6 Jobless Workers. 6 Different Salary Levels. Zero End in Sight.
As the $600 unemployment benefit expires, we spoke to six workers whose lost incomes range from $13,000 to $150,000-plus a year
Millions of Americans who are barely staying afloat are about to lose their lifelines. Unless the Senate acts quickly to extend the extra $600 federal weekly unemployment benefit— part of the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed in late March — it will fully expire tomorrow, cutting unemployment benefits by half or more. Republicans just proposed a drastic reduction to $200 per week, arguing that the extra benefit disincentivizes people from looking for work — and setting up a fight with Democrats who have been pushing to continue the full $600. The loss or extreme reduction of that subsidy may spell devastation for millions of Americans and cost our faltering economy an injection of billions of dollars.
As the coronavirus pandemic has hobbled entire sectors with no end in sight, nearly 30 million Americans — about one in five workers — have been laid off. The suffering is widespread but unevenly distributed: The crisis has only underscored the country’s fault lines of inequity. Women and Hispanic and Black Americans have borne the brunt of the financial catastrophe, along with younger and lower-wage employees — those who will struggle to stay afloat without federal assistance.
And as 6 million Americans signed up for food stamps and 5.4 million lost their health insurance in the midst of a pandemic, billionaires got 20% richer and executives pulled in fat bonuses and exit packages even as their companies filed for bankruptcy or laid off thousands. At the moment, the national employment rate is 11.2% — down from its May peak of 14.7 but still catastrophic.
To illuminate the spectrum of joblessness amidst a plague, we interviewed six unemployed workers around the country, at six rough levels of income, about their day-to-day lives.
Work: Housekeeper, Wharton, NJ
Lost wages: Roughly $13,000; unable to apply for unemployment
I’ve been here for 22 years. I came from Colombia to work and I’ve been a housekeeper for a long time. I used to work for a cleaning company — they were very strict. We don’t have a break; we cannot eat. And they were always rushing us to go to the next house. The pay was really bad and the company made a lot of money. I made around $12,000 a year.
About a year ago, I formed a partnership with two other people and we started working on our own. It’s not easy to get clients. We had to wait until we got one house and that person would recommend us to all her friends. We got between seven and nine clients, and we were doing a good job. We were feeling very good, very confident. I made about $250 or $300 a week maybe. Then the pandemic came and we had to stop.
Sometime in March, I got the first call from a client and she asked how I was doing, how my family was doing, and then she told me why she was canceling the work. I started to get worried, very worried. People were canceling the work. Only one person has called me twice and given me some money. Because I’ve been undocumented, I don’t have access to any resources.
Many of my friends are having a really hard time. A lot of people used to work in restaurants in the kitchen or as a waitress or waiter, and most of them are undocumented. I’m very worried about my daughter because everything has been closed, and she was working in a beauty salon.
To tell you the truth, I haven’t paid rent for three months. The landlord kept calling every month to see if I had the money. In the third month, he told me that he needed me to leave. I told him I couldn’t get another place. One day when I wasn’t home, he went to my house and threw my clothes all over. He took the food out of the fridge. He took the ACs down. And he took two doors. I felt I had to do something to protect myself. I called the police and a local news station. Later on that evening, the police came and he sent a guy to put back one of the doors.
Now, I don’t feel good. I’m scared. I lock all the doors. I have trouble sleeping well. But I don’t have an option now.
I came to have a better life here. I’ve seen a lot of changes — economically in this country, the unemployment, the rallies, all the protests. I still have hope that I can do it here, that I’m able to get my documents, that things can get better.
“Liliana” is a pseudonym due to the subject’s undocumented status.
Grant Huggins, 21
Work: Line cook, Boston, MA
Lost wages: Roughly $29,000 a year; currently receives unemployment
In March, I spiked a fever. My doctor told me I probably didn’t have Covid, but to quarantine anyway. At the end of my two weeks, my boss from the restaurant called me and was like, look, we’re just really struggling and going to bare-bones staff. I got off the phone and immediately applied for unemployment.
