Before COVID-19 upended New York City, Jen Tserng, a pet-sitter and part-time fitness instructor, worked seven days a week, walking dogs and caring for pets in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. Her pet-sitting business, which she’s been building since 2012—and since 2016 in New York—is so reliable that she doesn’t even have an apartment: she simply moves house-sitting gig to house-sitting gig.
“My goal was to just not pay rent and house-sit,” says Tserng about coming to the city four years ago. “I didn’t really think it would work out, but it has.”
When the pandemic struck, she and her fitness colleagues were out of jobs. Her pet-sitting and dog-walking business, which is considered an essential service in New York, has taken a significant hit too, though Tserng has continued to work through the pandemic and in some ways, even enjoy it.
Fortune spoke with Tserng for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, about how the pandemic has affected her income, her thoughts on the future, and how she has been handling work.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Fortune: What was your job like before COVID-19?
Tserng: Pre-pandemic, I was working seven days a week. I pretty much had work whenever I wanted it. I’d have to actively schedule time off if I wanted it. A typical day, I would probably have about 10 to 15 appointments. Some dog walkers only do the vacation stuff like cats and then some people only do the Monday through Friday. Some of us do all of it. My workload was probably about 60% Monday through Friday, daily walks, and then about 40% vacation visits.
What I like about the vacation stuff is that your major holidays are going to be pretty much the busiest time of year. So Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Christmas, Thanksgiving—those are going to be the busiest times of the year. If people do more of them Monday through Friday, dog-walking grind, that’s going to be more consistent and similar to a regular work schedule. So I like both the consistency and the variability in doing both of those.
When did the virus start affecting things for you?
COVID first started to impact the business around mid or late February because more companies were sending clients home to work, and they didn’t need as much of the Monday through Friday stuff. I would lose maybe one client a week. They’d say, “Oh, I’m working from home now so you don’t need to come.” And then, of course, once New York’s stay-at-home order and the worldwide orders started happening, all the vacation visits were canceled.
That must have been scary since you don’t have a permanent home. Did you have a place to go?
Thankfully, I have a boyfriend, and he’s been very accommodating as far as staying with him. I have thought about what would have happened if I hadn’t been dating him. Some of the work that we pet-sitters in New York have right now is watching cats in particular for people who’ve fled the city. I think a lot of the dog people who left the city took their dogs with them. But there’s a few cats around that still need care. And I feel like if I didn’t have some place to go, then probably one of my regular clients hopefully would let me stay at their place. Or I could have gone home to stay with my family in Ohio or something like that.
Are there precautions you’re taking because of the virus?
I’ve been mostly going off what the buildings are recommending, which honestly hasn’t been a lot. I still do face-to-face handoffs with some clients, I just wear a mask. And I wash my hands more frequently. I don’t use gloves. I have always used my own leashes.
For me, I’m thinking if a dog were to have the virus on it that would mean my client was sick and they were shedding COVID onto the coat of the dog. I just think that whole chain of events, while hypothetically possible, is unlikely. There are definitely dog walkers who are afraid of that. For example, people who take dogs into their homes, some of them are giving the dogs baths and taking other precautions. I think I’m a little more laid-back about it.
When New York issued its stay-at-home order, what did that mean for your business? Was dog walking allowed?
There was a little bit of confusion as to whether we were essential workers. Now, dog walkers are officially included in the list of essential workers. Some of us have clients who work in health care who are still working. I have a client that I picked up who works in bonds, so she’s actually busier than she was pre-COVID, and she likes to have someone come and take the dogs out so she can finish her work. So we have always been essential. I know a lot of dog walkers who have decided to close down anyway, maybe because they live with someone who is high-risk or they’re scared or they commute on the subway. I can walk to my service area so I never shut down, but some people have.
The first two weeks after the order went into effect, because people didn’t really know what to expect, it was a little unnerving being out there. I’ve been going out every day, so I feel more comfortable with it now that it’s been two months in and realizing that people in the streets are not really coughing and are wearing masks. I think it’s relatively easy to stay six feet from other people. All the stores and buildings have certain things in place: I don’t really have to talk to the doorman, they have elevator capacity rules, things like that. So I feel okay about it now that I’ve been doing it for a while.
How much was your business down?
I would say I was down to about 20% to 25% of my normal volume, maybe even like 15%. I’m trying to do an average of two visits a day, sometimes more, sometimes less.
