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Out of Work in America: Navigating an unemployment crisis in face of pandemic

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Out of Work in America: Navigating an unemployment crisis during a pandemic

Marina Moya and her husband Martin sit outside a friend’s home in Victoria for their baby shower Saturday, Sept. 19. The couple held the drive-by event due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than half a year has passed since the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown the economy and started forcing millions of Texans out of jobs. The local, state and national economies are far from full recoveries.

State and local unemployment rates have dropped significantly since they peaked in April, but continue to fluctuate from month-to-month. 

The most recent unemployment data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the Texas seasonally adjusted unemployment rate jumped from 6.8% in August to 8.3% in September, surpassing the national average and pulling the state back into unemployment levels of the Great Depression.

Unemployment was even higher in Victoria County, where 8.8% or nearly 3,800 people were still without work. The Golden Crescent Region — composed of Calhoun, DeWitt, Goliad, Gonzales, Jackson, Lavaca and Victoria counties — had an average unemployment rate of 7.7%. Seasonally adjusted rates were not available for Victoria County or the region, as of Saturday.

“The numbers are enormous compared to anything we’ve ever seen before in the history of this country or any country like it,” said Dietrich Vollrath, economist at the University of Houston, who focuses on economic growth. “And they are still mind-boggling on every level.”

Community members have lost jobs in almost every sector of the local economy. Some found new work to stay afloat, but many are still struggling to put food on the table, pay rent, afford utility bills and medications.

Christ’s Kitchen has gone from serving about 250 people a day to more than 700.

“We’re seeing people we’ve never seen before. This week, we were particularly flabbergasted by the amount of newcomers,” said Trish Hastings, director of Christ’s Kitchen. “I don’t see this (need) letting up at all.”

Nonprofits, such as the Community Action Committee, have had a major increase in demand for rent assistance and for some families, a ban on evictions came too late.

Kim Pickens, head of the Humility Project and longtime advocate for the homeless community, said she has watched residents flood hotel rooms after losing jobs and seen people become homeless for the first time in their lives.

“It is really more extreme than we see,” Pickens said. “If you were already struggling to make ends meet, this just basically knocked your feet out from underneath you.”

2020 Unemployment Rates

The Texas seasonally adjusted unemployment rate jumped from 6.8% in August to 8.3% in September, surpassing the national average. Unemployment was even higher in Victoria County, where 8.8% or nearly 3,800 people were still without work.

In April, Vollrath expected the Texas economy to mostly recover by late October or early November. But then Texas became one of the earliest states to start reopening businesses and loosening restrictions. COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations started spiking throughout the state in June and it became clear that the state didn’t take a quick route out of the recession, he said.

“Almost any economist will tell you there is no trade off,” Vollrath said. “It was clear by late summer that you either fix the health in order to fix the economy or you don’t address the pandemic and you’re not going to fix the economy.

“We won’t start recovering until we really get a handle on the public health situation.”

Early on in the pandemic, The Federal Reserve and Congress took historic action to cushion the financial shock of the shutdowns, but the effect of those efforts has run out, said Michael Sury, a finance lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business.

“The federal reserve has essentially been tapped out and now, if all eyes are on fiscal stimulus and we get another round of stimulus, that’s only going to carry us so far,” Sury said. “The cure has to be a public health solution … All of these other measures are really to keep the economy on life support.”

Another economic relief package could keep businesses and people hanging on until the pandemic is curbed, Vollrath said, but federal lawmakers have spent months arguing over what one should include.

“If we don’t get some kind of real clarity on public health and relief until January or February, then we are looking at well through next year before we’re back to economically normal and potentially beyond that,” he said. “Because the longer we go on without a real economic relief package, the more people end up in these long-term unemployment situations that are harder and harder for them to get out of.”

Americans have endured economic crises before but none quite like this. To capture the depths of the unemployment crisis, The New York Times teamed up with the Victoria Advocate and 10 other local news organizations across the country to document the lives of a dozen Americans who found themselves out of work.

The effects of the Great Depression were plain to see as it unfolded 90 years ago: soup lines formed beneath storefront signs advertising free meals for the unemployed. The impact of millions of lost jobs today is less visible when so many are staying home. Social distancing has helped financial suffering hide. To view the 'Out of Work in America' project at the New York Times, visit


Out of Work in America: Navigating an unemployment crisis during a pandemic

Portrait of Marina Moya on her bed inside her mother-in-law’s home in Victoria. Her doctor gave her bed rest orders in mid-October after she put stress on her body while moving her and her husband’s things out of their apartment after a pipe burst in the neighbors’ home above them. She was experiencing some pain and discovered that her cervix was 2 centimeters dilated and her doctor didn’t want her to go into preterm labor. Her due date is Nov. 27. Read more in Your Life, Page D1.

As she awaits the birth of her first child, unemployment may be a ‘blessing in disguise’

Marina Moya, 24, was a team lead at Caterpillar, a construction machinery and equipment company in South Texas. With production declining, Moya was let go in early May. We first talked to her that month, as she and her husband sorted out how to make ends meet with one income and as they planned for the birth of their first child, who is due in late October or early November.

VICTORIA — They basically just said they had to make a difficult decision. We knew there was going to be a shutdown with the pandemic, which we already went through. But we didn’t expect this.

It is stressful going from $18 an hour to zero, especially when you’re pregnant. I try to see it as a blessing in disguise.

That’s how my family sees it, too. They’re just like, “It’s probably better this way. God works in mysterious ways. He put you home because he probably didn’t want you to be out in this world right now.”

I assume my unemployment payments will go extinct in October. I don’t know how it will be to handle the bills. They all add up. My husband makes good money, but I don’t want to put it all on him.

Out of Work in America: Navigating an unemployment crisis during a pandemic

Marina Moya mops the floor of the living room Wednesday, Sept. 2 in her and her husband’s apartment in Victoria.

When our lease is up in February, we’re going to go to my mother’s in Elmendorf. She has a four-bedroom, doublewide trailer and only uses two rooms. When we leave, my husband’s pay will probably drop drastically. He makes $25 an hour at Formosa Plastics, working for one of their best contractors.

With these unemployment payments we’re getting — the extra $600 each week — I try to save everything.

I did buy my son a crib, changing table and stroller — I got the big, really expensive things out of our way because I know that I’m not going to get this extra income later.

The federal benefits expire at the end of the week. I’m OK with what I get, whether that’s the extra $600 or not. I got approved for $472 per week. That’s enough for me to keep my household together.

Out of Work in America: Navigating an unemployment crisis during a pandemic

Marina Moya and her husband Martin greet friends as they drive up for the couple's baby shower Saturday, Sept. 19. in Victoria.

My husband was out of work for two weeks. He didn’t get paid for it. Two people from his unit tested positive for the virus, but not in his group. They closed down that whole unit and had them quarantine for 14 days and get tested.

It made me want to cry. I closed our doors to everyone. He said, “I haven’t been in contact. I don’t even know these people.” Still, you don’t want to risk it.

His test came back negative, so he was able to go back. When he didn’t get paychecks for those weeks, we had to use that rainy day money. Our car insurance and phone bills were due. My tire popped out of nowhere. So I see the payments the government gives as money for those times, when you have nothing.

Things have been going a lot better since. I started a new career path or am trying to. I registered to do the online basic safety and sanitization class last week to be a nail technician.

I see this as something that will still bring in a minimal income for my family while I’m at home and trying to be safe.

I don’t really let friends come over and it seems kind of cruel, right? I guess you can say I’m very paranoid, especially with all the new cases that they’re showing among pregnant women. I don’t want to risk that being me.

Out of Work in America: Navigating an unemployment crisis during a pandemic

Marina Moya checks the mail Wednesday, Sept. 2 at her and her husband’s apartment complex in Victoria. She said they get a lot of packages because they are ordering everything online to avoid going inside stores due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Early September: ‘My husband and I are really good at saving.’

