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Consumer Reports: Americans Weren't Prepared for the Coronavirus

Few made plans for working from home or having kids out of school

Series: Coronavirus | Story 13

Last updated 3/26/2020 at 2:15pm

In the early stages of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, most Americans made some modest changes to their lives, such as using hand sanitizer more often, according to a new Consumer Reports survey.

Consumer Reports has information about how to handle the coronavirus effects at https://www.consumerreports.org/issue/coronavirus-covid-19

But few took more substantial steps, such as making plans for childcare if their kid’s school closed or how to work remotely, possibly because they didn't have options or because they didn't anticipate the problems.

The nationally representative survey of 1,079 adult U.S. residents — conducted from March 5 to March 16 — provides a snapshot of a pivotal moment in the coronavirus outbreak, and shows just how fast the situation changed.

When the survey began, many states had only recently reported their first cases of coronavirus. By the time it ended, many schools and businesses across the U.S. had closed, and several states had issued orders for residents to stay inside as much as possible.

The survey found that 44 percent of Americans said they were highly concerned about the possibility of widespread transmission. Nearly 9 in 10 respondents said they took some basic steps to prepare for changes caused by the coronavirus.

For example, 62 percent said they’d started using hand sanitizer more often, 48 percent said they were avoiding shaking hands, and 26 percent said they were stocking up on nonperishable food supplies. Over the 11-day survey period, an increasing percentage of people said they were taking some of those steps.

But far fewer seem to have anticipated the more significant changes required because of the health crisis. Only 14 percent of those currently employed made plans to work from home. And only about 15 percent of people with children 12 and younger said they had alternative childcare arrangements. CR will be asking these questions again in another survey to see how the public mood has shifted as the crisis worsens.

The results underscore how unprecedented the mandates for sheltering in place and working from home are, and how unprepared Americans were for those circumstances, experts say.

“Small, concrete steps such as stockpiling supplies are much easier to contemplate than big things, such as finding new childcare arrangements or planning to work from home,” says Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University.

'Not Configured' for Remote Work

By early March, major corporations had already announced plans to have as many employees as possible work from home. But the finding that few Americans with jobs didn't make plans to do so perhaps reflects the reality that few jobs allow it.

“Many people have never worked from home,” says Pallas, “and many jobs are not configured to allow that.”

“Multitasking is a challenge, because working and minding one's children both require a lot of attention,” he adds. “And switching back and forth between the two is very difficult.”

Last week as the coronavirus crisis accelerated, CR asked readers to share their stories of financial hardship. More than 800 have done so already, among them Nancy C. of New Hampshire. She said the small financial company she works for has 50 percent of its staff working from home. So she's doing a balancing act at home with her two children to ensure that her family doesn't contract the virus.

“My daughter, son, and I live together and are all practicing social distancing,” she said.

The survey, though, suggests that over time, more people are making plans to work remotely. On March 5 and 6, only 11 percent of Americans had made plans; by March 16, it was 23 percent.

'Short on Cash' While Kids Are at Home

Among families with children 12 and younger, only 1 in 7 said they had made plans for childcare if schools closed.

But one of the biggest challenges for some parents has been the sudden adjustment to having kids home from school while trying to get work done. Major school districts across the country have temporarily closed as they scramble to contain the spread of the virus.

Taryn Morrissey, a professor of public administration and policy at American University, says that adapting to having children at home can pose particular problems. She points out that even parents who can afford a babysitter might not want to risk bringing one into their home now because of the risk of spreading the disease.

“If you’re really trying to isolate,” Morrissey says, “there is no alternative childcare arrangement.”

It’s also an expensive option during what could be a grueling time for some. Jared F., another CR reader who shared his story last week, said last Friday that his employer announced a company-wide salary cut of 10 percent until further notice. That’s preferable to being laid off, of course, but living in a costly city like Boston, Jared said his financial situation was very lean, particularly because of childcare expenses.

“Before the pandemic, we were already slightly underwater, dipping into savings to cover basic expenses as we stick it out until our son graduates up to a less expensive classroom at day care,” he said.

“But now,” he added, “even living at our leanest, we'll be short on cash for the equivalent of 12 weeks of childcare by the end of the year. We don't know how we'll make ends meet, especially with so many industries suffering similar or worse fates.”

In our ongoing coronavirus coverage, CR is offering extensive advice on how to cope with kids while at home at https://www.consumerreports.org/

‘I Have No Income’

While CR didn’t ask about potential job loss in our survey, several consumers contacted us about losing their job as a result of the coronavirus.

Kristina P., a massage therapist in New Jersey, said she has worked in that capacity for three years at a medical office.

During that time, she said, she could adequately cover her bills, including a car lease. “Now,” she said, “with coronavirus, I lost my job.”

“I have no income and I’m [now facing] with credit card payments, car lease payments, and other payments,” she said. “At this point I’m devastated. I need to buy food but also pay bills. With no income, how can I pay?”

That could become a challenge for many in the coming weeks. The president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, for example, estimated last weekend that unemployment could reach 30 percent in the second quarter of 2020.

If the pandemic is putting you in a financially difficult position, CR has tips on what to do. And all of our ongoing coverage is available in our Guide to the Coronavirus at https://www.consumerreports.org/


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