Most of my daily clients either left the city or they’re working from home so I haven’t seen them. I also work through Wag, which is on-demand walking, so I don’t know those clients well. A lot of them are home, and I don’t ask.
Your clients who left the city or are working from home—did they continue to pay you?
They offered, but I didn’t accept.
How worrisome is the drop in business for you? With 20% to 25% of your normal revenue, will your business be able to survive?
For me, that’s enough to pay my bills because I’m very frugal. When business was good, I had a relatively high savings rate. Of course not paying rent helps with that. That’s part of the reason why I haven’t applied for assistance, because I have been making enough to cover my expenses. As long as I’m not dipping into my savings, that’s the level that I’m trying to stay at right now. So for me, I’ll have no problems reopening whenever we get to that.
But I believe that a lot of people, especially if they were working in the arts or if they’re students and they walk dogs part-time, I imagine some of those people won’t be coming back to the city.
I started a Facebook group for New York pet-sitters and dog walkers about 18 months ago. It seems like the people who are more established, they’re still working. Most of us have gone down to about 20% to 30% of bookings. I think it’s the people who weren’t established, who basically lost all their clients and all their sources of income, who are struggling more.
Has the city’s dog culture changed in this time of the coronavirus?
It is a little different. New Yorkers love dogs, maybe everyone just loves dogs. A lot of times you just get people just coming up to the dog and petting them and not asking or anything like that. I remember specifically, it must have been in early March, one woman reached out to pet the dog, and she’s like, “Oh, don’t worry, I just washed my hands.” I thought it was really strange to say. Like, I just don’t want you to touch the dog in general. Now people are not as likely to do that, but also if you have two dogs on a leash, and three feet of leash on each side, that’s six feet.
The people who want to be sociable with dogs, they’re still making it happen. Around Madison Square Park, now that they have closed the dog parks, people are taking the dogs into the lawn areas, and they’re just having their own little dog parks there. So people are still socializing their dogs, maybe not as much as before, but they’re still doing it.
Are conversations with dog people different now?
I feel like you can only talk about the coronavirus. There’s not really anything else that is relevant, especially when we live in the city. And pretty much everything that we do is based on that, even if it’s something like, “Is Starbucks open today?” This is so different.
Even with my boyfriend, we talk about the coronavirus every day. You’d think we’d be sick of it by now.
Have you had any strange dog-walking encounters during this time?
I’m Asian, so it’s not a great time to be Asian. I haven’t experienced that as much as one of my girlfriends who is also Chinese. She ended up leaving the city, but she said daily in her service area of SoHo she was getting comments. I’ve only gotten comments from a couple crazy people. It’s not by any means a regular occurrence. I also am not out after dark, because I feel that safety in numbers is no longer there. But people are starting to come out again. The first four weeks after everything closed, it was a little empty around, but people are starting to come back out; businesses are starting to open back up.
How’s the pandemic been for you personally?
I’m actually very introverted, and I don’t necessarily like working. I’ll do it because I like what I do. So I actually kind of enjoyed having these pretty empty streets, not having to wait in lines, I mean, global pandemic aside. So I’ve kind of enjoyed the breather, but I am looking forward to life getting back. Little Italy on the corner just opened up, so we were like, “It’s 10:30 a.m. I think we need to have pizza to celebrate.”
Do you think this will change the dog-walking and pet-sitting businesses for good, or will it go back to what it was before the pandemic?
That’s a really great question. I feel like as dog walkers in this city, a lot of our clients have the ability to work from home, they have a lot of flexibility with their schedules, and they have the opportunity to not be in the city if they don’t want to be. So I think things will eventually shake out between the clients who no longer need care and also the people who have adopted an animal during lockdown and then potential dog walkers leaving the city. I think there’ll be some reshuffling of the service areas, but I think it’ll all work out. I hear that after 2008, things were a lot different, probably not this different. But I feel like a lot of things changed in 2008 as far as people using a luxury service. I think the higher earners will come back, and it’s still going to be worth it for them to pay someone to walk their dogs.
I haven’t seen any requests yet from people who adopted pets during the pandemic. Generally, December is a popular time to get a puppy. So we had a little bit of a puppy boom in January and February. The nice thing about it now is if I wanted to network, those dog owners are out with their dogs, so you can kind of have a socially distanced conversation with them and see what their needs might be after this.
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