I started my third trimester. The baby keeps me up at night. When I really want to go to sleep, he is just like, “No, I don’t think it’s time to sleep.”

I would still be working if the pandemic weren’t going on. I can’t imagine having to be at work with the way my sleep schedule is and my body is. It is a lot of stress on your body, in general, to be doing work on your feet for eight hours a day. I can’t even squat down right now to pick something up if I drop it.

I am done with the online sanitization course for school and finished the basic introductory course last week. The campus opened back up; they called me and asked if I was ready to start the in-person class. It was a course of about 32 people, so a lot. I don’t feel comfortable going. I told them I was going to wait until after I have my baby.

Even if I were to go, starting school is kind of like a job. You get maternity leave, but only for so long and you have to return right away or you lose your grant. I didn’t want to do that.

I only have about $2,100 left in my state benefits. They’re saying that if you run out of benefits, you automatically get re-enrolled for a three-month extension at a lower amount. I don’t exactly know how that is going to work. I am a little nervous, you know, not having any income at all, but my husband and I are really good at saving.

Out of Work in America: Navigating an unemployment crisis during a pandemic

A crib, changing table and wall decorations for Marcus, Marina Moya’s unborn son, line the wall of her and her husband’s room inside her mother-in-law’s apartment in Victoria.

Late September: ‘I’ve never voted,’ and don’t plan to

A water pipe busted in the apartment above us and leaked all in our house. This has happened before and took the contractors about three weeks to fix. I’m hoping they can get it done faster because my son could come any minute now. My doctor anticipates him coming on his own during the first week of November or last week of October.

I have one last unemployment check, and then I won’t have benefits. With Texas opening back up to 75% and bars opening back up, it feels unknown whether they’re even going to offer much assistance anymore for the people who need it because the unemployment rate has dropped.

I haven’t been thinking about the election at all. When I see political posts, I scroll right past them. I’ve never voted. My mom and grandparents never have either. I feel like no matter what decision I say or think is best, the powerful people are going to make their own decisions.

Out of Work in America: Navigating an unemployment crisis during a pandemic

Marina Moya puts her hair in a ponytail to get ready to fix one of her nails that broke after fishing. Moya has been studying online to get her nail technician license through the Victoria Beauty College, but said she won’t be able to do in-person training until about spring of next year after her son is born and a little older.

My family has always said, “Whatever is meant to happen in the world is going to happen, no matter what, and you are a very little percentage of that change.” They’ve been very honest.

In America, my family is technically an outcast. My grandparents were illegal. Eventually, they got their papers, but it took them about 15 to 20 years. They didn’t think, “Oh, we need to keep America great” afterward because if my grandparents had been caught, they would have been taken and we would have all gone back to Mexico to live with them.

If you don’t go through it, you wouldn’t understand it. I personally didn’t go through that, and my mom was born here, too. But with my grandparents, you had to watch them be worried and stressed all the time. Any day my grandpa went to work, he could have not come home. If they were driving without statuses, a car wreck could have happened or they could have gotten stopped for traffic violations and not have come home.

It was living in fear in a way, so politics were a scary thing for my grandparents and they weren’t something we cared for growing up. Not that we didn’t care, but we lived in fear of them.

Out of Work in America: Navigating an unemployment crisis during a pandemic

Marina Moya sits on the couch to take a break in between mopping floors Sept. 2 in her and her husband's apartment in Victoria.

Early October: ‘We’re having to move’

The contractors were fixing the ceiling and found mold. We’re having to move into my mother-in-law’s apartment.

It has been very chaotic. I literally have a baby coming in a few weeks. Getting my husband to bring all the furniture and getting storage space because we had to put stuff in storage — it is just a lot, too much. I get drained super easily, and I can’t go in there to help him because of the mold.

We have to quarantine from Oct. 24 to Nov. 27 per my doctor’s orders. Me and my husband did try to sit down with my mother-in-law. I explained to her that I didn’t plan on having mijo around anybody for the first month. That has changed now that we’re here, but I can’t have people in and out of this house. I know she feels a little like, “this is my house and if the grand babies want to come see me, I’m their grandma.” I understand that, but the kids are in school. I just am going to have to stay in our bedroom if they come and we’re gonna have to do a deep clean when they leave.

The good thing is that because we moved in with my mother-in-law, we are saving a little bit more. We split the bills here. We also didn’t have to pay a fee for breaking our lease and it didn’t go on our credit.

We’ll probably leave for Elmendorf come January. We’re just trying to have the baby here and get my husband through the holidays at his job, then we’re planning on taking off as soon as we can to get settled out there.

— As told to Kali Venable, reporter for the Victoria Advocate


Out of Work in America: Navigating an unemployment crisis during a pandemic

Oscar Saenz, posing for a photo, Tucson, Ariz., August 13, 2020, was working as a sommelier at Elvira's restaurant before being laid off at the start of the pandemic in March.

From a promising career in wine to an empty savings account and new ambitions

Until the pandemic, Oscar Elijo Saenz, 26, was a master sommelier and server at a downtown Tucson restaurant and an account manager for an alcoholic beverage distributor. Last year was his best, professionally, and his savings account was growing. He looked forward to buying a house and traveling more with his daughter. We first spoke with him in August, as his savings account had dwindled to a fraction of its total just a few months earlier.

TUCSON, Ariz. — We grew up on a reservation just outside of Tucson. My grandmother owned a walk-up hamburger stand. I worked there for a number of summers, and then a position opened up at the Four Star, Four Diamond property that the tribe owned, Casino del Sol. I started off as a busser, and I worked my way into a serving position and then a sommelier. I do that and also work for an alcoholic beverage distributor.

For the first time, this little Native American boy is working with these exotic ingredients and beverages and these things that I could barely pronounce from far-off, distant lands. It was this window to the world, this way for me to travel.

The first quarantine hit, and I got laid off from both positions. I immediately filed for unemployment.

I got called back to work at the distributor company, but the restaurant stayed closed. So I was working half the hours, at half the income, and I was draining my savings to pay the bills. A lot of the accounts that I was working with were really struggling. The thought of selling a case of wine to an account in the downtown area was as fantastical a belief as a unicorn.

Once the Paycheck Protection Program loans started to end, pretty much the day after, the second quarantine went into play and bars were shut down across the state. That’s when I had long and difficult conversations with the ownership. I told them, “Hey, I really love your company. I’m really sad that I can’t work for you guys anymore, but financially I just can’t do it.”

Literally the first thing I do after waking up is go to the Department of Economic Security website and check the status of my pending application for unemployment benefits. It’s almost the worst way to start your day, because I know it’s going to say no. Then, applying for jobs. And I’ve applied for just about every job that I can possibly apply for. There’s a job that I’m considering at a funeral parlor. I don’t know if I’m equipped to deal with that sort of thing, but I’m desperate.

I’m going on week seven now, and all the savings that I had set aside to buy this house are almost all gone. We’re talking about going from $10,000 to less than $3,000. I feel like I’m on the cusp of losing everything. It’s just pure frustration. I’ve gone past the point of desperation, past the point of anger. And I just feel hopeless. I feel lost.

September: Forced to rethink a future in wine

Back in July, I shot an email to U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema. I read some stories online about people reaching out to senators and it working, and then about a month later, I got a call from someone in Washington, D.C. Within two days I started getting unemployment checks. I was down to my last couple hundred dollars, so I’m very grateful.

I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I want to do with my future. I decided that I’m actually not going to pursue the sommelier thing. I’m gonna go back into what I was originally going to do, which is software engineering.

With this pandemic, I was faced with some harsh realities: When I start to achieve my higher-level sommelier certifications, there’s not really going to be any jobs available for me. I don’t have hopes that it’s going to come back. Seeing how many restaurants are drowning, and how many in Tucson are on the brink of totally collapsing, it’s sad because I really love wine.

