essential” and must risk their health by going to work in these unprecedented and deadly circumstances.

These essential workers include grocery store employees, nurses and physicians, factory workers, and farmers. And the list is longer than you think. Utility workers, garbage collectors, bus drivers, and warehouse employees are just some of the included professions. Essential workers are often the lowest paid in the country with limited to no health benefits.

On average, food service workers make less than $12 per hour, which is half of the average hourly wage of $28 across all industries. The annual income of an employee in senior home care is about $16,000. The pressure to continue to work, even in close quarters and with few protective measures, to pull in a steady paycheck is overwhelming for many. Nearly half of Americans, including many essential workers, live paycheck to paycheck.

“For us caregivers, it’s a mortal sin to get sick,” Lee Plaza, a California home care worker, said on a press call covered by the Huffington Post. She described the long 12-hour shifts caring for a 98-year-old woman, as well as her 85-year-old mother and children back home who rely on her for support. “If I get sick, I don’t know how to pay my bills. But you have to remain strong,” she said on the call.

Heroes or Martyrs of COVID-19

Wage inequality is a pervasive issue with no simple, short-term solutions. Economists point to the sheer number of unskilled workers as an underlying factor, but also globalization and systemic inequalities favoring corporations over workers.

“Many of the ‘essential’ occupations are easy to enter, and jobs with a large supply of potential workers are paid less,” Wojciech Kopczuk, an economics professor at Columbia University, told the Washington Post.

What most agree on is that these employees marked “essential” truly are critical during the pandemic, but — very importantly — were doing important work even before the outbreak. Previously overlooked and often underpaid, they’re now the heroes of COVID-19. It’s important not to allow our expressions of thanks, however, to paper over the difficult calculations these workers are being required to make — sometimes the language of heroism can obscure avoidable risks or deflect blame from the failures of leaders.

We are, however, depending — and will continue to depend on these vital workers — for the staples of modern-day life, from bread and butter to working electricity. We have them to thank, for keeping us fed and healthy during these times of distress.

While they are keeping us safe and fed, however, they too must be protected from virus exposure. Sanitizing supplies, face masks, space from other employees and patrons are crucial but often in limited supply. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has guidelines for protecting workers, but, according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration, these guidelines are not mandatory and therefore, not enforceable.

It’s now up to each essential worker to make the impossible choice between their health and their finances. There are no easy answers, but here are a few four tips for essential workers to care for their bodies, minds, and bank accounts during the pandemic.

Follow the Official Recommendations

When interacting with others, follow the CDC recommendation to wear a cloth face mask in order to help slow the spread of the disease. Many online guides and tutorials outline how to make a mask at home out of items you may already have. If you can, choose work shifts with less personal interaction, such as overnight stocking or early-morning deliveries. The same goes for your personal errands. If you fall into an at-risk group, older or immunocompromised, take advantage of dedicated grocery shopping times that limit crowds.

It’s also important to take the time to understand the government benefits available to you. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act went into effect on March 27 and offers more than $2 trillion of economic relief to Americans impacted by COVID-19. Depending on your location, free childcare may be available while you’re at work. Many school districts also offer free meals to children who are distance learning.

Find a Balance

When funds are tight, it’s tempting to pick up extra shifts and overcommit yourself. Take opportunities to provide extra financial security when you can while balancing what’s best for your physical, emotional, and mental health. If you’re feeling especially overwhelmed by the present situation, skip the optional overtime hours and get some fresh air to calm your mind and sharpen your focus. For healthcare workers try occasionally swapping shifts, if possible, for less intense care areas to re-energize yourself for tougher shifts ahead.

Finances are, rightfully, a top concern for many Americans right now. If you jeopardize your health further, however, you may be unwittingly creating a financial burden that will be even more challenging to recover from.

Prioritize What Is Essential

The term “essential” has become ubiquitous during the pandemic. In this case, we’re referring to procedures, labs, and medications that are critical to keeping your physical well-being. For someone with diabetes, insulin is essential. For a cancer patient, chemotherapy or radiation is likely essential. Pregnant? A 20-week, in-depth anatomy ultrasound may be essential.

To save on funds, consider holding off on preventative screenings not covered by insurance (if you have insurance) or elective procedures until business returns to whatever new normal we find waiting on the other side of this outbreak. Most healthcare systems have cancelled major elective surgeries, but for labs and other routine visits that fall within the gray zone, consider holding off in favor of those truly critical healthcare needs.

Remember, don’t ever question heading to the emergency room when faced with a life-threatening health concern. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Care for Your Mental Health

The coronavirus outbreak is affecting thousands of people’s physical health across the globe, but its impact extends to mental health, too. Fear for yourself and loved ones, job uncertainty, financial stress, and isolation can quickly compound and negatively impact your holistic health. For people already dealing with mental health concerns, the risk is even greater.

The National Institute of Mental Health offers these recommendations for coping during these uncertain times:

  • Take breaks from the news
  • Take care of your body
  • Make time to unwind
  • Connect with others
  • Set goals and priorities
  • Focus on the facts

Meeting virtually with a licensed therapist is another cost-effective way to care for your whole self. Talkspace therapists continue to offer flexible, meaningful therapy, even as many traditional therapists have been forced to close their doors due to health concerns or shelter-in-place limitations. Time with a licensed therapist can be an invaluable tool in navigating this new world that we’re living in.

A “rebalancing” may be on the horizon — a time when we finally begin to value those workers that provide such essential value to our society. For now, the outbreak is a call to action for both essential and non-essential workers to reevaluate our most difficult choices as well as our commitment to the health and safety of all.

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