US dollars are now commonly used by businesses in Venezuela. The informal adoption of the dollar has helped to decrease inflation and product shortages.

Venezuela’s public sector workers take on multiple side jobs just to get by

To supplement their meager wages, many government workers in Venezuela are turning to side hustles that include driving taxis, baking cakes, selling clothes or taking care of pets. And that’s having an impact on the quality of public services.

The World

Yasser Sierra is a physical education teacher at a public school in Caracas, Venezuela. He has little time to rest.

When he is not with his students, the teacher makes deliveries and takes people around the city on his old Suzuki motorcycle. He’s also a handyman at a local seminary. And he helps his father to sell textiles.

“It’s tiring, because I can’t focus on preparing for my [school] lessons,” said Sierra, who has a degree in education from the Pedagogical Institute of Caracas, the country’s main university for teachers. “But there is no other way around it,” Sierra said. “Our salaries can barely pay for anything.”

When he's not with his students, P.E. teacher Yasser Sierra uses his old bike to transport people and make deliveries.
When he’s not with his students, P.E. teacher Yasser Sierra uses his old bike to transport people and make deliveries.Manuel Rueda/The World

Venezuela experienced one of the world’s most devastating economic crises from 2013 to 2020, with the nation’s economy shrinking by 70%, and millions of people leaving the country to escape hyperinflation, food shortages and an increasingly authoritarian government.

The economy improved somewhat after the pandemic, as the administration of President Nicolás Maduro took measures that slowed down inflation and ended product shortages.

Supermarket shelves are now full of products that businesses are allowed to charge for in US dollars, which have become the nation’s unofficial currency. The government has reduced some of its expenditures, and stopped printing massive amounts of money, helping to tame inflation.

At a market in Caracas people buy vegetables and fruits that can be paid for in US dollars.
At a market in Caracas people buy vegetables and fruits that can be paid for in US dollars.Manuel Rueda/The World

But most Venezuelans are still struggling to get by, including hundreds of thousands of government workers who are paid some of the lowest wages in the entire hemisphere.

Sierra said that as a public school teacher with nine years of experience, he gets a salary of no more than 350 Venezuelan bolívars per month, or about $10. He’s also entitled to a food stipend of $40 a month, and another monthly payment of $60, known as the economic war bonus, that the government sends to all of its workers.

That means Sierra earns about $110 per month from his full time job as a teacher. But economists estimate that in Venezuela it costs $500 a month to feed a family.

“I’ve never been able to live only from my wages as a teacher,” Sierra said. “But recently the situation has gotten much more difficult.”

To survive on their diminishing wages, many government workers in Venezuela are turning to side hustles that include driving taxis, baking cakes, selling clothes or taking care of pets.

And that has led to a deterioration in the quality of services, like schools, hospitals or notaries.

Food shortages are no longer a problem in Venezuela, but most people are still struggling to make ends meet.
Food shortages are no longer a problem in Venezuela, but most people are still struggling to make ends meet.Manuel Rueda/The World

Asdrubal Oliveros, an economist in Caracas who runs an economic consulting firm, said that the low wages earned by public servants are creating “perverse incentives.”

“Some government workers will just leave their jobs at midday, or show up only for a few days a week” so that they can spend more time on their side hustles, he said.

“But these low wages also encourage corruption, because anyone with some power will be looking at how they can use that to make more money.”

According to a recent study by the Inter American Development Bank, President Maduro’s government has around 2.2 million workers on its payroll, an amount that is equivalent to about a fifth of the nation’s labor force.

But the government’s income has fallen by more than $30 billion over the past decade, due to the mismanagement of the country’s oil industry, and also because US sanctions have driven investors away recently.

Oliveros said that by keeping wages low, the Venezuelan government is “optimizing” its resources. But he said that there are other alternatives that have not been implemented.

“Instead of laying off some workers and taking political risks, they have decided to keep their large number of employees, while paying them miserable wages,” he said.

The low wages have taken a heavy toll on the country’s education system, with thousands of experienced teachers quitting their jobs every year.

Seeking alternatives

Karla Lovera was making around $150 per month last year, by working in two schools. 

She got tired of the long hours and low pay. And decided to become a street vendor.

Karla Lovera gave up on being a teacher last year. She makes more money now by working as a street vendor, selling coffee from a small stand.
Karla Lovera gave up on being a teacher last year. She makes more money now by working as a street vendor, selling coffee from a small stand.Manuel Rueda/The World

“Now, I’m making a bit more money,” said Lovera, who has a degree in preschool education and taught in public schools for more than a decade. “And my schedule is also more flexible.”

In the mornings Lovera sells coffee out of a small stand near her home that consists of a plastic table and a stool.

And in the afternoons, she’s a private tutor helping kids with their homework. 

“Education is a beautiful job. But I just can’t afford to do it full time anymore.”

Karla Lovera, public school teacher

“Education is a beautiful job,” Lovera said. “But I just can’t afford to do it full time anymore.”

Those who are still working in schools say they’re worried about future generations.

Declining interest in education

Rossi Garcia teaches biology at a high school in a working class district. She said that few teachers in her school show up for all of their lessons. And most of her students don’t want to get a degree.

“Many are thinking about how they can leave Venezuela,” she said. “They are not blind and they can see the economic situation, and they know that they can make more money working on delivery apps.”

Rossi Garcia, 40, is a high school biology teacher in Caracas, Venezuela. She is planning to retire next year.
Rossi Garcia, 40, is a high school biology teacher in Caracas, Venezuela. She is planning to retire next year.Manuel Rueda/The World

Garcia plans to teach until next year — when she will complete two decades of service, and will become eligible for a small pension.

The experienced educator is only 40, and could still teach for many years. But she says that under the current conditions, it’s not worth it.

“I’m hanging on because this is my mission and it’s what I studied for,” she said. “I like to interact with the students because they learn from us, and we learn from them every day.”

Invest in global news with heart!

The World is a nonprofit newsroom powered by listener support. When you make a recurring gift, you’re making an investment that allows The World to cover the most important international stories with nuance and care. Our listeners are at the heart of what makes The World such an invaluable source for global news. Will you create a recurring donation today to power The World all year long?