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The Pain of Pandemic-Induced Unemployment in America Is Brutal and Unceasing

The lack of long-term economic aid for unemployed workers has meant that incredible amounts of suffering are everywhere in America right now. We talked to unemployed workers to hear their stories in their own words.

Roughly twelve million workers will lose their benefits as a result of stimulus programs expiring. (Marcin Jazwiak / Unsplash)

“Life is just very hard right now. And you can sit there from afar and tell me everything I should be doing differently. You don’t know how hard it is.”

Nicole (a pseudonym) lost her job as a restaurant server in Detroit in March. “I was at work and my manager just told me to go home,” she told me. “Having never been through anything like this, I thought I would get called back to work maybe the next day, or in a couple days or something. I had no idea what we were all in for.”

She was already in a difficult living situation. Nicole and her four-year-old daughter live with her abusive, alcoholic boyfriend. The money she had been saving before the pandemic for her and her daughter to get their own place is now gone.

And she was diagnosed with epilepsy this summer. A trip to the ER after her first seizure has saddled her with $1,200 worth of medical bills.

“I’m useless. And I’m failing. I don’t work. I’m poor,” she said.

Since the coronavirus pandemic took off in March, the United States has experienced a mass unemployment crisis. For thirty-seven weeks straight, the num­ber of new US job­less claims has been higher than any oth­er time since the Depart­ment of Labor start­ed keep­ing track in 1967. Though the number of new weekly claims has come down from the spring peak, it has plateaued at a level that is still higher than the pre­vi­ous record (665,000 dur­ing the Great Reces­sion).

A set of stimulus bills in the spring kept tens of millions of people like Nicole afloat through direct cash payments and expanded benefits. Among the most important provisions of the largest stimulus bill, the CARES Act, was an extra $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits. This benefit supplemented the paltry amount paid by states (on average $318 per week, and in some states much less). But it expired in July, and loss of the extra $600 has led to a massive increase in “financial fragility” among the unemployed. According to CNBC:

Unemployed workers roughly doubled their liquid savings between March and July, when they were receiving the $600-a-week unemployment boost, according to a paper published last month by the JPMorgan Chase Institute. However, they spent two-thirds of that savings in August alone, suggesting savings might soon be depleted absent additional relief.

The share of unemployed workers unable to pay their bills on time doubled to 22 percent between August and October, according to the researchers. Further, 29 percent of unemployed workers were spending more than their household income in October, up from 19 percent in August. Nearly half lack short-term savings, up from 38 percent two months earlier.

Now the second shoe is about to drop. More than twelve million people collecting unemployment benefits will lose their benefits the day after Christmas, just in time to face COVID spikes, more shuttered businesses, and a cold winter.

Two programs from the CARES Act are set to expire at the end of the month: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which provides benefits to workers not usually eligible for traditional unemployment (like gig and contract workers, and those unable to work because they are caring for children); and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program, providing thirteen additional weeks beyond state aid (which typically last up to six months).

Roughly twelve million workers will lose their benefits as a result of these programs expiring, and another four million will have already exhausted their CARES Act benefits before this cutoff, for a total of more than sixteen million workers losing their benefits by year’s end. At the same time, the federal evictions moratorium and student loan forbearance are also expiring.

The millions of people who have been kicked to the curb due government inaction are not just numbers. They are real people, and they are suffering.

“I just don’t understand,” Nicole told me, “why we got $1,200 right in the beginning, when we thought this was going to be going away soon. And now that it hasn’t, we haven’t gotten anything else. I don’t understand what they think we needed money for then, that we wouldn’t need money for now.”

A Bare Horizon

Having received no direct payments nor enhanced unemployment since the summer, and with few employment prospects on the horizon, desperate situations like Nicole’s are common. She was first laid off in March. Eventually her restaurant reopened at a much-reduced capacity with an equally reduced take-home pay. A few weeks ago, the restaurant closed again.

Discovering she has epilepsy is taking a mental and financial toll — a toll compounded by the stress of raising a four-year-old daughter in a home with an alcoholic boyfriend who she says has tried to strangle her in the middle of the night, throws things at her, pees around the house, and screams at her that she’s useless in front of her child.

