“I don’t know how I’ll manage to keep this yard up,” an elderly neighbor said mournfully on the day governor Gretchen Whitmer issued a stay-at-home order for all but “essential” workers. “I’ve had the same woman doing my gardening for ten years, and she can’t come now. She called me, crying. She’s divorced, raising three children on her own. So we sent a check, and my husband called several of her other clients, who did the same. But I don’t know how she’s going to make ends meet.”

The $2.2 trillion economic stimulus package awards $1,200 checks to Americans making less than $75,000 (and $500 apiece for their children). In a groundbreaking move, for the first time, self-employed workers will receive unemployment benefits.

But while this help is in the pipeline, people still have families to feed, mortgage or rent payments, utility bills, and mounting credit card debt. In addition, self-employed workers are responsible for their own health insurance, if they’re not fortunate enough to have a spouse whose company provides coverage.

The economic crisis hits self-employed people particularly hard. At the end of February, Washtenaw County had only 2.2 percent unemployment. By the end of March, with all restaurants and nonessential businesses closed or operating with minimal staffs, joblessness soared to horrifying levels, jamming state phones and online resources. Filing for unemployment became a nightmare.

Early in March, Brenda Steiner closed her Unique Hair Studio on Jackson Rd. because her fourteen hair stylists exceeded the ten-person limit for gatherings then mandated by the governor. She could have shifted schedules, but she decided to close out of concern for her customers, some of whom are elderly, others the mothers of young children, and still others with health conditions that heighten their risk from the virus.

“Frankly, I am very worried about the financial implications,” she said at the time. “When hair stylists don’t work, they don’t get paid.”

As soon as the stimulus package was approved, Steiner, along with her hair stylists, applied for unemployment. Several of the stylists also applied for emergency loans, although Steiner did not. “I’m very conservative financially and I worry about how I would pay off a loan. That may have to change soon–but I hope not.”

Steiner spoke to her landlord about rent deferral or forgiveness, but he agreed only to allow her to mail her rent check “a little late.” “I understand; he’s a businessman who has to make a living, too,” she says, sighing.

“I’m luckier than many people, but my husband and I are living very sparsely, looking at every dime we spend,” she says. “I have some cash reserves, but I’m not sure how long they’ll last.”

Physical therapist Francine Quail runs a clinic out of her home. “This situation has really strapped us financially,” she says in a phone interview. “I’m sitting at my desk trying to decide if I qualify for unemployment … A physical therapist can’t maintain a six-foot distance from her clients.”

She’s grateful that her husband, Mike, a math professor at Washtenaw Community College, is still working–online.

“We’re not going to starve. But we are cutting back on our lifestyle pretty dramatically. Clearly, we’ll take no vacations this year. “

The situation is brighter for Julie Evanchek, a one-woman consulting company. She works remotely out of her Dexter home as a project manager in educational publishing. “I haven’t seen any change in my workload. What this health crisis has done is hit my productivity.” Her husband, lawyer John Evanchek, is working at home and sharing homeschooling responsibilities for their six- and eight-year-old children. With courts closed, he and his partner, Bryon Kelley, were forced to lay off their paralegal.

“We’re taking this one day at a time, trying to come up with a schedule that works for all of us,” she says. “My clients have been great, offering me more time for projects, knowing I have the kids at home now with me. Financially we’re okay right now, but we live month to month, paycheck to paycheck, and if we exhaust our bank account, we’ll start to struggle.”

“I sometimes work with immune-compromised people, so I can’t take a chance healthwise,” says Deb Repine, a Feldenkrais practitioner who works with people who have sustained injuries, suffer from Parkinson’s or strokes, or who want to improve flexibility and balance. The Feldenkrais method uses movement and real-time awareness of body sensations. “Many of my patients need the constant somatic education, but I can’t help them and maintain the necessary physical distance.”

In mid-March, she canceled all appointments. She checks in with her patients regularly by phone, encouraging them to practice home exercises she emails to them. “I’m doing the best I can long-distance, but it’s definitely not the same as when I can work directly with them.”

Psychotherapist Marijo Grogan has closed her Ann Arbor office but is seeing the same patients and new ones from her home office.

“Many of my clients are expressing the concerns we all have: financial concerns, fears of what the future holds, practical issues–how to safely grocery shop or live in a divided household when a couple has one or both working outside the home and the potential for contamination.”

Grogan lives in Lyndon Township, in a cottage on a lake in the woods. “I miss seeing people, too, but I get out, exercise, read the books I’ve stockpiled, and cook more than I used to. As a professional, my biggest concern is the increase in domestic violence I’m hearing about.”

“I’m fortunate,” says Cheryl Latshaw, a Realtor with Howard Hanna. “We don’t count on my salary to pay the mortgage, but we are definitely cutting back on expenditures. For others in my profession, the current situation comes as a huge hit.”

The governors of Ohio and Minnesota have categorized real estate as an “essential” occupation. Not so in Michigan. “Right now, everyone’s health and safety has to be our most important consideration,” Latshaw says. “Most Realtors I know are making calls, staying on top of the market, and staying in touch with their clients … but I do miss the personal, face-to-face connections.”

She had been expecting a gangbuster second quarter this year. “That’s not going to happen,” she says. “We’re hunkering down in our house.” But she says Hanna has been taking steps to help agents manage, and she believes the market will eventually “bounce back because of the pent-up buyer demand.”

Until then, she and her husband are trying to help support local businesses and a friend who lost his job: they’ve hired him to supervise maintenance at their rental property.