But this whole pandemic has been very taxing on my mental health. I’ve needed to take some serious looks at where I want to be in 10 years, and if I can come out the other side successfully.

I’m not entirely sure that I can.

October: ‘There was a time when I had big dreams’

I had a really strong five-year plan a year ago, and now I don’t have one at all because I have no idea what’s going to happen. I’m taking an online course on using animation and 3D modeling. My hopes are that I can find something out of the restaurant industry, to see what other things pique my interest.

I used to think very long term, but I’m really just looking at things in terms of what is directly in front of my feet. There was a time when I had big dreams, where I wanted to go places and do things. I don’t really care about that anymore. I just want to survive.

This election matters more than any other election in my lifetime. I have not made up my mind, and it’s because I’m probably not voting liberal, and I’m not voting conservative. I’m probably going to go third party.

I know a lot of people see it as throwing your vote away, but I really am so pessimistic about how things have been handled lately. I guess when I’m there in the voting booth, I’ll have the final decision. Maybe I’m just always late to the party.

— As told to Andi Berlin, reporter for the Arizona Daily Star


Out of Work in America: Navigating an unemployment crisis during a pandemic

’I Hope They Put Themselves in Our Shoes’

When the airport shut down, so did the restaurants inside. Reyna Gonzalez, 55, had worked there for years. Gonzalez lives with her husband. They have three grown children and three grandchildren. We first spoke with her in September. The interviews were conducted in Spanish.

SANTA ANA, Calif. — This is all so hard. I had my security, working 30 years without stopping. This is the first time I ever applied for unemployment. I’ve never, ever lived off the government — always off my own hard work.

Yet months ago, when the coronavirus happened, I had to file for employment benefits. Later, my health insurance was taken away. I’m missing my front teeth, and I don’t have the money to deal with that. I’m also diabetic and now have to fill my prescriptions by traveling to Tijuana, where my husband’s family is from.

I’m desperate. I love my job. I love working. I worked hard as a cook at the Anaheim Ducks restaurant inside John Wayne Airport, near Gate 19 in Terminal C. I was always there. I always covered shifts, worked extra. You know, sometimes the youngsters don’t show up. I’d always gladly stay late. Sometimes 10 hours on one shift. I worked it as if it was my business.

When you love your work, you love everything around it. You want that business to succeed. Imagine, I’m 55, and the kids in their 20s used to marvel at my ability to work.

I was raised by my father, among brothers, in rural Michoacan, Mexico, and taught to be hearty. When you are brought up in the countryside, the life just makes you stronger.

I’ve been at the airport for 20 years. I started working for Korean restaurant owners. It was hard. I worked like a man, loading up heavy airport carts with merchandise. One day, they closed. And the very next day, in the elevator, I met my new boss who started me as a dishwasher at the sports restaurant. Eventually I had a nice job as a cook.

To many, my $15-an-hour job may not seem like much. But it gave me my independence. It allowed me to pay for my house, my car and car insurance. It allowed me to move around, solve my own problems.

A few months back, hundreds of us who worked at John Wayne Airport got word to stop showing up to work, that we were laid off because the coronavirus had grounded the airport.

I don’t like having to apply for government aid. Now I hear the company we worked for got special rent relief during this time. What about us?

I’ve been working with my local union to press our governor to sign a law calling on them to give us our jobs back when things turn around.

I’ve looked at other jobs. But I’m going to wait until Oct. 15 to see if the governor gets my job back. It’s not just me. But all of us. We need our jobs. I hope they put themselves in our shoes.

October: Hopes are dashed

The governor didn’t save us. He refused to sign the law that would have given us our jobs back once things turned around. Politicians — they are only out for themselves.

They need to open the airport back up. Having precautions, taking care — it can be done. Open the airlines, then the work will flow. But if they don’t open, how can we be OK?

Many are losing their homes. I’m lucky. My sons work, they help out. We are very united. We fight together.

I’m so lucky to also have my faith. Every day, I read my Bible. I’ve always been very devoted. As a child, as I went out with cows to milk them, I knew God was out there. I spoke to him. He could hear. He always hears. He is here with us.

I am asking him for help. Please help me. Whatever you can. Whatever you will. If not at my old job, at a new one.

My friends are really in tough shape. I stay strong for them. I’m there for them. Some can’t read. They don’t have the Bible. So I tell them, stay with it — Echele ganas. Don’t despair — No te deseperes.

Sometimes we all need a push from someone.

October: ‘You are a battler, Mom’

I’m sitting here at the union food bank, next to my friend, Ophelia, trying to comfort her. She’s crying, frustrated. She got the message on the phone and in the mail that we won’t be coming back to work. Her self-esteem is pretty bad right now. She can’t sleep. She feels defrauded. She gave everything to her job.

I remind her that her husband is working and so is her son. Her unemployment check finally showed up.

My sons have really stepped up for me. My oldest, Martin, 35, stops by a lot, always brings food. He does for me what I did for him. He tells me not to worry, saying, “You are a battler, Mom, you’ll come out on top.”

I also have my other kids, Juan, 25 and Ysenia, 37, checking in on me all the time along with my three grandchildren, Nina, Martin Jr. and Marvin.

I’m tired of being at home. This whole experience has awoken me a bit. I’m not as shy as I used to be. I can’t vote as a legal resident but I’ve gotten involved at my local union, Unite Here. Look at me, I’m out here talking to the top union director at the food drive.

I feel much stronger. Like Moses, I’ve been pushed into action. Thinking of him makes me strong.

I would like to try to go to school, maybe learn some English on YouTube so I can get a better job. I’ve been looking at a hospital job, but I need to speak better English. I want to prepare myself a bit more.

I can’t stay at home. I just need God to open the way for me to get another job.

— As told to Norberto Santana, reporter for the Voice of OC


Out of Work in America: Navigating an unemployment crisis during a pandemic

Comedian Al Ernst performs for a socially-distanced crowd gathered in a parking lot in Islandwalk at West Villages, a gated, 55+ community in Venice, Florida on July 5, 2020. Ernst has had to think outside the box to find employment during the pandemic, even taking a job wiping down shopping carts at a local grocery store.

'A funny guy in an un-funny time'

What happens when a comic can’t get a crowd? Al Ernst, 56, of Sarasota, Fla., is a stand-up comedian and a former Carnival Cruise Line entertainer of the year. He lives with his wife, Lorrie, and a puggle named Mia. These days, he’s finding unlikely ways to get by. We first spoke with him in June.

SARASOTA, Fla. — Thirty years ago on Labor Day weekend, I started doing stand-up comedy full time. That meant never having to deliver a pizza, never having to drive an Uber, never having to mow a lawn, never having to take a side job.

Late February, early March, I worked at The Villages retirement community and made 12 grand in two nights. Then I was supposed to go to Tampa for a show on the Carnival Paradise cruise ship. And it all went away. Now you’re looking at the chief of the cart sanitizers at a Publix supermarket.

I want to make my own way, and my entire life I’ve always worked. I don’t think I would have gotten more than the $600 federal unemployment, because I’m a gig worker. But the application was ridiculous. I gave up in June.

You look at your finances and all the little microcharges. Is this really worth $25 a month? Can I cut out my subscription to The New York Times? Cut back on cable, cut your membership to LA Fitness, you add it all up and there’s a $300 savings and you think, am I really getting my $300 worth out of this?

Being a fat guy, I’m not a good warm-weather sleeper, but now we keep the thermostat at 78 degrees. It’s been brutally hot, but you adapt.

I’m about 40 percent into my savings now.

Even with a vaccine, I sense that what we’ll be doing as entertainers is more shows and smaller audiences. It’s hard to do distance comedy because you’re trying to make a connection with an audience member in a golf cart a quarter-mile away. I have to look at their eyes now, because the laughs are muffled and hidden, but if I can see how they’re reacting with their eyes, then I’ll know who to play to.

How are cruise lines going to do it now? For them to make a profit, those ships have to be crowded. Think about those buffet lines. I want to have a career where working the ship is part of it, but not my primary venue. I want to up my variety of venues.

