‘It’s Rough Out There’: Illinois Workers Struggling As Rent Comes Due May 1

Magdalena Zylinska Maggie
Magdalena Zylinska, who works cleaning homes, said she was close to paying off all of her debts, but with the COVID-19 economic slowdown she is racking up credit card debt. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Magdalena Zylinska Maggie
Magdalena Zylinska, who works cleaning homes, said she was close to paying off all of her debts, but with the COVID-19 economic slowdown she is racking up credit card debt. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

‘It’s Rough Out There’: Illinois Workers Struggling As Rent Comes Due May 1

Magdalena Zylinska said she knows she is lucky. Rent is due for many people on May 1, but Zylinska has already paid off her house. Her car is paid off, too.

But Zylinska is still very worried. Like a lot of people in the Chicago area, Zylinska is feeling the crunch of the economic slowdown caused by COVID-19.

Zylinska said her 20 or so housecleaning jobs have almost all disappeared in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. She’s only bringing in about half as much as her monthly expenses.

“For the past 30 years, I was a single mother with two children. It wasn’t always easy to juggle all my incoming bills and credit card payments at a minimum wage rate. But I was always frugal with money,” Zylinska said.”Now I just practically charge whatever I can on a credit card.”

Zylinska said she was on a path to be debt free by next February. But now, because of the COVID-19 shutdown, she’s adding to her debt.

Zylinska was one of several workers WBEZ interviewed last month who were trying to make sense of their finances early on in the coronavirus pandemic. Now, six weeks into Illinois’ stay-at-home order, some are doing better than others. But all of them are looking toward the future with dread.

“Habits are just going to be changed”

Zylinska said she’s worried that even when the stay-at-home order is lifted she won’t be able to dig out of the hole she’s being forced into because of the economic slowdown.

“Even if I start working at a regular pace, which is really hard to predict … it’s going to be really hard for me to make up the difference,” Zylinska said.

Meanwhile, Dylan Heath is doing OK for right now. Heath said after about a three week lag he recently started getting his unemployment checks. He said with that money and the anticipated stimulus payment, he will actually be making a little more than he made working three restaurant jobs before the pandemic.

But Heath, who is a cook, said when this is over, he’s not sure what kind of restaurant industry there will be for him to return to.

“I’ll have a job if the restaurants I worked at are able to reopen,” Heath said. “But I can’t imagine people are going to feel comfortable … sitting in a restaurant that has, you know, on a good night, a hundred people sitting in the dining room all squished together.”

Food service is not the only industry that could be permanently altered by COVID-19.

Mattia Nanfria is a Lyft driver who recently switched to food delivery to try and avoid exposure to the coronavirus.

She said she is working to change careers and counseling her friends who are drivers to get out of the gig economy if they can. She believes it will be a long time before demand for ride-sharing gets back to where it was, and that may never happen.

“People that would normally have a morning commute [might] no longer have a morning commute. I think people aren’t going to be going out and about into crowded places as frequently,” Nanfria said. “I think habits are just going to be changed for the foreseeable future.”

Nanfria said the gig economy is great to pick up some extra cash, but she never wants to rely on it for work again.

“There’s just no protection for the workers,” Nanfria said.

Last month Nanfria had a simple goal: work long enough to save a thousand dollars. Then shelter in place, apply for unemployment and try to get education or training to help her find a new job.

She still hasn’t been able to get there. And stories from other gig economy workers about being denied benefits or waiting a long time for unemployment checks make her nervous to stop working.

“The whole, you know, ‘pay all your bills and save a thousand dollars,’ might not be feasible right now. It hasn’t been for me,” Nanfria said. “It’s rough out there.”

“I’m really nervous”

That drag on workers is putting pressure on landlords.

Joy Aruguete is CEO of Bickerdike Development, one of the biggest affordable housing landlords in the city. She said their rent collection was down about 35% in April. That was even worse than the organization was anticipating.

“We have a lot of people that are out of work and have had their hours cut,” Aruguete said. “And this has been a big challenge for many of our residents. …They’re one paycheck away.”

Aruguete said as a non-profit they operate on thin margins, and the drop in rental payments is taking a toll on the organization.

“I’ve been looking at all of our budgets,” Aruguete said. “Because I think it’s become pretty clear that there’s not going to be a magic date when all this is over.”

Aruguete said she’s hoping that more Bickerdike tenants started receiving unemployment benefits in the last few weeks. But still, she expects even fewer people to be able to make rent in May.

“I’m really nervous about it,” Aruguete said. “I think it will be worse than April.”

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.