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When Roberto Echanique started having panic attacks in between appointments, he knew something had to give. As an HVAC technician with chronic asthma, he often works in challenging conditions involving dust and extreme temperatures. But as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the D.C. area—posing a particular threat to those with respiratory conditions like his—the risks began to feel overwhelming. “At that point, I was really freaked out,” he says.
Both he and his partner, Deanna Echanique, are essential workers living in Hyattsville, whose fields haven’t slowed down during the pandemic. And, like approximately 333,000 other American workers according to a 2019 report from the National Endowment for the Arts, Roberto and Deanna are both visual artists who rely on income from their full-time jobs. For many artists, essential work can offer financial stability that remains stubbornly elusive in creative fields. Yet the pandemic has cast these professions in a new light, as essential workers are forced to weigh potential health risks against the necessity of a steady paycheck and health insurance.
While most headlines focus on front-line health care, grocery, and delivery workers, the classification encompasses a wide range of professions. In April, the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency published a list of jobs necessary for maintaining the nation’s infrastructure. HVAC technicians like Roberto, whose work keeps residential and commercial buildings safe and habitable, are listed in six of the 21 possible subcategories.
The pressure to continue working through the pandemic is particularly intense in the D.C. area, where essential workers make up nearly 75 percent of the workforce, according to a report from the United Way of the National Capital Area based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics—the highest in the nation, due to the area’s concentration of federal workers.
As the sole office administrator at an architectural engineering firm, Deanna is a federal-adjacent worker who has continued going into the office. “The government still wants their deadlines met,” Deanna says.
For Roberto and Deanna, commitment to their essential jobs runs deeper than the need for stability during a financial recession. Despite pandemic-related uncertainty, essential work promises financial freedom and security that is often unattainable through careers in the arts. A 2017 survey conducted by Artfinder and a-n, an artists information company, found that three-quarters of American artists earn $10,000 or less from their art per year—far below D.C.’s $82,000 median income and the $132,000 in annual income renters need to comfortably rent a two-bedroom apartment, according to a 2019 analysis by financial advice company SmartAsset.
How do artists make a living, if these numbers don’t add up? In 2019, Karol Jan Borowiecki, an economics professor at the University of Southern Denmark, published a study examining 160 years of U.S. census data that revealed that access to generational wealth was the biggest factor in determining whether or not someone would work in the arts. Some artists presumably have partners whose income supplements their own. And of course, many artists work full- or part-time jobs to make ends meet.
Before turning to HVAC, Roberto spent 20 years working in theater production across the D.C. area. Theater production was creatively and intellectually fulfilling, requiring craftsmanship that spanned painting, carpentry, metal work, and electrical work. Some productions, such as Imagination Stage’s rendition of The Magic Paintbrush, required complex problem solving; along with executing a multimedia production about a young boy whose paintings became reality, Roberto’s work supported the safety and comfort of the production’s deaf and hard-of-hearing cast and crew. “It was a phenomenal experience and an absolutely beautiful show,” Roberto says.
But the creatively-fulfilling work came with little financial reward. Roberto’s top-paying job in theater production—a stint as a technical director—paid just $40,000. “There were points when, even though I was working more or less full time in theaters, food and housing were not secure,” Roberto says. “I’ve been homeless a little bit. I’ve had to miss a meal.” In 2019, after just a few years into his second career as an HVAC technician, he earned around $58,000—enough to support his painting and photography. “I’m not starving to make my art anymore,” Roberto says.
Deanna has also experienced chronic underpayment in her chosen artistic field. Her lifelong love of comics began when she discovered Sailor Moon at 11 years old. In 2000, she began posting web comics online, then submitting her work to publishers. As her artistic interests shifted from romance to erotica, her work found traction; between 2012 and 2015, she drew comics that were featured in five anthologies, including My Monster Boyfriend and Food Porn. In 2012, while working her current full-time job, Deanna spent every available moment racing to meet a book deadline. “I would go to work, come home, eat dinner, work for three, four hours, go to sleep,” she says. “On the weekends, I’d work from like 9 or 10 in the morning until 9 at night.”
By 2014, this constant deadline-driven work resulted in cubital tunnel syndrome, a debilitating condition that required surgery. “It was causing my entire arm to go numb from the elbow down,” Deanna says. “When I would try to pick up a cup of water, it would hurt.” Though she felt the injury brewing, she ignored it, determined to meet her deadlines. “Art school really instilled a lot of terrible, terrible working habits that came back to haunt me as an adult,” she says.