I’ll probably have YouTube figured out when I’m 90, and I’ll have a lot of good old-people videos on there.

October 1: An unlikely new gig

You are looking at a new Mary Kay cosmetics representative right here. I am selling Mary Kay cosmetics. Publix started reducing hours, and they’re not wiping down their carts for you anymore, so …

I’m thinking, how weird and far out can you go? Could you legitimately, as a guy who has terrible skin care and doesn’t know one thing about this stuff – could you sell this stuff?

One of my buddies, his wife was angry because her Mary Kay representative just moved, and I said, “Don’t worry, big guy, I’ve got you covered.” And I handed him a couple of samples. She called me up later and placed an order, and I just got my first check for $250.

You have to adapt. I also bought my own radio station on Amazon for $125, so I’ve got a transmitter that hooks to an amplifier and a mic and it sends a signal out for maybe a mile and a half, but it’ll be great for my outdoor shows. I’ll set up signs that say “Tune your radio to 93.3.”

I’ve had to transform my entire life during Covid. But I feel like my mission is to help people laugh, so I’ve had to learn how to Zoom, I’ve had to buy a new camera – another investment that went on the credit card – and I’ve learned where to place it. I’ve learned where to stare, I’ve learned about backdrops. It’s making me better.

Mid-October: A not-so-fond memory

In 2004 I was working at the Funny Bone in St. Louis, and the owner said, I’ve got this daytime gig for you. It’ll pay $500 for 15 minutes at this thing called Trump University (now defunct). People were paying anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 to attend this get-rich-quick seminar. My job was to tell jokes and warm ‘em up.

I grabbed a brochure and it was worded to make you believe Donald Trump was going to be there in person. “Get your picture taken with Trump.” Turns out, it was a cardboard cutout, and they had a camera set up so you could get your picture taken. When it was over, the guy said, “Hey, that was great. We’ve got another one on Friday in Kansas City, can you do that one too? We’ve got one coming up in Tampa – can you do that one?” I said sure, OK.

Comedians usually get paid on the spot in cash or check, but this guy said, you’ll have to fill out some paperwork first and we’ll mail it to you. The weeks went by, I called and said, “Where’s my money?” and they kept saying, “You didn’t get it? We sent it to you.” Anyway, I never got paid.

A lawyer told me, we can take them to small claims court, and you’ll probably win, but it’ll cost you more than it’s worth. So I just dropped it. (The Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment.)

Here’s what influences me when I vote: Decency and character count. Knowledge and self-responsibility count. These things make my decisions really easy.

As told to Billy Cox, a reporter for the Sarasota Herald Tribune


Out of Work in America: Navigating an unemployment crisis during a pandemic

Allen Walker is an Army veteran who has completed Augusta University's cyber program and is currently looking for a job. Photographed at his home Thursday afternoon August 13, 2020 in Augusta, Ga.

A waiting game after a dozen years in the military

Allen Walker, 38, joined the Army immediately after high school and spent 12 years in various roles, including as an ammunition specialist. He was medically discharged after being wounded in Afghanistan, and since then has owned a gourmet popcorn business with friends and earned a college degree in management information systems. But he has struggled to find work since graduation — and the pandemic has made the search that much more difficult and frustrating.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — I wish I had known while I was still in school that I.T. certifications are almost more important than the degree itself. A lot of these jobs require certifications just to get into an entry-level position. I have taken one certification class and passed. I’m working on a few others as well.

I cannot say I “worked in I.T.” in the military like a lot of professionals out there. I think it’s more difficult for an individual just starting to get into cybersecurity. If you had experience in the military or got certifications, then I think you have a leg up. I’ve done some internships, but they were not strictly I.T.-related. Looking back, I wish I would have done something that was more tailored to an I.T. position.

When I first started looking, my resume was not up to par. It had been a while since I had applied for positions. The Wounded Warrior Project helped me work on my resume. They let me know about software that goes through your resume and picks out words and phrases that companies use to eliminate candidates they feel are unqualified. I have a vocational rehab counselor who helps me, too.

But Covid-19 is probably the biggest reason I still can’t find employment that I want. Many employees are working remotely, and I think that has hurt the process for a lot of jobs that I’ve applied for. I’ve probably applied for around 80 jobs. Most never gave me a call back or an email to notify me.

I would like to stay in Augusta if possible. If not, I understand that to start a career I may have to relocate. That’s fine, even though I would prefer not to be so far away from my brothers and cousins and my grandma. But if there’s an opportunity for me to start a career, I have to take it.

I’m trying to stay positive. I know that maybe the economy looks bleak, but sometimes things can turn in your favor.

September: ‘I take it one day at a time.’

I’m still in the job search. I’ve been referred for two different positions. I’m still waiting to hear back from them. The tentative job offer I had, I haven’t heard anything from them.

I’ve been to a workshop for pitching and interviewing and stuff like that. I got some ideas on how to do interviews when I do get interviews.

I take it one day at a time. I have some good days and bad days because it’s frustrating. I’d like to have someone help me redo my resume to help me tailor it to exactly the kind of position I’m looking for.

I’ve submitted over 100 applications since April. Some I haven’t heard anything from, and that could be because of a hiring freeze or something like that. The majority of them, I haven’t heard anything. I could say maybe 20 of those called because they at least let you know where you stand. At least I got a response. Not knowing is a little more frustrating to me.

October: ‘More discouraged than encouraged.’

I started a new certificate program, so I’m excited about that. It’s an Amazon Web Services certificate. It would certify me to do cloud services with them. I’ve been doing some virtual job fairs online through some of the veteran services.

Some of the companies that are hiring are jobs I don’t necessarily want. They want entry-level or managerial-type positions, but I’m not trying for those at the moment.

I’m not qualified enough for entry-level cybersecurity because even some of the entry-level positions require two years experience. I’ve seen some where you have to have a master’s degree, and that doesn’t make sense. Most of the time what I’m seeing are help desk jobs, helping people who get locked out of their email or reset password or set up their workstations. That’s OK, but it’s not what I really want to do. I’m willing to take it, just to enter the field and move on.

I may even decide to go back to school and get a master’s degree in cybersecurity and get some more certifications. That might help me out.

I’m more selective since I do have some income coming in, from disability payments from the military. So I can be a little more selective than the next individual who maybe is under the gun.

I try to de-age my resume. My military experience can actually go back to 2000, which can dictate how old I am. So as far as my first job after the military, I put that as 2008.

Even though it’s quote-unquote against the law to discriminate based on age, every company does it. Because at that point you may have a tendency to leave earlier or, since you have more experience in life, you may not want to follow instructions from someone who is younger than you.

At this point, I’m like, whatever, man. I’m probably more discouraged than encouraged because I’m not hearing from a lot of the companies.

— As told to Damon Cline, reporter for The Augusta Chronicle


Out of Work in America: Navigating an unemployment crisis during a pandemic

Kalyn Burns wipes down a table at O’Bryan’s Bar & Grill during her waitressing shift on Oct. 14 at the establishment in West Louisville, Ky. Almost 7 months into the pandemic, Burns has secured work for two shifts a week at the community establishment that caters mostly to farmers. The job is 14 miles from her home in Owensboro.

A career in hospitality under threat

Kalyn Fiorella Burns, a 35-year-old single mother of two, has spent all of her adult life in the food and beverage industry. In March, she lost her job as a bartender at a TGI Friday’s. It took three months to find another job but it is only part time. Six months of unemployment benefits have been exhausted and Burns is still waiting for the 13 weeks of additional benefits under the federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program to begin. We first spoke with her in July, as she was beginning to wonder whether she would ever work again.

OWENSBORO, Ky. — I became a server at Cracker Barrel when I was 18. When I was 20, I became a bartender at Red Lobster. I couldn’t sit at the bar until I was 21, but I could tend bar.