“Business is very, very slow,” says Jay Nuber, owner of Japanese Auto Professional Service on S. Main. “Some cars will continue to break down now and then, but the bulk of our business lies in routine maintenance, and people are putting car maintenance on hold, as they stay home and worry about budgets.”

He is maintaining his three employees on the payroll, but their hours may be cut in the near future. “We’ll all spend downtime cleaning up, organizing our supplies, and working on the facility,” Nuber says. “If this situation goes on for months, it’s going to be very difficult for me to keep operating.

“But I’m optimistic,” he adds. “This will pass. At one point or other, cars will need servicing. I’m seventy and I’ve seen other pandemics come and go. The swine flu was tough for a while. I’m just hoping this virus will blow over before our funds disappear.”

Massage therapist Prema Lindsay Smith stopped working when both of her workplaces, Integrative Healthcare Providers and Liberty Athletic Club, closed their doors in mid-March. “I have considered returning to nursing to help out, but it’s been twenty years since I worked as a nurse, and I’m sixty-nine years old. I am considering training to help with Covid-19 testing, though.”

She stays in touch with her patients by phone and text–“but it’s certainly not the same. I may be forced into early retirement and claim my Social Security benefits before I wanted to–which will cut my monthly payment.”

Her coworkers at both facilities are “very scared,” she adds. “Some are even discussing whether or not to apply for work at grocery stores to make ends meet.”

Jen Geer, a photographer who specializes in graduations, weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, and family portraits has created a new market–pro bono.

“I believe in documenting the important moments in our lives, and for many of us, this Covid situation is a life-changing event,” she points out. So she began chronicling the changing lives of her Burns Park neighbors. She calls them and asks them to walk onto their front porches. Then she stands on the sidewalk and takes their “porchtrait.”

One picture features a woman with her cooking supplies; her harried-looking husband dressed up for a video conference, with a computer in his lap and a phone in his hand; their teenage daughter talking on the phone while still dressed in her pajamas at three o’clock in the afternoon; and a boy doing math homework on his iPad.

Another family dressed up for a party and decorated their porch as they celebrated their daughter’s birthday with a giant card drawn in chalk on their driveway. “People walking past signed their name,” Geer says. “The little girl loved it.

“I can’t stand being bored, and I love finding new ways to document friends’ lives,” she adds. “Of course I’m struggling financially. I’m a divorced mother of three kids. … If budgets are strained, people don’t think of photographs as essential items. But I’m hoping that senior pictures and weddings will just be postponed, not canceled. And for now, we can’t let our circumstances stop us from trying to have fun.”

In September 2018, Dave Whitinger opened Office Evolution on E. Eisenhower, offering private and shared offices, virtual services, administrative services, and conference rooms for self-employed professionals and small businesses. A salesman in the automotive industry, he worked remotely and knew the value of such “coworking” spaces. To his surprise, when the governor shut down many small businesses in Michigan, his was deemed essential because it involves mail distribution.

“The majority of our tenants are in the legal, health care, or financial fields–all of which are essential businesses in this climate,” he explains. “Some continue coming here to work, but we no longer have an open-door policy. They use their own fobs to get in and out twenty-four hours a day and they maintain social distance. The public is no longer allowed in.

“Several of our clients are start-up companies that must conserve their cash. One young lady is a graphic artist; her business is dead. Another sells hotel rooms to travel agencies–obviously the floor has fallen out of that business. They called and said, ‘I need to take a month off.’ We totally understand. If this crisis lasts two or three months, we’ll be fine. If it stretches out to five or six months, the conversation will have to change.”

“This is a very difficult, very scary time,” says Alicia Shattock, owner of Contempo Salon Studios on S. State. “For the people who work here, it’s lights-out for their businesses. They have no stream of income.”

Shattock has been in business since 2002. Until eight months ago, she was a salon owner who rented booths to stylists and manicurists. The shutdown caught her in the midst of expanding the facility from 3,000 to 7,600 square feet to make room for a wider range of independent contractors in the beauty industry. Unfortunately, only 75 percent of the work was completed when the shutdown order took effect.

“One day we’re working hard and making money, the next day no one is working and no one is making any money,” she says. “We’re all independent contractors, so everyone is on their own financially … At any rate, no one can afford to pay me rent. My landlord offered to let me defer my rent, so I could tell my tenants not to worry about their payments.”

She doesn’t plan to ask them for back rent when the crisis ends. “We’re a family-owned business and we treat our tenants as family. My finances have been drained by the construction, let alone the economy. But we’ll get through this.”

Other self-employed area residents are being offered assistance from longtime customers or concerned friends. One neighbor continues to pay her housekeeper, despite not having seen her for weeks. Another sends checks to her gardener. Many are finding creative ways to help out-of-work friends and acquaintances.

Gabrielle Ayala is halfway through chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer. She called her hairdresser and asked her for help. “She goes grocery shopping for me and leaves the groceries on the porch. She’s also running errands for me. In fact, she finished my Christmas shopping in March.”

Ayala connected her with older friends who also need help. “She is working so hard to make ends meet–she has just been hired to stock grocery store shelves at night,” Ayala says. “In a scary time, there are people who are working toward a win-win situation for us all.”

from Calls and Letters, June 2020

Psychotherapist Marijo Grogan got in touch to clarify that she temporarily connects with clients through secured virtual access rather than in an office setting. She hopes to re-open her Ann Arbor office when the quarantine restrictions are lifted.