Michael Sheppard watched his phone in disbelief as every source of his income vanished in a matter of hours.
It was March, 2020, in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sheppard, 44, an accomplished freelance pianist based in Baltimore, Maryland, had performances lined up for the next several months and things were looking up for his savings account. However, cancellations by text kept pouring in.
“Every performance I had disappeared within the span of 48 hours, leaving me with no options for income,” he says.
“I really had to scramble,” Sheppard says. “I raided my savings, went into credit card debt, went on unemployment for the first time ever.”
The COVID-19 impact: Fewer jobs, more financial crises
According to a research brief by the Human Rights Campaign, LGBTQ+ Americans are more likely to work in industries hardest hit by Covid-19 — think service and entertainment industries, for example. Nearly one third of survey respondents said their hours were cut as a result of Covid-19 compared to about 20 percent of the general population.
Nearly 65% of LGBTQ+ employees and their families either lost their jobs or had their employment disrupted since the pandemic started, compared to just 45%of non-LGBTQ+ households, according to a report by the Movement Advancement Project. The project, coordinated by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, surveyed households on the impact of the pandemic.
A staggering 95% of Black LGBTQ+ households and 70% of LGBTQ+ Latinx households reported having at least one serious financial problem since COVID-19 reached pandemic levels, according to the report. And nearly 20%of all LGBTQ+ households reported not getting enough food to eat every day, compared to just 5% of non-LGBTQ+ households.
Before Covid-19, Sheppard estimates he had $5,000 to $6,000 in savings. He had hoped to keep adding to the account without dipping into it, and maybe use some of it for a trip. But with every gig, concert, and performance gone—and no end to the cancellations in sight—he blew through most of that hard-earned cash, and then started amassing credit card debt, just to make ends meet.
“The things I need are still the things I need,” he says, such as housing, food and utilities. And unemployment turned out to be a tangled web of forms with very little pay off because Sheppard is a freelancer with many clients instead of one, steady employer. In the end he says he was able to collect just $550 from unemployment during the entirety of the pandemic.
“Covid-19 has hit many in the LGBTQ+ community hard. Many were already struggling financially, and loss of income during the pandemic has pushed many in the LGBTQ+ community to the brink,” David Rae, president of DRM Wealth Management, based in West Hollywood and Palm Springs, California, says.
Rae, who identifies as gay, estimates about half of his clients are also LGBTQ+.
“Many in the LGBTQ+ community live in cities that were hit hardest by Covid-19,” he adds. “This has led to more job losses, as well as health issues.”
A long history of financial struggles and workplace discrimination
LGBTQ+ Americans often face unique financial challenges, and they can struggle to grow wealth, even without the pandemic.
Nearly half of the 500 LGBTQ+ respondents in a wide-reaching 2018 Experian survey said they struggle to maintain adequate savings, compared to 38%of the non-LGBTQ+ population surveyed.
Bias and discrimination have caused financial challenges for 62%of LGBTQ+ respondents, who also reported being passed over for jobs or promotions, being harassed at work and higher housing costs due to discrmination. Saving and planning for a stable financial future may also be a privilege that many LGBTQ+ people don’t have the luxury to consider.
LGBTQ+ Americans may also face institutional discrimination in the workplace, even though change is happening at the federal level. On June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act made discrimination based on sexual oritentation and gender identity illegal.The Equality Act, passed earlier this year by the House, provides more explicit federal protections against employment discrimination based on sex, gender identity and sexual orientation, covering public services and educational institutions and organizations that receive federal funding. It must still pass in the Senate.
But at the state level, discrmination law is much more patch work with 27 states offering no protection specifically for LGBTQ+ Americans.
Only 23 states and the District of Columbia have laws to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and 22 protect against gender identity discrmination.
Lesbians reported making $45,606 to straight women’s $51,461, a difference of nearly 13 percent, according to Prudential’s 2016-2017 LGBT Financial Experience Research Report, while gay men reported making an average of $56,936 to heterosexual men earning $83,469, a difference of 46 percent.
Rebuilding, one performance at a time
But it’s not all bad news. While Covid-19 ravaged all corners of the U.S., many are LGBTQ+ people are starting to see their personal, professional, and financial lives bounce back. And with the economy opening back up and employers offering incentives and more lucrative salaries, there are many new opportunities out there.
More than a year after his performances were canceled, Sheppard started booking gigs again — a slow trickle at first, gradually picking up steam.
“I’m still digging myself out of the credit card debt,” he said, “and am trying above all to not dig into my investment portfolio or use the last bit of my savings.”
Rae says many of his clients are also starting to see some income growth, including gay business owners who are coming back stronger than ever after readjusting their business models to fit the new reality.
“After the initial shock of lockdown, many have pivoted and are seeing their businesses bounce back to new heights,” he says. “I have also seen many of my clients who were laid off early in the pandemic find new jobs with better salaries, benefits, and work-life balance.”