She had 3 jobs to support her music. Now all are gone.

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She had 3 jobs to support her music. Now all are gone.
Jenna Henderson, a singer balancing a musical career with three jobs, all of which have dried up in the coronavirus pandemic, at home in Washington, March 18, 2020. Like many other musicians and creative workers in the U.S., Henderson pieced together a living from multiple sources. As freelancers, she said, “I think we take for granted that there’s always going to be something to do.” Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times.

by Jillian Steinhauer

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Jenna Camille Henderson, a singer-songwriter in Washington, D.C., didn’t have just one job. Instead, like many other musicians and creative workers in the United States, she pieced together a living from multiple sources.

This delicate process, known dryly as the freelance hustle, can be exasperating, but it can also provide a special kind of freedom and independence. It can even be reassuring to know that your economic fortunes aren’t tied to a single company or field.

Until a global pandemic hits, and all the places where you work are affected.

At the beginning of March, she was making steady money thanks to three jobs: working security at the 9:30 Club, a beloved music venue; providing paraprofessional support at a charter school; and playing a weekly gig at a local club. In less than a week, each one of those had been canceled or put on hold because of measures to try to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

Henderson, 29, who does not have health insurance, has no source of income for the foreseeable future. As freelancers, she said, “I think we take for granted that there’s always going to be something to do.”

“I never thought, maybe I should consider doing something more permanent in case something like this happens,” she added, “because how many times does something like this happen?”

This is how it all fell apart, as recounted by Henderson and in screenshots of texts and emails from her phone.

The first notice came on March 11 from the 9:30 Club, emailing to say that all shows through the end of the month were off. (More have since been canceled.)

That eliminated Henderson’s job of ushering people at the door and managing crowds. She wasn’t too worried yet, though; she had only had a couple of shifts a month.

Henderson has been making music in some form since she was 6 years old. Growing up in Accokeek, Maryland, just south of Washington, she started learning by ear and then took up classical piano and jazz. Her talents led her to the renowned Duke Ellington School of the Arts and on to study jazz in college.

She has released a handful of singles and albums on Bandcamp and other platforms, but she channels much of her energy into live shows, playing with bands and collaborators around the Washington area. That calls for a flexible schedule, which freelancing had afforded her.

The big blow came two days later, when she found out that the high school where she worked would also be closing temporarily, following an order from the city. (She declined to name the school, saying she did not want to bring it negative attention.) Although she wasn’t on the staff, Henderson spent a lot of time there — often five days a week. She got the job last year through an agency, filling in as a substitute for a teacher who went on leave. When that person never came back, she continued helping various classes and students with specific needs.

“The school is basically how I pay my rent,” she said.

Because she was a contractor, though, she was not entitled to paid leave. And while the school plans to resume operations remotely at the end of the month, she will still be out of luck. “I’m a support teacher,” she said. “There’s technically no class for me to support.”

Henderson was still reeling from that news when she lost her last steady gig. She’d been playing with a band called Trae & Company Neo-Soul every Wednesday night at Harlot DC, a lounge that opened late last year. The group’s residency had started in February, and it had begun to gain momentum. But on Sunday, Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered the closure of all the city’s nightclubs. “We just really started building this thing, and it was growing, and then it got shut down pretty quickly,” Henderson said.

She is now staring down several weeks, possibly months, without any income, as no one knows how long the suspensions will last. Because she’s a freelancer, she is not eligible for unemployment benefits. She has some savings that she had intended to use for taxes, which are not withheld from her pay. She will probably have to spend that money on rent instead.

“Initially, I was just trying to put all my ducks in order, trying to figure out how much I had saved,” she said. “Once it started becoming clear how deep of an issue it was, my confidence that we would be going back in two weeks started to wear. It’s starting to become worrisome.” She has approached the agency that placed her at the school about other jobs, and she knows the 9:30 Club is trying to find tasks to hire people to do. So far, she’s come up short.

Henderson’s situation isn’t unique. Artists, musicians and performers, as well as freelancers of all kinds, are struggling to find work as the coronavirus crisis has disrupted multiple industries seemingly overnight. Many of her friends are also searching for interim jobs. She suggested that one friend, also a contract educator, apply at Mom’s, an organic supermarket chain.

Mutual aid and community relief funds have sprung up around the country, which Henderson finds heartening. But they’re already inundated with applications and requests — and anyway, she says, they’re no substitute for government intervention.

Henderson signed on to a letter that roughly 90 members of the local music community sent to the mayor’s office Monday, asking that upcoming emergency relief legislation include provisions for creative workers. The City Council passed a bill Tuesday that does not appear to include their requests.

Meanwhile, a friend said her parents were offering to help.

If there’s one silver lining for Henderson, it’s that she now has a lot of free time to make music, “the thing that keeps me from going insane.”

Just this week, she released a new album on Bandcamp — a project she’d started a month ago and then was suddenly moved to finish, knowing that people are increasingly stuck at home.

“It’s definitely reinspiring me,” said Henderson, who, despite her setbacks, is “just continuing to go forward.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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