Her savings are gone. Her credit is shot. And at the time I spoke with her, she had $300 to last her and her daughter for the next two weeks.

They keep calling from the hospital for me to pay $1,200 in emergency bills that I can’t pay. Why are hospitals still calling me for my emergency bill during a pandemic? Then there’s just little things that add up, like my passenger side window wouldn’t roll up. That was $175 to get fixed. I had two nails in one tire and nail and the other tire, they were both flat. That ended up costing $150 to get all of that replaced. Just little daily things that I could budget for in a normal year are monumentally devastating when it all adds up and you only get a few hundred dollars a week.

And you still have to pay your rent with it. And you still have to pay your car insurance. And your car payment, and buy food, and all this stuff.

I have hospital bills now I have to pay, I have back bills that I have to pay, and stupid credit card bills that I could easily afford last year. I’m not paying them now because I’d rather pay for my car payment. I wasn’t living outside my means before, but just now I’d rather save all the money and worry about that later.

It’s just very frustrating. I’m a real person and I am scared. I am physically and emotionally hurt constantly. And I was almost out. Now I have no money, no savings, past bills, a much lower credit score. This is affecting my life today and my future tomorrow. When I save up money to leave, how bad will my credit have gotten? Will I ever be able to leave?

Nicole is far from alone. At the beginning of the crisis, the economic shock to the system was so great that politicians of both parties passed “the most generous welfare state in our ungenerous history.” To not have done so would have unleashed complete social and economic turmoil. But once the initial calamity was blunted, politics as usual returned to Capitol Hill.

The Republicans offered a “return to normalcy” through reopening states, maskless parties, and conspiracy theories. The Democrats, in turn, responded with no particular vision or strategy apart from telling people to wear masks and stay home (without pay). After countless negotiations in Congress failed to extend economic relief, millions of people were thrown into poverty, “food insecurity,” and potential evictions. With no jobs or adequate benefits on the horizon, other unemployed people I spoke to painted a bleak and discouraging picture of their future.

Ben, twenty-seven, was working as an assistant manager at a hotel in West Virginia, making $39,000 a year. Now he has a part-time job at a local music shop making $9 an hour, fourteen hours a week. While he was receiving $600 per week in enhanced unemployment benefits, he was able to pay his bills and put some extra cash away.

“Now I’ve exhausted all that money, because it was only a temporary extension of benefit,” he told me. “And now I’m back to almost $300 a month car payment, $550 house payments, plus utilities.”

Ben is selling his possessions to make rent: his guitars (he’s a musician), his television. “After I burn through that stuff, I would say I have another three months in my current home if there’s no further assistance.”

He’s applied to over two hundred jobs. “Honestly,” he explains, “it’s demoralizing. At this point, I built my career on hospitality. I even had an education. And everything I would normally apply for isn’t there.” A lot of the job applications come back with a response indicating that he wasn’t selected for an interview.

“But the worst and most troubling,” Ben says, “is I have jobs from April, May, June, July, where they haven’t even looked at my application. I can accept the applications that were denied, but the fact that my application hasn’t even been reviewed, what are you supposed to do with that?” After many months of searching, Ben finally got a job lead through a friend in December.

With no jobs or adequate benefits on the horizon, many unemployed people feel discouraged about their future. (Unsplash)

Brian, too, told me, “I’m at a point where I just feel defeated.” He is twenty-nine and had finally landed a job he really liked at the end of 2017, managing audio-visual operations at a casino in Maryland. And he was good at it. “Basically, anything with power, if you plug it in, I was probably involved in some way.” Then Brian, along with the rest of his crew, were suddenly laid off this spring.

He spent the first two months of unemployment in a bureaucratic purgatory, because the company that he worked for had filed their taxes in a different state. During that time, he received no pay at all and spent most of his savings to cover rent. He made hundreds of phone calls in those months. “I would put on my headphones and take my dog for a walk. We’d walk for an hour and I would see how many calls I could get in. That was every day trying to get a hold of literally anyone and never getting any answers.”

