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How European workers are reinventing themselves during lockdown

by editor

While the lockdown has bunkered white-collar workers to their makeshift home offices, it has pushed some workers — often involuntarily — to take a break from their careers and perform odd jobs.

Twenty-eight percent of Europeans said they had lost their jobs temporarily or for good since the start of the crisis, according to a survey by Eurofound. The situation is only getting more dire, as countries brace for a spike in unemployment. Spain, for example, estimates 19 percent of its working population will be out of a job this year. Unemployment in Europe could nearly double in 2020, and up to 59 million jobs are at risk, shows an analysis by consultancy McKinsey.

The coronavirus crisis will usher in changes in the labor market, according to Anna Thomas, director of the Institute for the Future of Work.

“There is going to be an increase of online work, but it won’t all be of good quality and with enough protection, especially not in times of shock,” said Thomas.

Some workers have already started looking for ways to make a quick buck. AppJobs, a gig work platform, saw an increase of 300 percent in jobseekers on its site globally in March.

Others have been forced to think outside the box about how to reinvent themselves professionally.

The European Commission is in the process of setting up a pan-European unemployment reinsurance scheme worth as much as €100 billion. But until then, people will still need to make ends meet.

POLITICO spoke to people around Europe about the ways they are branching out in order to stay active and keep revenue flowing.

Johannah Jolson — musician

When the coronavirus hit, Johannah Jolson was stuck on a cruise ship. Jolson and her partner work as musicians, often spending long stretches of the year performing at sea. As the coronavirus crisis progressed, gigs and bookings on land and further cruise ship residencies were canceled.

Jolson is in the process of buying a house, and wanted to find money to help cover costs. She got lucky at her local Tesco five minutes down the road from her house in Devon, U.K. The supermarket was in desperate need of temporary workers to fill in for workers having to self-isolate.

Jolson took a job as an online order picker, at the height of panic buying. “If you had told me a year ago that I would be working in Tesco, I would have said ‘absolutely not,’” Jolson said.

The experience has been a positive eye-opener.

“Tesco has a lot of similarities to ship life. It’s a large store, there are different departments, I’ve enjoyed it a lot more than I thought,” Jolson said. “What this has taught me is that here’s something really lovely to be able to serve your community and be in one place,” she said.

When lockdowns are lifted, Jolson thinks people have a lot of power to help keep the cultural sector alive. “Choose to go to the pub that has live music, choose to see a live concert rather than seeing a movie at home. We need the communities to choose to spend their time and money supporting live music.”

Instability is part of being a musician, Jolson said. “When I chose my career, I didn’t choose it for an economic reason, but because of a passion,” she said. If things don’t go back to normal anytime soon, Jolson is hoping to extend her contract past June.

“I’m not too proud to make a living,” she said.

Henri Alen — chef

Finnish chef Henri Alen has been cooking up a storm. Alen has five fine-dining restaurants in Helsinki. As lockdown hit and restaurants were only allowed to serve food as takeaway, Alen had to shutter three of his restaurants and furlough half of his staff. The other half were recruited to transform the restaurant Finnjävel into a cloud kitchen, meaning one that caters to food-delivery apps exclusively.

Finnjävel has changed its menu from fancy sustainable meals to traditional home-cooked meals, such as macaroni casserole, salmon soup and karelian pies. “During a crisis people want peace of mind and comfort food,” Alen said.

The restaurant made its debut on food-delivery apps Wolt and Foodora, and restaurant staff also deliver food beyond central Helsinki. The restaurant has revamped all its routines, creating a new website and online order system on WhatsApp.

“We have been hunting for takeaway packages all over town,” Alen said.

Alen has been deeply disappointed in the government’s attitude toward restaurant culture, and how this reflects on the country’s lockdown policy.

“If you compare us to Belgium, Germany or Italy — restaurants are not considered culture here. People cannot see their connection to agriculture and tourism,” Alen said.

Takeaway meals might keep Alen’s eatery afloat temporarily, but it is not sustainable in the long run — especially as Finnish restaurants are not allowed to sell alcohol as takeaway. “In Finland, alcohol is seen as the devil,” Alen said.

Alen wants clear guidance on how restaurants can open and when. He suggests allowing alcohol sales in takeaway orders.

Unless the government acts soon, Alen fears the repercussions could be devastating. “The restaurant industry is the first job for many. It’s a low-paid industry. The damage will be extreme if we don’t get support,” Alen said.