I’ve worked in management, but I got out of management because I could make more money as a bartender.

I heard in late March that there was a possibility that the governor might close restaurants. I didn’t think they would shut us down completely. But I started making plans for bringing home less money.

I struggled in the beginning. It took me a month to get my first unemployment check. That was a headache. I spent nine hours a day on hold for a week before I got my first check. I was used to bringing home cash every day. Going without that for a month is really stressful. I’d make from $700 to $900 a week, but I worked my tail off for it.

There are a bunch of people like me. I’m not a college kid working to make money for college. This is my career. I like to be in this industry. But right now, this industry is shot. I have a great resume. I’ve never had a hard time getting a job. Until now. I don’t know what the industry will look like when this is over.

I’ve put in 20 to 25 applications. Restaurants aren’t hiring. With only being able to seat 20 percent of capacity, they’re lucky if they can keep all their current employees. I’ve had one response.

I’ve always lived in Owensboro. I love it here. But my rent is almost $1,000 a month. I’ve been busting my butt to save money to build a house out in the country, where I can have animals and room. It hurts my soul to have to dip into that money now.

I found out in an email that the restaurant was closing permanently.

There is a silver lining to this though. I get up, spend time with my kids, go to my mom’s to swim. We’ve gone on a couple of camping trips. We’ve hiked and done other outdoor activities.

My daughter will be a sophomore this year. It won’t be that long till she’s gone off to college. I’m spending time with her and my little guy.

I used to see my daughter between the time she got home from school and I left at 4 to go to work. I love to cook and now I’m able to cook for them. I’m spending time with my little guy that I never got to spend with my daughter. It’s not all bad.

But I wish I knew when it would end and I’ll be back at work.

August: ‘It’s just part time … but it’s a job.’

I got the job. It felt really good to know that I could be working again.

It’s just part time, working two nights a week. I work Wednesday and Saturday nights.

But it’s a job and it gets me out of the house a little bit. Our business is primarily with farmers, and it’s harvest season now. That should be a good time for us.

But because of the Covid, we can’t stay open as long as we could before. We have to have last call at 9 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on Saturdays. But they tell me when the harvest is over, I might get more shifts.

I hope so.

I’ve been drawing partial unemployment benefits since I started working part time. But my funds ran out after six months and I have to reapply for the extra 13 weeks they added because of Covid. I haven’t gotten anything in about three weeks.

I’m not sure when I’ll get another unemployment check. It took me a month to get my first one.

September: ‘I’ve got it on cruise control now.’

I got ordained in July. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do — just in case I ever need it. Now I can perform weddings, baptisms and even bless your home.

I haven’t done any of that yet. But I hope to.

I’ve been able to spend more time with my kids. I’ve baked a lot of cookies. We’ve been able to swim a lot this summer.

We’ve been camping and we went to Kentucky Kingdom (an amusement park in Louisville) once and to Kentucky Down Under (an Australia-based theme park near Mammoth Cave).

The pandemic has not changed my views, but has definitely heightened my interest in politics. I am hopeful it will be a successful election for the Democrats and this nation can begin to heal from the division caused by the current president.

My main concern right now is finding some kind of normalcy again. I’m hoping some kind of cure is found soon. A lot of people are staying home all the time. And that’s good.

But when you’re in the food and beverage business, you need people coming out and enjoying themselves. After seven months, I guess I’ve got it on cruise control now.

— As told to Keith Lawrence, reporter for the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer


Out of Work in America: Navigating an unemployment crisis during a pandemic

Ronda Garmon prepares dinner inside her home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. The previous day was her husband's birthday and dinner was restaurant leftovers their daughter gifted them.

Her job was a new beginning — and then she lost it

After years of hardship, this layoff really hurt. Ronda Garmon, 50, has struggled with addiction and incarceration. She is married, with six children and five grandchildren. We first interviewed Garmon in August.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — I was born here in Grand Rapids, Mich. I had a lot of bumps in the road. My parents divorced. I didn’t handle that well. So I got into a lot of trouble, landing me in jail, which is where I completed my G.E.D. at the Kent County Correctional Facility.

I was addicted to crack cocaine for about 20 years. Fifteen to 20 years of my life, I was in and out of jail for petty crimes like retail fraud, writing bad checks, doing things to get money so that I could feed my habit.

I had to decide if I wanted to continue going to jail, to risk possibly dying from an overdose. I had to make my mind up that this is enough.

When I was in jail in 2013, the Women’s Resource Center would come in two times a week and meet with us about soft skills, communication skills and all kinds of work-related skills to get us to re-enter back into society and back into the workforce.

I stayed connected with them, and then I eventually got out and went to do volunteer work for them. And through that, working with my mentor, I landed a receptionist job there.

I was there for almost five years and then I got another opportunity to spread my wings a bit. That was with Experience Grand Rapids, which is the visitors and tourism bureau.

My job title was visitor concierge. I was the person that you see when you walk through the front door. And my responsibilities were numerous, and I enjoyed doing that work, too.

We had an amazing team. It seemed like a fairy tale because I just love being a team member where I can help people. I have a servant’s heart.

We began to pay attention to the news closely. When Covid hit and things began to change and shift, we were first sent home to work from home.

Everybody was just scared. People were growing fearful. Things just started to change every day.

At the end of March, we were pulled into a meeting, a virtual meeting, and we were notified that we would be furloughed for at least 120 days. It wasn’t guaranteed that we would all come back.

Oh my God, my heart. I still get emotional about it. I was fearful. I was afraid. I was unsure.

It was the beginning of hopelessness for me as far as finances were concerned because that was the job we were going to use to purchase a home, to save money to purchase a home.

Our life changed instantly. We had so many plans.

I’m ready to go back to work. I can’t depend on the unemployment because some people are losing it. Some people get one payment and never get another payment. I mean that could be me, and then what am I going to do?

My husband and I, we work as a team to take care of our financial responsibilities. Me without him and him without me, we just wouldn’t be able to make ends meet.

I had a conversation with my boss, and they offered me a job starting Oct. 1, so I’m excited about that. But I’m just not secure with that because I’m watching the news, and I’m watching all these outbreaks. My heart is just not saying “OK, you’re going to be OK.”

I’m really, really kind of fearful.

I am more involved in my church because I need to belong. I hate being stuck at home. I hate not being able to go to work, not so much for the money, but just for a part of my sanity.

After so much time, you’ve done all the projects at your house, so what else is there to do?

I talk to my grandkids every day. That encourages me to say, “Hey, don’t give up, keep moving. You have a legacy to leave behind for your grandbabies.”

September: Without a paycheck, no control

I’m feeling hopeful because I’ve been speaking with my employer. I’m looking forward to going back to work.

Things are going a little bit tough though, because they took away that $600 a week additional unemployment. I had to call up and say, “I’m not going back to work until Oct. 1, I don’t know when my first paycheck is going to be, I need to hold off on paying this bill right now.”

Going back to work means I don’t have to worry about if I’m going to get paid, if I’m not going to get paid, how much I’m going to get paid. I have control over what’s happening. With this, I have no control.

The election is really not my priority. I just feel like it’s a bunch of people not really being mindful of what people are really going through. It’s kind of a distraction for me to the pandemic.

I’m probably going to vote for Joe Biden. I think President Trump has made a horrible mess of things so far.

October: ‘Nothing is normal’

My first day was a lot of different things. It was emotional. I was excited. It felt good to be back.

I did feel safe back at work. I was surrounded, almost claustrophobic, with the plexiglass barriers up at my desk.

I thought a lot about the risk of losing my job again. I am putting it out of my mind because I don’t want to stress myself out with negative thoughts.

I don’t feel like the pandemic is over, because nothing is like it used to be. I’m reminded everywhere I go, every time I listen to the news. I’m reminded every time I see people wearing masks. Nothing is normal.