By the time he was approved, there was so little money left in the benefits fund that the state informed him they would pay him only half the lump sum he was owed. “They told me: We’re paying you this part. And then we’re moving on.” Once he began receiving unemployment benefits, including the $600 extra per week, he was “good for a while.” He managed to break even.

But when that dropped off, then it just went back downhill. That’s when the bank accounts started getting real low. And the bills just start going on the credit cards unfortunately. I have a lovely dog who is my life, but is getting older and she’s had some vet issues during this time too. So those bills have been piling up.

I cut back on meals, decided to go back to two meals a day. I do a late breakfast, an early dinner, just call it a day at that. A little cheaper that way. A lot of cereal, a lot of pasta, honestly garbage food, but just to get by. At one point, I lost about 10 pounds, but I’ve started gaining that back, thanks to some neighbors and just trying to get more protein and rice, just anything.

At the end of November, Brian packed up his things and put them into storage to move back in with his parents. “They’re not any better off than I am actually, they’re quite worse.” Brian’s mom is a substitute teacher in North Carolina. At first she was not approved for benefits. Eventually, she qualified for $68 a week. “It’s a joke. So I’ve had to loan her about $1,000 throughout this pandemic, not that I have it, but I had some money in my bank account. And debt that I ignore.”

“I’m not feeling good about it,” Brian explains to me.

I love them dearly. But they’re also older. So I don’t feel good about putting them at risk. They argue all the time about everything. It drives me up a wall. That’s why I moved out immediately when I was eighteen and have never been back. It’s gonna be weird. Definitely. Throwing all my stuff into a storage unit is very weird. I’m bringing up one suitcase, my computer with me, just so I can function day-to-day. And it’ll be good in terms of food. We’ll be able to combine our money together for food.

The Hardship — and the Hope — of Childcare

The pandemic has hit parents particularly hard. With many schools and child care centers closed, unmet childcare needs have forced many parents, and mothers in particular, out of the workforce. Parents have had to weather the pandemic while also bearing the economic and emotional responsibility of caring for their children. Instead of receiving childcare support, parents now have the added burden of homeschooling their children when they are not able to be in school.

Michelle, forty, is a single mom in Illinois. She first moved back in with her parents ten years ago when her son was born, to get some support while she was in school for social work and had to complete thousands of hours of unpaid internships as part of the program.

At the time the pandemic hit, she had been working as a therapist at a day program for people with mental illness and intellectual disabilities. On March 6, her mother died after a very sudden and brief illness. “She was seventy-four, but she was still working full time. She got sick with what we initially thought was the flu. In retrospect, we wonder if it was COVID. But we don’t have any answers about that.”

Michelle returned to work the following Tuesday, just four days after her mother passed away. She had already taken a lot of time off of work, to take care of her son when her mother was in the hospital and help her father handle the end-of-life decisions, and she didn’t feel like she could request any more time.

Nine-year-old student attends school remotely from home. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

Less than a week later, the state mandated that the day center would be closed. Michelle and the other therapists that worked there were then required to go into the clients’ homes, primarily group homes.

“The pandemic was so new and research was emerging,” Michele explained. “There were too many of us in there at certain times. I just lost my mother, my dad is sixty-nine with underlying health conditions. I myself have asthma and rheumatoid arthritis, I have a compromised immune system. I was more concerned for my dad being sixty-nine and just losing my mom. But I was still willing to work.”

A few days later, that proved even more difficult. Now her son’s school went fully remote. In the early days of remote learning, this involved being online for just an hour a day. The rest of that time, her ten year old son was home with her father.

It started to come to my awareness that while I was at work, my dad was essentially sleeping all day, and just crying, and the normal grieving process after losing your wife for forty-three years. But my son had also lost his grandmother that he had lived with as long as he could remember. And his mental health was obviously imperative to me, and he was suffering.

Long story short, I had to make the decision to not only protect my father’s health, but my son’s mental health. I couldn’t go to work all day and leave him sitting there playing on his iPad, while my dad’s crying downstairs, and then I come home and make dinner. And my dad’s crying at the dinner table. So I had to leave my job.

Because Michelle was unable to work due to childcare responsibilities, she was eligible for PUA benefits. However, Illinois stipulates that you can only apply for PUA once you have applied for regular benefits and been denied. But when Michelle applied for regular benefits, she was approved, and indeed received traditional unemployment for six months.

