“Armando” is a retiree who, from time to time, managed to work a few extra shifts as a waiter in the city of Granada, to earn an income that would allow him to cover household expenses. That option disappeared when the news of the first Covid-19 infection in the country broke, leaving him entirely dependent on his small pension.
Faced with the indolence of the official handling of the health emergency, companies, civil society organizations and families decided to stay at home, which suddenly slowed the national economy down, as shown by the monthly and quarterly GDP; tax collection, and the destruction of formal jobs, measured by the number of Social Security affiliates and informal ones.
Statistics show that, as of September 2019, there were 716 500 contributors to the Nicaraguan Social Security (INSS), and that number began to grow gradually for five months (except for December 2019), reaching 742 600 in February. The month of March marked the start of a decline, which stopped in August. Despite five months of increases, the 723 200 affiliates reported by December 2020, represented a drop of 19 400 people (2.6%).
Within those numbers are thousands of stories of workers who lost their jobs, who had to work in low-paying jobs that were not theirs, as well as some who finally managed to keep their jobs, sacrificing part of the wages in the process.
One of them is “Andy,” a native of the capital who crossed the southern border in 2018, searching elsewhere for the security that he could not find in his own country.
The pandemic reached him when he was working at a hotel, a job at which he had to accept a pay deduction of 77%, where he also had to move into one of the rooms as a form of compensation and support from his employer, a situation that persists to this day.
“Marcos” was a little luckier. The U.S. company he worked for in El Salvador kept his salary for four months, because they could not repatriate him to Nicaragua until the borders were reopened. When that happened, they thanked him and sent him back to his home country, where he remains, hoping to get a job… even if it is not as good as the one he lost.
Three online jobs
CONFIDENCIAL also spoke with three Nicaraguans who were not so badly hit by the pandemic. In fact, some are better off now than they were a year ago.
This is the case of Óscar Meléndez, who worked in a call center in March 2020, doing shifts from Monday to Saturday. “When the first case became known, the reaction was first of concern, and then of insecurity, but we continued working the same way for two weeks, until the companies in the United States began to lay people off, which implied that people had to be laid off here as well”, he said.
In a short period of time, only about 20 of the 70 people who worked in that department remained. The rest either resigned to safeguard their severance pay (because the company in the United States seemed to be on the verge of bankruptcy) or to protect their health.
Meléndez resigned at the beginning of April, “because I didn’t want to expose myself to the virus, but also to protect my severance pay,” he admits. Another twelve of the office’s twenty remaining employees went with him.
He spent the next six months looking for a job, without finding one, so he ate into his savings to cover day-to-day expenses, pay debts, and even pay off a loan.
He says that “during that time I was networking on LinkedIn”, where he ended up finding three jobs, two of them in the area of language teaching, and the last one in human resources for another U.S. company.
He defines the latter as “a remote work placement,” where he started on September 1, at a time when he was out of the national territory.
At this point he still occupies one of the language teaching positions, as well as the human resources job, which has allowed him enough income to remodel his house, and make plans to buy a car.
“The crisis of 2018 paralyzed the construction of my house, so I decided to do it now, because it was now or never. I have not stopped working, not in 2018, nor with the pandemic, which has allowed me to reach a level of savings with which I can cover these expenses. Sometimes I also do object photography for branding, networking and commercial photography, in addition to teaching language tutoring remotely, to students abroad,” he shared.
“There I go”
In March 2020, Edwin Espinoza was operating a family package delivery business, which he named “Ay Voy”, meaning “there I go”. Although he knows that the correct spelling is “Ahí Voy”, he decided to call it that other way, “because that’s the way people pronounce it,” he explained.
“Ay Voy” was born in September 2018, just a month after he was fired from the microfinance company where he served as national treasury coordinator. As of March 2020, he took care of carrying the packages, while his wife operated as call center manager, but the sense of danger generated by the news of the first contagion, led to them being overwhelmed in a short time.