Luckily, I had about a month left of school, so that filled up my time. I bought a button maker and started making punk mash-up buttons. I’ve been cooking Middle Eastern-style foods — steamed pasta, tomato sauces, a lot of stews. I had grown koji on blue corn, so I made a miso with that. I haven’t had this much time to read for pleasure since I was like in elementary school — I’m probably somewhere around like 17 books.
I also started going to the protests in Boston. Addressing police violence is something I’m passionate about. I got my degree in mental health services and I’ve had internships where I got to see systematic racism firsthand; in so many situations with potentially violent people, it’s possible to call mental health professionals instead of the police. I have the ability to go to so many protests because I’m not working. I don’t know if things could have happened the way they did if we didn’t have such a high unemployment rate right now.
There is a fear of getting arrested at the protests for several reasons. Prisons have a high Covid contraction rate. And I’m transgender. I had to discuss with my roommate: I’m a trans man and if you have to come pick me up from jail, I’m going to be in a women’s prison. That added layer is something that I’ve had to think about a lot.
Not only that, but two people close to me passed away within weeks of one another. One of my best friends who had been like a brother to me since I was 15 or 16 had to have emergency surgery. The hospital was extremely understaffed. He had complications from his surgery and died after he went home. I have messages from him about just how bad his care was. His partner can’t pursue any sort of legal action because the hospital refused to do an autopsy.
And someone I had been seeing romantically was trying to get a Covid test while being asymptomatic. This was when Massachusetts was only testing those who had a narrow set of symptoms pretty early on in the pandemic, so she was alone because she was quarantining and she overdosed and passed away. On one hand, being unemployed gives me the chance to deal with it. On the other hand, I don’t have anything to distract me. It’s a very tumultuous time to be in grief.
Because I’m under 27, I’m still on my stepmother’s insurance, so that is one area that I’m doing okay. But if the $600 stimulus expires, I’ll have to go into my savings to pay rent. I’m already signing up for bike delivery work. I applied to a café near me and I’m doing odd jobs. I’m just trying to find any extra source of income, and I’m also in contact with my boss about coming back. It’s the only place I’ve ever worked where they’re like, “We’re a family here,” and I’ve actually been like, “Yeah, we are.” My goal is to find a couple part-time jobs just to make ends meet until my old job has space for me. It’s definitely teetering and no one really knows.
Ismail Farah, 57
Work: Medical lab technician, Saint Paul, MN
Lost wages: Roughly $50,000 a year; currently receives unemployment
I’m originally from Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. We had run away from our country because of the civil war in the 1990s. My mother and siblings, we fled to Kenya and ended up in a refugee camp that the United Nations set up near the city of Mombasa. We stayed for almost three years. One of my sisters was married and living in Seattle, so she filed an affidavit for us for United States immigration.
We knew English because we learned it in school, so that helped us. A lot of Somalis move to Minnesota because you can find a job here. When I came to the United States, I wanted to work in health care, so I can help people who get diseases or get sick; in the civil war, there were a lot of people who died from malaria or hepatitis. In 2005, I went to St. Paul Technical College. They have a program for becoming a medical laboratory technician. I got a bachelor’s degree, and I’ve worked at my company for the last 11 years.
Minnesota shut down when Covid-19 came. Because only a few patients were coming in, my company decided to shut the clinics. We were told to apply for unemployment insurance and when things get better we can come back. I did it right away, and within two weeks I got my unemployment insurance check.
It’s really difficult not working for almost five months. And to hear of people dying of Covid-19 — it’s hard to deal with, it’s depressing. I have two sons, 16 and 17, who live with their mom in Iowa, about five hours away. I haven’t seen them since before Covid-19, but I talk with them all the time on video calling. I’m worried about the $600. Getting less unemployment money per week, it will be tough for me to pay my bills, my child support. I’ve been preparing for a test for the American Society for Clinical Pathology certification. If I get my certification, then I can work as a medical laboratory scientist, which pays more. I spend every day checking if there are jobs, but it’s hard to get a job.
