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A Teacher Ponders Risk Of Returning To Work While Being Paid Less Than Unemployment

Lainy Morse is an essential worker who has been out of work since the middle of March.

She teaches preschool and ordinarily provides a vital service for working parents.

"Without us, moms [mostly] can't go back to work," Morse says.

The Portland, Ore., school where she works is temporarily closed but may reopen as an emergency child care center. Morse dreads the idea of going back to a classroom filled with 2-year-olds who don't understand hand-washing, let alone social distancing.

"They always have snotty faces," Morse says kindly, noting that many of her students also spend time with elderly grandparents. "It just feels like an epicenter for spreading disease. And it feels really scary to go back to that."

Morse has considered working temporarily as a nanny, where at least she could limit her exposure to a single family.

For now, she's staying home, grateful for the extra $600 a week in unemployment insurance that the federal government is offering during the pandemic.

"Without that, our family would not be making it right now," she says.

Because preschool teachers are "chronically underpaid," Morse says, unemployment benefits add up to about $500 a month more than she made when she was working.

"That's two weeks of groceries," she says. And that complicates the idea of going back to work in close quarters with small children.

"Part of your job as a preschool teacher is love and affection," Morse says. "It's hard to think about going back to work in this pandemic and getting paid less than we are right now when we're safe and at home and in quarantine."

Morse and her husband — an elementary school teacher — have put off making mortgage payments for the last couple of months, banking the money in case she loses her jobless benefits.

"It's just such an uncertain time," says Morse, who has a master's degree in early childhood education. "Child care is something that everyone always needs, so it felt like a really secure occupation, until recently."

Read more stories in Faces of the Coronavirus Recession.

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Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.