“The crisis reached us when we were delivering purchases made in the market or in the supermarket. When the first case was reported in this city (a woman in a municipal market), the request for deliveries of pharmacy products grew for us: gloves, masks and alcohol gel”, Espinoza explains.
He recalls that when he went to the pharmacies to shop for his clients, he found them full of people buying the same products, until those products were sold out, and it was no longer possible to find them anywhere.
Then they began to receive orders for groceries and cleaning products, “because people were afraid and took refuge in their homes. They didn’t go out at all, and we had list after list of purchases,” he recalls.
That caused a dilemma. Should they continue working or not? After all, they too could get sick and die, so they chose to make decisions regarding where to go and where not to go, excluding the market in the first place, because it was considered a hotbed of infection.
The company also changed the way it operated. Whereas before they used to deliver directly, when the feeling of danger of contagion increased, deliveries were made remotely, decontaminating the bags in the presence of the client, and carrying the change in a bag that was also decontaminated.
Espinoza shares that he looked for more staff when the business grew, “but nobody wanted to work in this because they were afraid, so we continued alone, just her and me. When it slowed down a bit, I got one more delivery driver, and that’s where we are now.”
Although the volume of services has decreased, the company has managed to maintain itself with two delivery drivers and a third person who attends the call center. Meanwhile, the new entrepreneur is finishing up the details to launch his App called Ay Voy Nicaragua in the Play Store, and finalizing negotiating agreements with entrepreneurs in the same field, to expand the delivery of packages to other cities in the country.
Espinoza recognizes that it is not the job he would like, and that sometimes he would like to enjoy the peace of mind of having a fixed salary on the 15th and 30th of each month, “but then I think better of it, and I forget that feeling because I think: having a boss again, working for someone else, and lose everything we have done?… No”.
Julio Montalván Morales has been a barber for five years. The first three years he worked in modest premises located in several of the eastern neighborhoods, which allowed him not only to gain experience in his trade, but also to form a customer base that sought him out every time he changed locations.
That changed in January 2020. At that moment, he was far from imagining that a new virus first detected in Wuhan, China, would bring human civilization to its knees, and hit the global economy as few other phenomena have done so far.
That January, he teamed up with a friend willing to invest, to set up an air-conditioned barbershop in Altamira, “because it is a very busy area, where there are many customers with greater economic capacity,” he says.
His initial expectations were to grow, and in fact, “everything was looking good before the pandemic,” he says, recalling that the business income allowed him to pay the 300 dollars a month rent, plus 7000 córdobas (another 200 dollars) for electricity.
When the first infection became known, the number of clients decreased. From that moment on, only those who knew him came, but there were no new clients, so the income was only enough to cover expenses, but nothing more.
“The first two weeks everything looked normal, but by the third week, only 20% of the clientele was arriving. Sometimes one or two a day, when before there were 12 to 15 clients. I only lasted one more month in that place”, he recalls at CONFIDENCIAL’s request.
The next thing was to settle in the neighborhood “Georgino Andrade”, because his investor friend’s father was doing construction for a business, and they saw that there was space to put the barbershop. “I cut hair while they continued building,” he says.
Although the income was no longer the same as when they were in Altamira, the truth is that neither were the expenses, so he was always able to maintain a break-even point. Even so, he had to lower the price of haircuts, which allowed them to maintain the flow of clients, and consequently, of income, “always taking care of ourselves. We never got sick,” he says.
In January 2021, he finally returned to Villa Venezuela, where he pays even less in rent, and achieved a greater influx of clients, not only because it is a populous site with 4,000 houses and many surrounding neighborhoods, but also because his old clientele can look for him more comfortably.
Montalván explains that the apparent decrease in contagions makes people go out more, and seek his services more assiduously, which helps him maintain a level of income that gives him enough stability.
While the health crisis ends, he continues to apply some of the recommendations, such as having alcohol available, cleaning combs, blades and utensils properly, and using masks, although he has practically discarded the face mask.
This article has been translated by Ana María Sampson, a Communication Science student at the University of Amsterdam and member of our staff.