COVID-19: Impacts on Employment & Household Income

In COVID-19, Employment, News & Events, Reports, Resources by Vairam

By Stephanie Chok, 18 March 2020, BEYOND SOCIAL SERVICES

Almost a month ago, Beyond Social Services started calling members to find out how they have been impacted by the COVID-19 situation. We were especially concerned about impacts on employment and household income. Here’s what we found: 

Low-Paid & Precarious Work 

Members who voiced concerns in the area of employment are disproportionately engaged in low-paid and precarious forms of work. They are part of the gig economy (e.g. Grab driver), are casual, contract, or part-time staff (many in the service sector, e.g. F&B and cleaning), and are involved in seasonal work (e.g. baking/catering). As this TIME article on the coronavirus and inequality among workers pointed out, for many service sector workers, in-person interaction is necessary: if they don’t show up for work, they don’t get paid. ‘Working from home’, a measure available to a select pool of white-collar professionals, is not a viable option. 

Members in these jobs have reported the following impacts: 

  • Reduction in working hours (including overtime hours) and work days, thus leading to a reduction in overall income; 
  • Reduction in demand for services (e.g. catering, Grab rides); 
  • Cancellation of events and contracts (affecting those in events management, for example, and outsourced workers); 
  • Being asked to take (unpaid) leave, including leave of absence (LOA); 
  • Not being paid when on medical leave; 
  • Business temporarily closing (e.g. pasar malam stall, because business is bad); 
  • Pay cuts; 
  • Retrenchment. 

There were also a number who were unemployed and looking for work, but indicated this is more difficult now. Not only are parents affected, older children who take on part-time work to supplement household and personal expenses (e.g. transport to school) have also been affected.

Caregiving & Employment 

It is a stressful time for working parents (in particular mothers), should their children fall sick. One mother was planning to look for employment once her children settled into childcare, but her children have fallen sick consecutively; not only is she unable to look for work now, her husband’s reduced income has been spent on taxi fares bringing the children to and from the hospital and paying for food during long waits at the hospital. At another neighbourhood, a childcare centre where one teacher tested positive for COVID-19 has been closed for 14 days: affected children have been given Leave of Absences (LOA). A mother of one of the children is anxious about having to take two weeks off work at this time, concerned that her employers will dismiss her. 

While there is nothing irregular about children falling sick and parents having to care for them, the current situation is different because childcare centres are now on high alert and bound by much stricter measures. Doctors are issuing longer medical leave for persons displaying respiratory symptoms, and shifting social norms related to being ‘socially responsible’ in the age of COVID-19 mean it is no longer acceptable to attend childcare or work when one displays mild flu-like symptoms.  

Caregiving responsibilites also extend to siblings, parents, and extended family. One member, a 23 year-old who works in a restaurant, is her family’s sole breadwinner: she supports her mother, her brother (who has special needs and requires milk and adult diapers), and her 5 year-old nephew. With the restaurant sector suffering significant drops in revenue, she recently had her pay cut by about 20%. There is an underlying fear that job loss may be imminent if business continues to dive. 

Conclusion 

The financial strain families are under is, understandably, causing emotional distress. Several respondents expressed feeling stressed and anxious, and concerned about paying for household expenses (including rent and food, as well as children’s school-related expenses) in the coming months. With the economic impact of COVID-19 expected to last at least a year, there will be cumulative impacts from these reductions in income; this will not only affect families’ current expenditure, it will also compound their arrears, if they have any. While some members are adjusting their spending in order to cope (“still able to tahan for now”, one said), this is a limited strategy. 

Beyond intends to continue monitoring the impact on families, and mobilizing resources to support them. Our crowdfunding site remains open for donations, and both financial and in-kind support is being harnessed and distributed. It is a time for generousity, and public concern towards those in financial hardship has been heartfelt and encouraging. 

It is also, as pointed out by academics Teo You Yenn and Ng Kok Hoe, a time for structural reform:

The current crisis illuminates. It shows us where we most need to intervene to strengthen our social policies: Improving wage protection across all low-paying jobs, shoring up job security in new sectors of the economy, strengthening alternative retirement income sources, enhancing the social assistance regime, and extending the provision of public goods like care services. 

As the authors remind us, “the problems that poorer households faced in normal times have not been suspended because of the crisis. All the things that should have been done to help them then, now must be done”.