Oh my God, it made it so much more real to me when our president got Covid. Anybody can get it. One thing I can say is, I am glad I have not been impacted like some people. They are really, really having it hard, and I really can’t say I’m having a hard time. They’ve had to move. We haven’t had to move. We haven’t had anything shut off. It’s not like we are going without. We have plenty of food and water.

I really can’t complain.

— As told to Kayla Miller, reporter for The Grand Rapids Press


Out of Work in America: Navigating an unemployment crisis during a pandemic

Stephanie Fitzgerald, 36, spends most days applying for jobs. She has fifteen years of experience as a software engineer and has gone through multiple interviews.

Two master’s degrees but out of work

In this crisis, even advanced education isn’t a guarantee. Stephanie Fitzgerald, 36, is a software engineer in Frenchtown, Mont. She lives with her partner, who is a stay-at-home dad, and three children. We first spoke with Fitzgerald in September.

FRENCHTOWN, Mont. — I’m originally from North Carolina. I went to college in New Orleans, and when Katrina happened, I moved up here. I had my wonderful children, got a master’s degree in computer science and an M.B.A., and checked all the boxes.

When Covid hit, I was working at a small startup as a software engineer. Right at the first week of June they laid me off. It was very unexpected because they said they had gotten the payroll protection, and we weren’t to worry. And then they called me up that morning before I was supposed to come in and said, “Hey, pack up your stuff.” Getting laid off right in the middle of this whole situation is almost nightmarish.

We’ve lived in this house for six years. We were actually trying to buy our house right at the beginning of the pandemic. And so before this, I was working as a trampoline instructor, plus a software engineer, plus side jobs so we could get that extra money to buy our house. But I’m collecting boxes to move out at this point. Which is scary because I’ve never been in that situation, especially with kids. I have enough money for like a month right now. I’m getting about $425 a week on unemployment. It’s been five months now, and I had 13 job interviews this week.

I’m an upper-level engineer, and my average income would usually be between about $100,000 and $150,000, depending on what the title is. Now the positions are popping up at $65,000, which is a big cut.

As software engineers, we have to go through intensive technical interviews. Companies like Amazon take three to four months to determine where a candidate fits, and Amazon’s one of my prime potential jobs right now.

One day I even had to spend $50 to rent a conference room in a hotel because I couldn’t have a six-hour technical interview at home with my kids there.

I’m talented enough that I’m making it to the fourth and fifth round of job interviews. But every position has 200 candidates. I purposely hide that I have children sometimes, just to make sure there’s not another thing against me. Being a woman, I’m about 5 to 10 percent of the software engineer population. Which I’ve dealt with fine before, because I can compete academically and education-wise and productivity-wise. But I’ve had situations where jobs have punished me because I got a call from the school, and a lot of my counterparts don’t have to deal with that.

There are some days when an interview goes so well, and I get a call from the recruiter and they’re like, “They said you were brilliant and you were an incredibly talented person.” And there’s no negative. And I still didn’t get the job. There’s been a couple of times where I just break down because of that.

I work at Instacart and Shipt now, delivering groceries. I do about 22 hours and make about $220 a week.

It makes me feel less valued. I’m a farm girl — hard work doesn’t hurt me. But the fact that I have put so much time and investment and energy into my career and I’m having trouble, it does make me question my value.

Meals aren’t quite as nice as they used to be, because I don’t get food stamps because I don’t qualify for them — yet. So food has been a big issue. The children want things, and we just can’t do it.

I don’t have health insurance anymore, and I don’t qualify for Medicaid because my tax return last year exceeded the minimum. I’m on six heart medications every day. I was bawling at Walmart the first time I ran out and they told me how much it cost. I’ve got one that’s $600 a month. I’ve had to space that out and skip doses.

Oct. 7: ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do’

Right now I’ve got 15 active interviews going on. I counted the other day — that’s 567 applications since being laid off in June. I was hoping either a stimulus package would happen again or I would get a job before the middle of this month, and I don’t see either happening now.

We’re looking at all the options for keeping our house. I’ve even looked at short-term loan advancements. I don’t know what we’re going to do.

I’ve told every company I’ve been interviewing with I’ll move now. I’ve just got to have something at this point. It’s super depressing because I’ve been here for about 15 years now.

My kids ask me, “What’s been your favorite thing about this whole experience, what are you going to remember most about this whole experience?” And I say it’s that I got to spend more time with them. We can have those extra little conversations or do little things together.

They don’t get the benefit of the outside activities, but they do get a bit more with me. That feels good. But especially this past week, it’s been kind of hard trying to not get depressed at this point, or just apathetic.

Oct. 15: ‘I got the job!’

If I hadn’t gotten this offer, in three days we were even looking at long-term hotels. We were on the verge of technically being homeless, when I had worked so hard to not be in that position.

They gave me the call on Monday at the end of the day. I had to pause because I was so excited, and I wanted to play it cool. They were like, “What do you want the salary to be?”

It was right during the time I had to pick up the kids, so I’m sitting in line waiting to pick up my daughter, I’m super excited, and I rolled down the window and I’m like, “I got the job!” and everyone at the school said, “Yeah!” Everybody knew I had been looking so hard for one. My daughter’s teachers and her special needs case worker were out there. My daughter said, “This is the best day of my whole life.”

— As told to Lucy Tompkins, national reporter for the New York Times


Out of Work in America: Navigating an unemployment crisis during a pandemic

Nery Martinez poses in his backyard in Las Vegas Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. Martinez lost his job as a bartender in the COVID-19 shutdown ad is waiting to be called back. Martinez worked the bar in Mr Chow, a restaurant in Caesars Palace.

A couple weeks became months on end

Losing his job was bad enough. Now he’s worried about being forced out of the country. Nery Martinez, a 43-year-old immigrant from El Salvador, is among 400,000 Nevadans who were laid off when the tourism industry came to a standstill because of casino closures. His wife is also on furlough. We first spoke with Mr. Martinez in July. The interviews were conducted in Spanish and translated into English.

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — I’ve been working at Caesars Palace for six years. I’m a bartender, unemployed. I’ve been in Las Vegas for over 20 years. We closed March 14, right before they shut down the whole city. That was my last day of work. After that we received a note saying, “We’re going to be closed for a couple weeks,” but we’re still unemployed.

I’m very nervous about being laid off. The federal unemployment benefits will end soon, and missing a single check will be very hard.

We want to find work. The places we’ve visited can’t hire, because they still have furloughed employees waiting in line to get back. Places like restaurants are operating at half capacity, and they won’t hire outsiders.

My kids are worried, too, mainly because of school. How are they going to continue with online learning? How effective is it going to be?

Not only do we have to worry about a job and paying the bills, but we also have to take care of each other, because everything is different. If they don’t call me to work, I don’t know how we’re going to do it.

We saw the news talking about people who are going to lose their homes because of the pandemic. We lost ours because of the recession in 2008.

Where are we going to end up if we can’t pay for the house? We won’t be able to pay for an apartment; it’s the same cost. And with a family of five, I don’t think they’ll fit comfortably in a one-room unit.

My mother still lives in El Salvador. Before the pandemic, it was easy to send her money each month, for food or her medications. Now that we’ve had to tighten our belts, it’s been harder to send her anything.

I’m not used to being at home so long. It’s very hard, especially the first month. I felt restless, I walked around, sat and stood again. I didn’t know what to do. I felt useless.

Sometimes we watch a movie or go outside to play with the kids and our dog. I’m teaching my kids how to drive to pass the time. They, too, get very bored. They’re used to hanging out with friends and cousins, who they now only communicate with through the phone. I see them, and sometimes they just sit there, staring.

September: ‘Waiting blindly’

We are struggling to pay our bills, but thank God our health hasn’t suffered. The bar I worked at hasn’t reopened, unfortunately. We’re waiting blindly.

