For the freelance and gig economies, COVID-19’s escalation in the United States was preceded by an onslaught of job cancellations.
“I started seeing a lot of posts on Facebook from my friends, to the effect of, ‘My gig for next week just got canceled,’" said New Yorker Alessandra De Benedetti. “Then people were like, ‘My next two gigs just got canceled.’ It just kept stacking and people's work kept getting canceled further and further out.”
As mandatory social distancing measures were enacted, job loss spread outside the gig economy to the restaurant industry and others. Last week, a staggering 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits, smashing the previous record set in 1982.
Several weeks before, a Facebook call to action for employed workers to support laid off workers gave De Benedetti, who works in creative marketing, an idea.
“I said, you should put all your Venmos in your Instagram bios and I’ll send you as much money and I’ll tell other people to do it too. And I realized that this was all in a matter of 10 minutes.”
From there, the crowd-sourcing efforts turned into a Google doc, then into a spreadsheet, and finally, a website called leveler.info. “The idea just happened really organically,” De Benedetti said.
The idea behind the online tool is simple: peer-to-peer wealth distribution.
People with steady incomes are asked to send an equal amount of money to a random group of people whose work status has been impacted by COVID-19. Users click “distribute” to be shown 10 individuals with a short description about their situation along with a link to an third-party payment app, such as Venmo or Paypal.
A sampling of the bios gives an idea of just how dire the situation has become among workers often already burdened by a lack of job protections:
"My bar was closed as a result of COVID-19. I’m worried about making rent and surviving without an income.”
“I am a freelance photographer. I had weddings booked that have been rescheduled for later and I will not be able to get any new work for the foreseeable future. I live paycheck to paycheck."
"I am an Independent cleaner for Airbnbs an Apt/Vacation rentals an due to this virus this has wiped out all my bookings for this month.”
As of March 26, over 2,500 people have signed up for the database. The website itself receives no money from the transactions because they take place solely on third-party platforms, De Benedetti said. She hopes to keep vetting as hands-off as possible in a departure from other crowdfunding models, such as GoFundMe.
It's not scam proof, but because the average money exchange is so low, De Benedetti believes it is unlikely. "If someone's on there trying to scam for $2 and $5, they obviously need it, too."
The outcomes have been promising. "People sending DMs, posting about it, saying 'I bought $25 in groceries. My boyfriend needed telemedicine. Things like that."
Others have asked to remove their names from the database because they no longer need help.
"The community coming together and self-organizing is really important," said Sabina Mamedova, another volunteer on the project. "Because I think that if there's any time to be able to show people that we can bail each other out, you don't need to wait. You can act now and it can be effective while you are waiting for something more reliable. This is the time, there's no better time to remember that we all have a shared responsibility toward one another."