Once she was finally denied traditional unemployment benefits and told to apply for PUA, she received a bill for the six months of unemployment payments that she had already received: $16,000. “That is terrifying,” Michelle said, “as someone who’s unemployed and has $100 in my bank account.”

The added layer of my mom passing away and having to be in a kind of super quarantine where we don’t really see anyone weighs on us. My son has not been able to see any of his friends since March. There are days he just cries himself to sleep.

I hide in my room from my son and cry while trying to put on a happy face because his life has also been turned upside down. I think I’m reaching my breaking point with this. Sometimes I just feel like I’m drowning.

Nicole explained apologetically that “parenting is like the one thing I think I’m doing that is giving me purpose, and getting me out of bed. Maybe that makes me sound like a lazy, unemployed person.” She recently reached out to organizations to try to get her and her daughter involved in volunteer work. She wants her daughter to understand that others are even less fortunate.

She’s a very good girl. If we have to go grocery shopping and I don’t have extra money, she’ll just show me things and say, “Oh but I know we’re not getting it. I just wanted to show you, but I know we’re not getting it.”

As far as Christmas goes, I know that as long as we’ll be healthy, we’ll be fine. And she’ll be happy no matter what, because I’m just trying to raise her like that. I haven’t lost anybody due to COVID yet, so Christmas will be fine. As long as it stays like that. I’m just worried about the rest of my life, like what’s going to happen to us after Christmas?

Dreams Deferred

Young workers, who have barely healed from the economic impact of the Great Recession, are among those most impacted by the crisis today. According to Morning Consult: “Ever since millennials hit adulthood — scarred by a flailing job market following the 2008 financial crisis and laden with record amounts of student debt — the generation has struggled to accumulate wealth, start families and settle into their own homes.” Now millennials are bearing both the brunt of pandemic-induced layoffs, and the scarcity of savings from the past decade.

Julia is twenty-seven. She worked her way up to being a bartender for the last four years while also attending San Francisco State University. She had finally gotten the hours she wanted, working nights. She graduated with two degrees, one in anthropology and one in cinema. Her goal was to become a production assistant and bartend on the side.

Julia, an ex-bartender in San Jose, has been jobless for eight months.

“Obviously, that’s all gone,” she told me. “So my whole plan is gone for the future right now.

Like many others, Julia was able to subsist and pay rent and bills while enhanced federal benefits were being disbursed. Now without the extra $600 weekly, her benefits have dropped to $120 after taxes. She moved back home with her mom, who’s at high risk for COVID. This meant that once her bar reopened, she didn’t feel it was safe to go back and endanger her mother. Social distancing protocols weren’t in place there. “Everything was a mess. It was a really half-assed plan to get reopened.”

So the last eight months have been extremely stressful, obviously. I had a couple of mental breakdowns. I’m not trying to be dramatic. I just like, lost my shit. I went to a mental hospital and I got on antidepressants.

It’s been hard having hope that there’s going to be an economic stimulus, something passed, and they go into talks and then nothing will happen. Or the HEROES Act was sitting in the Senate since May. I had so much hope that by the end of July, there’d be something. Then just by August there would be something. Then okay, yeah definitely by September. Definitely before the election.

Julia has applied to over a hundred jobs. “I look for work every week, but no one is hiring. And no one, no one — they don’t respond at all.”

Brock (also a pseudonym) is thirty-two and recently moved to San Francisco with his partner. He took the opportunity of the move to change course. He quit his advertising job and found a job in San Francisco working live events like conventions and product launches. He was excited to land a job and a career path that really suited him. Now he’s been furloughed since June. With much of the city shuttered, no job, and without any friends in a new town, Brock says there isn’t much to do.

The initial California state benefits ran out. Now he is receiving pandemic assistance through the PEUC, which is set to expire at the end of the year. California participates in a program called the Federal-State Extended Duration, a twenty week extension of benefits. But Brock has gotten no clear answers about whether he’ll qualify for it. “The entire process is so confusing,” he told me.