Sometimes one feels afflicted, desperate, because we want to work. We don’t want unemployment benefits, free money for no work. We want to feel useful. At the beginning of the pandemic, I thought we would face things as they came, but there have been some stressful weeks, such as when the additional $600 federal unemployment benefits ran out. You begin to wonder how you’re going to afford rent and electricity. There are more expenditures coming out than funds coming in.

My mother was sick recently. It wasn’t Covid-19. However, I felt desperation and agony, because I wanted to help her. My siblings and I send her money for medicine and food. It doesn’t matter if I’ve had little money, I’ve sent her what I can. I wish I could send her more, but I can’t.

Now that it’s September, it feels like we’ve already lost the year. We’re not going to accomplish any of the goals we set in January. Our dreams are now on hold. I don’t see an end to the pandemic any time soon. The only thing that might save us is a vaccine, but even then, that might not come until next year.

I had set a goal to fix my house, and I wanted to study to get a G.E.D.-equivalent degree, but all of that implies money. I have all the time in the world to accomplish that, but there’s no money.

October: ‘They want us out’

We’re still waiting. They haven’t told us how long it will be before we can return to work. Finding a new job has been difficult, especially in the resorts, which have a lot of people waiting like us.

There’s hope with the new casinos opening, such as the Virgin Hotel, where my wife used to work when it was the Hard Rock. She should be one of the first employees called back.

My unemployment benefits just expired. I’ve applied for an extension, but I don’t think I’ll receive money this week or the next.

The other sad update is that the president got a green light to end the T.P.S. program (which has allowed families who fled El Salvador and other countries to temporarily live and work legally in the United States). It’s frustrating, tacking that worry onto our current struggles.

This is another blow for my family. We’re struggling. Imagine instead of receiving help, they throw something else at us.

The courts had stopped President Trump, but now he has a green light if he wins re-election, which I hope he doesn’t.

We started at the bottom. One way or another, one must start from the bottom and climb little by little. But right now, instead of helping us, they want us out.

Thousands of families, more than 7,000 in Nevada, will be destroyed. We don’t know what we will do with our children, who are American citizens. If we take them to El Salvador, they will lose their studies. If they stay, they’ll be alone, without monetary or moral support.

We pay taxes, we contribute to the economy. We’re hard-working, law-abiding people. We do things the right way. We must keep our legal status.

My daughter, who turned 18 two days ago, educates her classmates about T.P.S. when she gets a chance. She’s very aware of what’s at stake.

I can’t vote, but I wouldn’t vote for someone who doesn’t want us here. She will cast her ballot for Joe Biden, “aportando su granito de arena” — contributing her grain of sand.

If Trump wins, we have no more hope.

— As told to Ricardo Torres-Cortez, reporter for the Las Vegas Daily Sun


Out of Work in America: Navigating an unemployment crisis during a pandemic

Evetta Applewhite was laid off from her job as an assistant at a law firm and lost the restaurant job she had been working on the side as well when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020.

Constant reinvention

Before the pandemic hit, Evetta Applewhite, 39, had steadily worked her way up to a higher hourly pay as a legal assistant trainer. We first spoke with her in July.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The day I got laid off, in March, I was supposed to have an 11 a.m. training. All of a sudden an 11 a.m. conference call popped up on my calendar instead. I knew a bunch of people were on this call because as I was dialing in, the line kept chiming: boop, boop, boop. And then the HR manager said that, due to everything that’s going on, everyone on the call was being laid off.

I just hung up the phone. I sat back and I cried. You ask the question: Why me? What am I going to do now? I was 39 years old, working as a trainer at a law firm, training legal secretaries and paralegals. I wasn’t worried about the money money will always come. But I felt like I was finally where I wanted. I used to struggle. I struggled financially I worked all types of different jobs, this, that and the other, and for a long time I still wasn’t making all the ends meet. My son was born in January 2006. I was 23 when I got pregnant and 24 when I gave birth. After my son was born, I worked at a recruiting firm making 10 bucks an hour.

But I went back to school and got my associate’s degree. I needed to improve myself that was a motivation. And knowing I had to take care of a child, that was motivation enough, as well. I got a second job bartending. I drove for Uber sometimes, too. I went from $10 to $12 to $15 an hour at the recruiting firm, and then the law firm bumped me up to $18. I was in a comfortable place, you know?

It’s emotional when I think about that, because there were times when I thought, you’re not going to make it. Then I did. Then I was torn right back down again. I hate to feel thrown away, and I felt the law firm threw me away this spring. Rent still needed to be paid. No one was hiring. My apartment complex sent out emails: “our rent is still due on the first of the month, the fifth at the latest.” As small as this place is, it’s expensive.

But who wants to go back to working two or three jobs when you have a child at home? My son is 14 and starting high school. So my path forward is to figure something else out. Before Covid-19, I did a couple catering events. I love to cook. Yesterday I did a small anniversary party for seven people, and I made Brussels sprouts and yams and Cajun salmon and summer salad, and I baked an apple peach crumble pie for dessert.

I just paid an astronomical fee for this certification I’m working on, to become a small business consultant. Everywhere I’ve ever worked, I try to make things better and more effective. So this is a way to turn that skill into a business. I posted on Facebook yesterday, and one woman already inboxed me about it.

I’m realizing that my measure of success is not a long title or a huge salary. People make you feel like you have to have the corporate title to be relevant. I just want to be happy. I want to be at peace. And I never want to be laid off from another job. Going back to a company is not for me, period.

September: ‘I started to feel like I was done’

My days are timed now. I have to stick to a strict schedule 20 minutes to do this, 30 minutes to do that because otherwise I’d go crazy. I haven’t lost my mind yet.

I’m still going to school to be a small business consultant. I’m also taking evening classes to get my real estate license. And I started working with a real estate office for a few hours each day, but I’ve been driving for Uber, too. I just told my father, “Dad, I have so much on my plate right now.” And he said, “Well, eat slow.” It’s good advice. I don’t have to do everything right this moment.

But I think I’m proving things to myself. Losing my job at the law firm did something to my ego. For a moment there, during Covid, it got really ugly: I started to feel like I was done. Those thoughts of helplessness I would hear a voice, I would actually hear it, saying “Evetta, there’s nothing else for you to do.” I don’t know if it was depression, I don’t know what it was. I think it came from being idle.

But then I imagined my child having to tell someone that his mom “was.” And I couldn’t be a past tense in his life. I realized I couldn’t have those thoughts. I found things for me to do, things to keep my mind active, and that’s where I’m at now. It’s like, instead of making money for a company and they’re saying “this is what you’re worth,” I’m finally determining my own value.

October: ‘You can figure it out’

I’m not making the amount of money that I used to. Absolutely not. But I can say I’m much happier, and I’m not stressed about it. I went into the pandemic secure in a job. I came out being secure in my own business. When I look back on this time in my life, I’m going to remember how I came out of this.

I have two consulting clients now: the real estate firm and a vegan restaurant. I’m also taking the state exam Wednesday for my real estate license. I feel as ready as I’m going to be either you know the material or you don’t. And I Uber on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays for two hours or $100, whichever comes first.

I’m not struggling to pay my bills. I saved when I was on unemployment, and there are other things I can do if I need to. Honestly, I think the economy will probably tank again at some point, but I think for now I’d be okay, because my clients are essential. Now, will I feel differently two months from now? Maybe. But believe me when I tell you I have plans “B” through “Z.” I could probably go bartend, there are plenty of bars. And don’t forget I still have my catering.

Because what else are you going to do, you know? What do you do about things you absolutely cannot change? You can sit back and give in. Or you can figure it out. I made my decision. I’m determined to make this work now.

— As told to Caitlin Dewey, reporter for The Buffalo News


Out of Work in America: Navigating an unemployment crisis during a pandemic

Anthony Lucier, 34, of Carlisle, was laid off from his job as an inventory coordinator at Bobby Rahal Toyota in June after six years. It was the first time he was unemployed since he entered the workforce as a teenager. In August, he accepted a part-time job at a state-run wine and spirits store, where he’s hoping to climb the ranks and maintain steady work.