Before Covid, friends would invite 10 people to a house and we’d eat and afterward we play some music.The problem is you can’t socially distance in a big group. So now, I get together with a few friends and play the lute, mostly Somali songs. Some of my friends play the drum, some know how to sing. Also, in St. Paul, we have lakes, so I go outside and walk around the lake, while you keep your distance and wear a mask.
Jason Andrews, 38
Work: Fashion operations and project management, Paterson, NJ
Lost wages: $72,000 a year; will begin receiving unemployment when severance runs out
I was laid off on June 22. I knew it was going to happen because my company had stated back in April they were going to do layoffs due to Covid-19. They already had the severance package listed on the company portal. I was prepared.
My job was getting everything set up for market and brand activation. When the country shut down, we didn’t have any people coming to events. I had been laid off from Ralph Lauren in 2015, and I was really mad at that time. This time, I realized the world is not really in the order at the moment; this is a business. I have my good days, I have my bad days, like anybody else. But I feel like when you think negative, it breeds negativity.
I went into quarantine in the beginning of March. Originally, I thought we’ll go back to work in the office soon. In the meantime, I went back to my credit card bills to see what I was spending a lot of money on: drinks, going out with friends and co-workers, and eating out. I was taking Uber like I had stock in it. Normally, I donate my old clothes to veterans, but the donation people said we can’t take them because of Covid. So, I started selling my clothes on Poshmark. I took that money and paid off credit cards and medical bills I had. I really put myself back into a better space financially. I’m kind of obsessed with my credit score now.
My friend’s mother used to work for an unemployment agency and she told me to file for it as soon as possible, just so that I’m in the system. My unemployment is still pending because of the severance. Our health insurance ended on the 30th but we are still able to pay the employee rate through the end of August. I don’t know if I want to go back to fashion. I love it, but it’s a little unstable.
Aside from a day of voting in the primary and seeing my former co-workers, the only places I’ve been to are the post office, the supermarket, and Walgreens. At the top of my agenda every week is get a haircut because the barbershops have been closed for so long. I’ve had my fair share of being out until 4 a.m., so I can chill for a while. But I do miss family events. One of my aunts in Queens, she’ll cook any type of Jamaican dishes that you can think of: oxtails, curry goat, curry chicken, rice and peas, tripe. Everyone comes over — we just sit there, laugh, joke, eat, you know. And I do miss those.
Laura Silverman, 35
Work: Communications for a live event company, Chicago, IL
Lost wages: $100,000-plus a year; currently receives unemployment
The week I was laid off, I was in the process of canceling and rescheduling events. I was working in communications in the live entertainment industry. There were company-wide layoffs on Friday, March 20. I remember crying on the phone with my manager because it was a brand-new situation. I’d never been laid off.
At first, I was in shock. What am I going to do? I’ve never been without health insurance and we’re in a pandemic. But you can’t take it personally when 90% of the company gets laid off, especially now. I submitted my unemployment application the following Monday.
The first two weeks, I didn’t jump right back into the job search. I updated my résumé and shared it with friends and former colleagues. I did a lot of workouts. A friend gifted me a MasterClass, so I immediately started RuPaul’s class about being your authentic self.
I’ve had a job every day since I was like 16. I had a crazy work schedule and traveled a lot. Now I was able to look at it from a more positive light about what the future might hold, and also reflect on the state of our world — the Black Lives Matter protests, the political landscape, and what I learned about health insurance, all of that. I’ve been very fortunate to have a career full of amazing opportunities. I took two weeks to figure out what I wanted to do next and reflect on what I liked best — working with the communities and building relationships, working in tandem with nonprofit organizations.