People wait in line to receive food donated by SOMOS, in partnership with World Central Kitchen and Maestro Cares Foundation, on May 11, 2020 in the Elmhurst neighborhood of Queens in New York City. Stephanie Keith / Getty

The California unemployment office is so overwhelmed with requests, that it’s impossible to get through to speak with anybody. Brock said he has submitted countless inquiries since the summer and no one has ever gotten back to him. “The Reddit unemployment thread [r/Unemployment] is my only source of information. And I don’t understand how they can mess this up so badly, to just not provide information to people.”

After applying to “at least a hundred” jobs on LinkedIn, he’s heard nothing. “Not gotten one phone call back, no leads, nothing.” He’s trying to hold on to hope that the company he worked for will keep him on furlough and eventually bring him back. “But why would they bring me back? There are no events happening.” Perhaps the live event world will go back to normal by late 2021 he muses, but how will he survive until then? After finally landing his dream career, he is now back to square one. Performing on OnlyFans, the adult social media site with paid subscribers, is the only thing keeping him afloat besides unemployment checks.

Every once in a while I just have these moments where I’m like, “What the fuck am I doing? I have a college degree. I worked for ten years. What is happening right now?”

The hardest part has been thinking about the long-term effects in my life. I had a five year plan. I had found my career. I was going to get married, I was gonna have a house. The next five to ten years of my life have been totally derailed.

Congress Must Act. Now.

Each of the over a dozen people I spoke to had a different set of circumstances and their own story of survival. But they were unanimous when asked what they thought congressional lawmakers needed to hear: Do something. Do it now.

Aggressive measures are needed. Direct cash assistance to individuals, renewed supplemental federal unemployment benefits, the extension of PUA and PEUC benefits, aid to faltering state budgets should be the minimum. But rental supports, eviction moratoriums, debt relief, and childcare supports are also important.

“Normal solutions aren’t realistic right now,” Nicole argued. “This isn’t a normal situation.”

At the same time, everyone I spoke to had harsh words for the kind of politicking in Washington that resulted in a pre-election game of chicken and ultimately no deal reached for continued economic relief. “I am filled with rage,” Brock told me, “when I think about the fact that congress has been working on the stimulus package since June, and they’re just not able to come to an agreement.”

It’s just such an embarrassment and a disappointment to be let down by our government like this. I’ve never experienced anything to be this upset by, to be this let down by the government. Most politicians are rich, and their five-year plans really haven’t had to change. They can go on with their lives and still pay for their kids’ colleges, still get to have their second property. So I would just plead with them to think about the millions and millions of people whose lives have been totally uprooted by this.

They were elected into a public office to represent the people of the country and they have to work nights and weekends. And holidays and skip Christmas. Remember when they went on recess in August for four weeks?  You don’t get to do that. You don’t get to just fly to your second home in Florida and take a week off. That’s what kills me the most. This is a nine-to-five issue for them. This is my whole world. I’m just sitting here every day waiting for them to come up with a solution. And they’re clocking out.

Julia has called her state senators repeatedly. “I always say the same thing: Can you fight for this? Can we pass something? And I have faith in none of them. I don’t really think they give like a shit about me or anyone. I think they’re just playing a political game.” She wishes they could put themselves in other people’s shoes. “There are people living in their cars right now, or living on the street. But I don’t really know what to say to politicians any more. Because I just have no faith in them.”

If unemployment benefits dry up and eviction moratoriums are not renewed, tens of millions of people will be in danger of homelessness in the midst of a cold winter and spiking rates of  COVID infections. Those lucky enough to keep their homes may have to give up consistent food or desperately needed health care. We can’t afford to wait any longer for economic relief. And it may do us little good to have a bill so pared down that most of the needed benefits are no longer in it. As the Century Foundation put it: “The stakes are simply too high.”

Ben explained:

The virus is a huge problem. But that’s not the core of why we are where we are right now. I think it all comes down to a lack of interest in genuinely trying to help people. Leadership on both sides of the aisle are all about maintaining power. And I guess my hope would be to look past your own professional careers in Congress, actually re-engage with your constituents. Otherwise, you’re really closing your eyes to an oncoming revolution.