Broken promises from one job after another

Anthony Lucier, 34, lives alone in Carlisle, Pa. He was laid off from his job as an inventory coordinator at a local Toyota dealership in June after six years. We first spoke with Lucier in July.

CARLISLE, Pa. — I worked really hard for those guys for six years. I gave them my all. I was given the old-fashioned “You stay, you put your time in, you work hard, you move up.” Then Covid happened. I was furloughed for a few weeks in March, and then we qualified for a loan. Then they brought us all back to work even though we were in the red phase of the pandemic. Near the end of that loan, I was told my position with the company was going to be eliminated. There were other positions, and I applied for all of them, but for whatever reason, I wasn’t given an opportunity to move to a different area of the business.

When I was furloughed, I was fine. It wasn’t until I was laid off where I was like, “OK, I can’t just mope around, I gotta go do something.” So I started throwing out applications everywhere. I figured, “OK, something’s bound to happen. I’m bound to get a call back.” Second week goes by: “Oh, all right.” After about the third week, that’s when I started to get concerned because I’ve never really needed a job before. That was weird. I was shocked, I was afraid, and I was out of my comfort zone. The only callback I received was from a fine wine and spirits store in York County. They hired me. I’m hoping that with time it’ll grow into something that’s more full-time, and it’ll turn out to be something that I can actually pay my bills and my rent on.

I found myself on unemployment, and that was weird. And I’m still technically on unemployment to make up for any pay that I’m not receiving compared to what I used to receive. I’m filling out web pages full of information and hopefully getting some income from the government. I think it’s great, but it is weird. I didn’t think at any point in my life that I would be here, especially in my mid-30s.

This is hypothetical, but let’s say Gov. Tom Wolf hits the newsstand tomorrow and says, “Hey, sorry. The bank’s tapped. We’re not going to be able to offer you any more unemployment.” If I get laid off again, that’s probably it for me. At that point, I’m not going to be able to pay my rent, I’m not going to be able to pay my bills. I won’t be able to make my car payment. At that point, I’m either going to be out on the street or maybe I can move back in with my parents, which is not something a guy in his 30s is looking forward to.

Unemployment is nice because it’s a safety net. I knew I wouldn't starve. But I feel like the quicker you can get off of it, the better, especially, right now, when there are millions of other

people who are also collecting unemployment. I want to make a move as quickly as possible and try to get my life back on track.

September: ‘It’s about human life’

I’ve been transferred to a store about two minutes from home. I’m still in a similar position, hoping to move up and get more hours, but I was driving an hour to York County.

I’m not real happy with the way President Trump has handled, or continues to handle, the pandemic. I think what he’s doing is hurting more than helping. First, he started with, “I built the greatest economy this country has ever known,” which is not true. And now he’s talking about bringing that back, which I think is great, but you can’t do that until you deal with the pandemic properly. And not only is he ignoring it, but he takes steps to limit and slow down testing. He continues to go to his rallies; he’s encouraging people to gather in rallies. For me, it’s about human life. There’s about 200,000 people dead, and we’re still counting.

October: ‘People are pretty angry’

Thinking about the future is challenging. As far as the job market goes, I think it’s going to be tougher than usual in some areas over the next few years, but maybe it’ll be easier in some areas with some changes. There are a lot of businesses that are doing the mobile app, the DoorDash staff.

But the thing is, I think people are already pretty angry, and they’re going to get angrier if we have to keep wearing masks. I got into a screaming match with a lady the other day. She didn’t want to wear a mask, and it’s our store policy that we can’t allow anyone into the building without a mask. If I serve somebody, I could lose my job. And people, they come in there looking for a fight. They’re angry and upset and they want to fight with someone. This lady came in and was screaming about how the Supreme Court overruled Gov. Wolf. And I had to say, “I don’t care. This is our store policy, I have to abide by it and I’m not willing to get fired for your bottle of Jameson.”

As far as the job market goes in the future, it’s hard to say. People are finding new and different ways to work around the pandemic. And some people are stuck. I’m happy I found a job; it doesn’t pay as much as I was getting and the hours are less than I was getting, but it’s something. And there’s a lot of people out there who aren’t as lucky as I am.

— As told to Aaron Kasinitz, reporter for the Harrisburg Patriot-News


Out of Work in America: Navigating an unemployment crisis during a pandemic

Barb Eckes stocked shelves at Michael's in Eau Claire on August 20, 2020.

Watching your pennies

With a few sources of income, Barbara Eckes, 61, thought she was doing pretty well financially when 2020 started. She worked part-time at a Michaels craft store, and she worked as a contractor at nursing homes giving massages. But once the pandemic started, she was down to her $327 monthly pension from service in the U.S. Army. We first spoke with Eckes in July.

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — It’s been a struggle. It’s just frustrating when you don’t know where your next dollar is going to come from.

I got furloughed the last week in March from my job at Michaels, and then I got called back in May. The massages were really my biggest source of income, and those ended March 15.

June was the first month I couldn't pay my rent. Luckily, I didn't get evicted because my landlord knew I was applying for emergency rental assistance from a local nonprofit agency. I did get charged a late fee though. Then my claim got denied and I missed my July rent payment, too.

I will be able to pay my back rent now because I finally got my unemployment last night. It was like a miracle. I was down to $60 to my name. I felt like singing.

I'm just really watching what I'm buying. I'm staying home a whole lot more because going out would mean spending money. Before, I would sometimes go out for dinner or grab an ice cream cone, but you can't do that if you don't have any money.

Even when I go to Walmart, I can't buy what I know I need because I just can't afford it. I've got three shirts I can wear to work, and that's what I wear.

I have one gentleman I worked with for almost three years who calls me nearly once a week and says, “Barb, you still can't get in? I hurt so bad. I really need a massage.”

September: ‘Slow getting back in’

I’m still working at Michaels. Sometimes I get 20 to 24 hours; this week I got 10. It’s not back to what I’d like to be working, but it’s something.

We’re getting Christmas trees in already, and I assume I’ll get more hours as we get closer to the holidays, but we just never know because we’re all part time.

I started doing a couple massages again at nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the last few weeks. That’s going OK, but it could be better. I have to wear a mask and wipe everything down when I’m done, but at least I can get into a couple more places.

It’s very slow getting back in. I know there’s Covid going around, so I understand the situation. But it’s frustrating. You’re hoping it will get more back to normal, but it looks like it’s sliding back the other way.

My financial situation is getting better, but you still know you’ve got bills to pay and you can’t just go out to eat or buy stuff because you want it. You’ve really got to watch your pennies because you just never know. Next week I might only get 10 hours again. I’d rather be safe than sorry.

I found out about the Wisconsin Rental Assistance Program, so I signed up for that to help me pay my rent. And three months later I still hadn’t heard if I was approved. They told me I didn’t put any of my tax information down, but there wasn’t even a question about how much I made last year. I got furloughed because of Covid, and I had nothing coming in.

So once my money finally came in from unemployment, then I had to put it toward my three months of late rent.

Now if I could just get back into my hobbies. I love making greeting cards. I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos on it, but I haven’t really done anything since June. I just have no ambition to do it.

October: ‘If you need anybody to work, call me’

I worked at Michaels today, and now I don’t work till Friday. I get about four and a half hours a day when I work. Once the holidays start coming around we’ll get more hours, but then in January it will drop back off to eight or nine hours a week. I tell them every day before I leave, “If you need anybody to work tomorrow, call me.”

I wish people would quit complaining and just wear their masks, and then maybe we wouldn’t have half the problem we have. It’s just something you have to live with. It is what it is. But I’ll be happy when things are kind of back to normal.

— As told to Eric Lindquist, reporter for the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram

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Investigative & Environmental Reporter

"I am a Houston native and 5th generation Texan, with a degree in journalism and minor in creative writing from the University of Texas at Austin. I care deeply about public interests and the community I serve.”

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