Obviously, in the U.S., good health care is tied to your employment. Once I lost my job, I found it was really hard to navigate my health care options in the open market and find the best one, and I’m a college-educated adult woman. I can only imagine people without those privileges trying to navigate it. I have a lot of friends who live abroad and health care is just not a worry that they have.
I found that I needed to be busy, and I filled my schedule with workshops and webinars — networking, dream interpretation, tarot reading — some through LinkedIn learning, a bunch through CreativeMornings. I found Fairygodboss, an online platform that caters to women, and I signed up for a research affiliate course in hospitality and tourism management. There has been a weekly Zoom call with my old co-workers. I was doing first-grade math with one of my nieces once a week — that’s not anything I would have been able to be a part of otherwise. It gave me purpose.
At the beginning, I was being very strategic about the jobs I was applying for. In the last couple of weeks, knowing that the $600 benefit is likely ending, this job search has felt much harder. The extra $600 a week helps cover my rent. I don’t think I’m as excited about job searching as I was at one point. It takes a lot of work to apply for a job, and you rarely hear anything. I’m still in an okay position — I’m not going to end up on the streets, I have support from all different angles, and I have a savings account. But I’m still anxious about it. I think this pandemic has shown how fragile life and our infrastructure and our country is.
Carol Cho, 40
Work: Marketing manager for Airbnb, Berkeley, CA
Lost wages: $150,000-plus a year, currently receives unemployment
I was working on a new nine-and-a-half-year partnership with the Olympics. This was literally my dream job and dream project. We were in an industry that is like the number one impacted — no one’s traveling. Marketing is always the first to go.
Our founder Brian Chesky really tried to be as transparent as possible. At one of our all-staff meetings, they announced that there were going to be layoffs, and they were going to cover 14 weeks’ severance and health insurance for a year, which is very generous. I’ve not heard of another company doing that. I was laid off in 2008 and I had nothing. Luckily, I wasn’t married then, I didn’t have my two kids, and unemployment covered my rent in my three-or-four-roommate New York City apartment. Now, I’m the primary breadwinner in the family and living in a pricey city.
I still didn’t think I was going to be impacted because I had been there for five years. But they wound up laying off 25% of the company and I think it was even double that in marketing. My old manager gave me the news. I just froze. I was numb for the next three days.
Airbnb has a really strong community. We all love each other. And I knew I was losing that. Working from home for two months, you feel like you’re on an island by yourself and trying to grasp for the buoy. I asked my new manager for a recommendation that day, and she said, uh, the fact that you could think of that right now is so crazy.
Team members started a Slack channel and we would invite people as we found out they were laid off. Oddly, I felt comforted that I’m in such good company because you’re one in a thousand among those laid off at Airbnb. Then you hear that it’s millions of people within the United States laid off — it puts things into perspective. I feel very, very lucky for my severance package. At the same time, you were hearing about all the big Bay Area companies laying off, and all these senior marketers are looking for jobs.
It’s a real change. I was the parent who was giving my kids frozen meals from Trader Joe’s because I didn’t have the time to cook. And look at me now, baking bread, growing my own vegetables. I started sewing face masks and sending them to friends in New York at the height of it. I was the person who defined myself by my work; sometimes I would see my kids for two or three hours a day. I really hope whatever my next adventure is that I’ll continue to prioritize family time. There are some huge lessons and gifts throughout this challenging process, you know?
There was definitely a grief process. It wasn’t just about losing a job. There were thousands of people dying. And a huge social justice movement — the horrendous death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor. It’s a lot. This grief process, it’s so different from any other unemployment — 2008, 9/11. It was just heartache after heartache.
You started to see these headlines of people waiting for hours and hours to get their payment. People are getting kicked out of their houses. Millions losing their health insurance. And the cases of Covid that swept through families. It made me realize, not that I’ve got it easy, but I can navigate mobile banking. I have my health. I have time to continue to pay off my bills and find something new, and not many people have that.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.