After recovering from her injury, Deanna continued to work on anthologies. But the experience left a bitter aftertaste that prompted her to calculate her hourly and page rates. The calculations were eye-opening. “$12, $11 an hour is what I ended up getting paid for what is highly skilled, creative labor,” Deanna says. In the spring of 2016, she publicly disclosed the low wages on Twitter. “I had a really severe backlash to that,” she says. “I kind of dropped out of the comics industry. I basically just draw for me now, and I work my day job.”
Though Deanna’s day job continues to provide steady support, the pandemic has brought surreal changes. At first, Deanna commuted through empty streets and had an entire floor of the building to herself—ample room for social distancing. As the pandemic became a new normal, however, her colleagues returned, often wearing branded bandanas her company purchased to supplement widespread shortages of personal protective equipment.
The experience has been unsettling, particularly since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 20 to 50 percent of COVID-19 cases may be asymptomatic. Employees coping with heightened risks, such as health conditions or elder care responsibilities, have yet to return. “It’s kind of like when you’re in a dream and everything seems normal,” Deanna says, “and then something really weird happens out of the corner of your eye.”
In Roberto’s line of work, PPE is more complicated. Instead of working in a consistent location, he visits multiple households across the D.C. region each day, often working in tight spaces. HVAC technicians also rely on public restrooms, and already struggled with access before the pandemic: Many are forced to keep empty soda bottles in their cars, or seek out wooded areas in between house calls. With restaurants and businesses closed to the public, it’s unclear how they are expected to find workarounds.
Still, both Roberto and Deanna say they’ve felt supported by their employers throughout the pandemic. When Roberto first approached his employer, he asked to take three consecutive weeks off—all of his paid time off. Instead, his employer returned with a better offer: Why not take a voluntary furlough? The option allowed Roberto to retain his current health insurance, reserve his paid time off for the future, and claim unemployment. Five other employees had already chosen this path. “I had no idea—we work by ourselves, and there’s not a whole lot of communication between us,” he says. “When I heard that, it was a pretty big relief.”
Deanna describes her workplace as a family. “I’ve been there for a long time, and already, there was an environment where we care for each other,” she says.
Essential work has also given Roberto and Deanna the financial support to invest in their art. In 2012, they purchased a home in Hyattsville, within walking distance of the New Carrollton Metro Station. Today, Roberto uses the detached garage as a studio where he paints, mainly a series called “Buena Vida” that focuses on skulls and flowers. “Having an HVAC job helped with that; that security was part of it,” he says. As he builds a portfolio of work, Roberto aims to use his wages to finance the costs associated with gallery submissions.
For Deanna, comics no longer feel like a viable profession. “Comics doesn’t pay you enough to live on it, unless you’re one of the lucky few who get a big book deal,” she says. “Even in those cases, they don’t give you enough of an advance to live off of. You need somebody to support you or another means of income.” (Data from PayScale, which places comics artists’ median income at around $39,000, backs up her assessment.)
Regardless, Deanna continues to make comics, particularly ones tailored to the fandom surrounding One-Punch Man, a popular web comic with anime and manga adaptations. In 2019, Deanna collaborated on a book with an artist from Indonesia, then traveled to Japan to sell it at a convention. “I’m proud of the things I did when I was working in indie comics,” she says, “but right now, I’m just living my truth in One-Punch Man land.”
Though essential work presents health risks and inspires fear during the pandemic, Roberto and Deanna are staying focused on the bigger picture. Until theater production, comics, and other artistic fields can offer workers fair wages, benefits, and basic support, it seems like the best option they have.
On May 15, Governor Larry Hogan lifted Maryland’s stay-at-home order. With that, Roberto’s furlough came to an end. Now, he’s back at work, wearing a surgical mask at all times. Though customers seem more relaxed, he says masked interactions can feel awkward: “It’s like, here’s this new social, cultural norm we’re all supposed to suddenly adopt.”
During Roberto’s furlough, his company had time to adapt. “I work for an HVAC company—not a medical safety equipment procurement company,” he says. “They’ve been trying their best all along.” When he needs to retrieve parts or equipment, colleagues arrange curbside pickup. And latex gloves—once scarce—seem more plentiful. Still, the transition isn’t without discomfort. “This first week, I just kind of knew that it was gonna kick my ass,” he says, “and it did.”