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As the coronavirus has spread throughout the U.S., it has left a wake of economic turmoil. As of Wednesday, April 9, over 16 million Americans have filed for unemployment. Like many other freelancers, photographers have seen an abrupt drop in income. For many, late March brought about cancellations in droves over the course of about a week.
In this special episode of Vision Slightly Blurred, Allen Murabayashi (@allen3m) speaks to Preston Mack, Morgan Heim and Jasmine DeFoore about the psychological burden of total loss of income, how they’ve each dealt with applying for economic assistance through the CARES Act and their respective state’s unemployment offices.
Many freelance photographers have taken to social media to share their knowledge, confusion and experiences trying to absorb the flurry of information around applying for economic assistance through EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loans), PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) and local unemployment benefits.
Over the past few years, a large portion of Preston Mack’s income has come from shooting corporate photography. “The cancellations were pretty quick and brutal,” he said, “all within the same week.”
Mack cites the cancellation of the NBA season as a turning point for many businesses and individuals. “I think when that happened, everyone was like, ‘Whoa, this is really serious if they’re going to stop a billion-dollar business.'”
Originally a newspaper shooter, Mack switched to the freelance life full-time in 2001 after meticulously planning for his transition, and being mentored by Sports Illustrated photographer Bob Rosato. For the past 10 years, Mack has photographed the Independent Community Bankers of America and forged many personal relationships within the financial industry. When the current crisis hit, he leveraged his relationships to get a better understanding of the programs that were being rolled out.
So far, he’s applied for the Florida Disaster Bridge Loan and two rounds of the EIDL (he hasn’t applied for PPP or unemployment yet because of the lack of clarity around the requirements for the program). “Even if you apply for a loan, you don’t have to accept it,” said Mack. He counseled his friends, “You need to apply for everything just in case. This [pandemic] might last six months, a year, you have no idea.”
Photographer/Director Morgan Heim lost $25,000 of income in a week. As a freelancer, she says, “We’re used to kind of weathering the storm” when dealing with seasonal fluctuations and dry spells. “I had worked really hard to build up a line of projects, and for one of the first times in my life, I was feeling safer – like I didn’t have to have the same level of underlying anxiety about where I was going to make my next mortgage payment.”
As the prospect of applying for unemployment became an inevitability, she felt pangs of guilt. “I’ve always been really proud of the fact that I’ve never had to rely on welfare or going to my parents and going to ask for money…no matter how hard things got,” she said pensively.
But when the breadth of the economic damage became clear, she thought, “Why shoot myself in the foot, and not be willing to take advantage of the program if now for once we the chance to do that and have this lifeline?”
As she went through the process of applying for unemployment online, the uncertainty crept in. “I was feeling like an impostor,” she says, “I was feeling like a failure, but I was also feeling like it would be silly not to start [the process] now because it could take 3 or 4 weeks for it even get approved.”
With a family of four, photography consultant Jasmine DeFoore had no reservations about applying for economic assistance as business dried up. “I started all the [application] processes I could think of on [March] 31st,” she said after carefully monitoring the CARES Act as it made its way through Congress.
“Of course, it feels disappointing. I was having a really good year,” she said. But when job cancellations started flooding in, she says, “I saw the writing on the wall.” As Defoore gently asked her son to stop bouncing a basketball in the house, she continued, “I don’t think anyone should feel guilty [about applying].” Freelancers, in particular, she says hustle hard to make ends meet, and she counsels, “if you need short-term assistance to make it through this period, you should apply for it.”
Her business is incorporated as an S-Corp, and DeFoore applied for EIDL, PPP, and unemployment benefits through the Texas Workforce Commission. “And I have received nothing!” she said with a chuckle.
When the NCAA canceled all sports for the rest of the season, Corey Perrine knew that this was different. As a journalist, Perrine is used to noticing patterns and seeing the “proverbial train coming.”
His wife had been briefed at her job at Costco about impending changes to meet customer safety needs, and when she mentioned that there were ten slots open, he knew he had a limited opportunity even though he previously thought working outside photo was “something that I’d only do if I felt it was necessary to survive.”
He has no regrets. “If there is one company to work for in retail, it’s Costco,” he wrote via e-mail describing a situation that would embarrass most hospitals. “They supply employees with a very good PPE. Everyday we are provided a mask and lofty supply of nitrile gloves. We have Clorox wipes available to us and shoppers on corner dispensers throughout the store. We have a 6-foot distancing protocol and Supervisors all over the store seeing that it’s in place calling it out to members. Carts are sprayed with disinfectant and wiped down to those needing one at the door.”
Because he’s now gainfully employed, he has no plans to seek government assistance saying, “I figure I’d rather be proactive and just take a job.”
Perrine’s decision is atypical, and he sees a number of benefits beyond the paycheck. “I like being on a team again,” he said. “There is a lot of dead time in freelancing, I always loved the fast pace of a newspaper and I’d love to be on a news staff again, but if that opportunity is not an option (only one paper in my city), I might just keep plugging along at Costco. I like that people depend on me often.”
PhotoShelter is maintaining a list of COVID-19 resources for photographers.