The Way We Work Now is a series chronicling how people’s lives and careers have fundamentally changed because of the pandemic.
Louis, 22, works for a moving company based in Brooklyn. After Covid-19 spread to New York, he worked seven days a week, moving up to four apartments a day as people fled the city. Louis spoke with Mai Tran about returning to work after he and his family, all essential workers, believed they caught Covid.
I joined the moving company three years ago. I needed to make extra money because I was going to Kingsborough Community College to study accounting. The managers gave me the name Louis because customers didn’t understand my real name, and I looked a little Spanish. To make it easier for myself and for others, I got an English name. My first position was as a helper — I just listened to the foreman and did whatever they said as efficiently as possible, without breaking any items. After one year I got promoted to being a foreman driver.
Before Covid, I was working around 23 days a month. Moving season is from March until September. That’s when 70% of the moves take place. In the summer, we work almost every day and get two or three days off per month. June, July, and August is very, very busy. We usually wake up around five in the morning and start the first job at eight, and then a second job in the afternoon. We do three jobs per day at most, but today we did four — I beat my own record. A studio usually takes three hours to get done; a two-bedroom apartment can take the whole day. For a long-distance or out-of-state move, sometimes we have to stay in a motel overnight. If we get back from a move really late and have to work the next day, sometimes I’ll sleep in the truck. I’ve had some of my best sleep there.
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The first time I heard about Covid was in January, but I was worried about my health more than my job. I was scared of getting my family members sick. In March, I started dry coughing. I didn’t have any energy and I tried to drink a lot of water. I didn’t get tested. My mom, my brother, and my father are essential workers and all of them got Covid as well, so we all stayed home for a month. My managers didn’t give paid time off so I filed for unemployment and got back to work around April. We get paid in cash so I was making money from unemployment and also from work. I think whoever had the chance to do that, took advantage of it. Once I got over Covid, I wasn’t scared of catching it again at all. I just wore a mask to protect other people and for customers not to worry, but it’s much harder to work with a mask and gloves, especially in hot weather and rain. You pick up weight, and you have to walk with it, or you have to carry it in a different position, and your back has to be straight. Everybody’s back hurts in the moving industry because it’s a heavy job. When you’re working on stairs, you can’t even breathe.
We had to ask “Where is this going?” for all the things, even the personal items (we found a lot of dildos).
More than half the moves we did were for people moving out of the city. Some people called us from different states after they had already left. One customer FaceTimed us from Texas while we packed all her belongings into boxes and wrapped the fragile items in shrink-wrap and blankets. We had to ask “Where is this going?” for all the things, even the personal items (we found a lot of dildos). If customers are not there it’s much harder to communicate and know what they want. Most of the time we put their stuff into a storage facility. Most of them say they’ll come back around January or February, once things get better. All the expensive buildings are empty.
The volume of people who work in the company grew because the manager hired more people and bought a few more trucks, so the load would be manageable. If you’re a foreman driver like me, you get paid $25 an hour plus tips. The helpers get paid $14 an hour. The tips are about the same during Covid, maybe even a little bit less because some people can’t afford it. Yesterday we had this annoying customer — a lady called for us to move her son from a four-bedroom apartment. The bill came out to $1,400. She paid with a credit card and the son authorized a 20% tip. Now, this morning, she calls us saying she didn’t give permission for it to be charged. The manager gave the customer back the amount and paid the tip to the crew from his own pocket.
The company is family-owned and operated so everyone knows everyone. With or without me, the company will grow; the company will keep working. In the future, I would like to open a family business. I wouldn’t want to work for anyone because they could fire me at any time and I would never know. People from my country of Uzbekistan, I would say, are very hard workers. Nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. They just work hard for their families to live a better life.