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This Essential Worker Is Busier Than Ever Without Leaving Her House

As the coronavirus crisis stresses almost every facet of American life, we’re featuring the stories of people who are struggling to stay afloat, finding unexpected financial opportunities or simply changing the way they’re thinking about money, the economy and our country’s social safety net. To do that, we need your help — we want to hear how the coronavirus crisis is affecting you economically. Please share your experience with us.


The nation’s unemployment statistics are staggering, and the stories of the workers who constitute those numbers are humbling, including those who suddenly had job offers rescinded and those who have seen their hours cut as a result of the coronavirus’s spread.

But another reality of this downturn is that some have seen an increase in work the past two months. Many of them hold the kind of essential jobs that wouldn’t immediately come to mind.

Romie Faienza, a 39-year-old Massachusetts resident, is one such person. Faienza works as a closed captioner and specializes in live voice writing — she listens to what is said during an event and carefully repeats that wording into a microphone connected to her computer, where her speech is transcribed into written words.

She has had her hands full since the pandemic emerged in the United States. Along with the daily briefings that President Trump had been doing, governors from states across the country started holding news conferences on the fallout from COVID-19.1 The process of transcribing what is said at them, given their importance and that more people who are hard of hearing would be at home watching the news, is both a busy and critical task for the time being.

Before all this, Faienza was working 40-hour weeks but was plotting out how she would use the time off she had accumulated. “I actually spoke with my supervisor and said I intended to work a lot less” this year, Faienza said, adding that she uses spare time to edit magazine pieces and write screenplays.

But then the pandemic happened, totally altering that plan. Now, she’s working 50-hour weeks to keep up.

The demand for her work appears to go beyond just the additional hours. Faienza said another captioning company reached out to her recently, in the hopes of convincing her to consider a job with them. “I said, ‘Look, I’m flattered, but I can’t entertain the idea of making a big change right now,’” she said.

The notion of stability has always been meaningful for Faienza. Her voice has to remain consistently level — both in terms of volume and intonation — to ensure her captioning will come across clearly and accurately. And from a financial standpoint, she and her husband had made a point to save pretty aggressively in case something unforeseen came up.

Things seem solid for now for Faienza, who made just less than $50,000 last year and is the family’s breadwinner. With overtime, she’s earning about $200 more per paycheck, and her stimulus money is still on the way as well. Lately, she’s used some of her overtime pay to purchase gift cards at suburban Boston-area restaurants. “I want these places to still be there when all of this is over,” she said.2

Faienza’s real challenge has been in areas that others throughout the country can likely relate to: the emotional toll the news can take on those who, like Faienza, have no choice but to immerse themselves in it.

While her work itself hasn’t fundamentally changed — “My life was already pretty socially distanced, because I work from home in a studio with the door closed,” she said — it’s challenging for her to put in a few extra hours each day because she has two young sons, 6 and 8 years old. The older child has said he misses being in school — and not just because he doesn’t get to see his friends and teacher. He told Faienza that he genuinely misses the sense of achievement that accompanies doing a good job on a test or an assignment.

Fortunately, the kids are positioned well from a schooling standpoint: Ciro, Faienza’s husband, is serving as their teacher for now. And the transition is likely smoother for him than for other parents, since he already has teaching experience, having previously taught English to people looking to acquire it as a foreign language.3

Faienza’s parents, who are about 70 years old, live with the rest of the family, so the concept of leaving the house for an outing of some sort hasn’t been entertained. But the kids seem to have adapted to that part of the deal OK so far.

“We’re all pretty nerdy anyway. Because we’re in Massachusetts, we’ve had snowstorms before, where we’ve been stuck inside for a long time,” she said. “So there’s lots of playing board games, watching movies, playing video games, listening to each other. There’s always been a lot of that. And we do have a backyard, which isn’t huge, but it’s enough to go outside to do chalk drawings or toss the ball around.”

Perhaps the strangest element of all this for Faienza was the timing; it felt as if she were seeing the country through a time machine of sorts. She knew pretty early, for instance, that the coronavirus situation in China had gotten serious because an increasing amount of the news conferences she had to caption here in the states were on that subject. That led her, around the first week of March, to urge her parents to avoid taking communion at church and avoid shaking anyone’s hands there. At that same time, she also told a family friend to place an order for CPAP equipment, since the parts figured to become more difficult to get as the virus continued to spread — and might possibly shut entire industries down.

That feeling of time travel grew more surreal as Faienza captioned news conferences in New York, where the virus was ravaging the state. Seeing all the steps that officials were taking there as several other states delayed or opted against implementing stay-at-home orders prompted her to worry the nation didn’t grasp the seriousness of the virus, and that its transmission might not slow down in a timely fashion.

Faienza’s hope now is that, soon enough, we’ll be able to go back in time. Then she will be able to make use of those gift cards she bought to patronize the local restaurants as we get back a semblance of what everyday American life was like before the coronavirus erased that notion for millions of people.



FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: The US is starting to reopen. Is it ready?

Footnotes

  1. Even the absence of live sports programming hasn’t affected Faienza and her co-workers: They have been captioning plenty of classic sports contests that networks are re-airing to fill the void.

  2. Faienza added that a global pandemic is “not a situation where I’m happy to have extra money.”

  3. He also has experience in teaching art and leading diversity trainings, she said.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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