Tomas Lutuli Brickhill — filmmaker

Tomas Lutuli Brickhill was in the final stages of preparing his debut feature film “Cook Off” for release when the severity of the coronavirus dawned on him. Brickhill lives in Zimbabwe, but decided to join his girlfriend in the U.K. for lockdown.

“In the film industry everyone is a freelancer and it’s very easy for companies to stop producing stuff,” Brickhill said. His feature film is also a feel-good romantic comedy, and pushing it out during an unprecedented global public health crisis felt tone-deaf in the beginning, Brickhill said. Now the timing feels more right, and Brickhill’s film will be released on Netflix. It will still be months before any money from the film will start trickling in.

Tomas Lutuli Brickhill, second from right

“I desperately needed to do some work and earn money. Of the jobs that were available during lockdown, delivery driving or fruit picking were on my list of potential jobs,” Brickhill said.

The director of photography of his film was also in London, and has found work as a gardener. Luckily, the gardening company was looking for a driver and Brickhill got the job. The duo spend their days weeding and mowing the lawns of parks, schools and other properties across London.

“We wear masks to protect each other, and because we know each other well there’s this extra layer of trust,” Brickhill said. To pass time, the pair pretend their job is a film set.

Brickhill sees the current crisis as an opportunity for societies to rethink how they are run. “The worldwide move to deregulate everything and let companies maximise profits at the expense of workers’ protections, that’s a problem,” Brickhill said.

“People are pushed into temporary contract work, which is fine at the time, but when something happens there are regulations in place for a reason,” Brickhill said.

The coronavirus crisis has brought one perk, though.

“I’m getting quite fit, so there’s that,” Brickhill said.

Theodros Solomon — air freight worker

Theodros Solomon has been furloughed from his job at an air freight company in Frankfurt, and he has seen his income drop by a quarter. Solomon has recently joined TaskRabbit, an American gig work platform that matches customers with workers willing to do odd jobs such as assembling furniture, mounting shelves or cleaning.

“I was searching for any kind of job on the internet, and by chance I found TaskRabbit. It seemed like a smart way to get quick money,” Solomon said.

TaskRabbit is owned by furniture giant Ikea. During Germany’s lockdown, Solomon has gone around town assembling large Ikea wardrobes, but he is willing to do pretty much anything from painting to deliveries. There’s been a steady stream of work.

“I like it. I meet a lot of people, and I like to build furniture,” Solomon said.

The coronavirus is present in every gig. Solomon takes a risk every time he enters someone’s house to assemble furniture. He takes extra precautions by wearing masks and gloves, and carries hand sanitizer with him.

“I live with my family and I have to take care of myself to avoid infecting them. I keep my distance from customers, and only stay in the area that I am building the furniture in,” Solomon said.

The extra income provides a nice buffer, especially as Solomon thinks it is unlikely he will have a job to return to once the coronavirus crisis is over. Sporadic gigs alone are not be enough to financially support his family, but Solomon said they work as a good way to supplement his income on the side. “If there is some possibility to keep doing this job on TaskRabbit, or maybe start my own business, I will do it,” Solomon said.

Veli-Pekka Syväoja — hairdresser

The coronavirus crisis has also given people space to recalibrate their lives. Veli-Pekka Syväoja was working in Spain as a hairdresser when the pandemic started, and hairdressers worldwide were forced to holster their scissors. Syväoja flew back home to Finland. He spent three weeks in a cottage in quarantine thinking about what he wants to do in the future.

One thing became clear: It will not be hair.

“There are too many hair salons, and many live hand to mouth,” Syväoja said. He says business bailouts should focus on companies with healthy spreadsheets. “Governments should help businesses that have the capacity to employ people,” he added.

One of the Finnish government’s relief measures has been to grant entrepreneurs unemployment benefits. Syväoja has taken full advantage of the pause in business and has started developing new business ideas. He has worked as a business consultant helping companies find partnerships, and has also signed up as a volunteer at a children’s shelter with SOS Children’s Villages. But most importantly for Syväoja, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the value of nature. This realization has inspired him to set up a travel business in the Finnish coastal town of Kalajoki. “People will think twice about flying to go on a beach holiday, and maybe choose a local beach instead,” Syväoja said.

“The coronavirus has given me the kick to do the things I actually want to do,” Syväoja said.

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