The Agonizing Purgatory of Waiting to Have a Job Again

They might be going back to work, or they might not. Why furloughed workers embody the uncertainty of the next phase of the pandemic.

You know the world is deeply off-kilter when it’s considered an act of compassionate mercy for a CEO to temporarily kick thousands of workers off of the company’s payroll. But that’s where America found itself in late-March, as major chain stores including Macy’s, Kohl’s, The Gap, and T.J. Maxx told the majority of their workforces to stay home indefinitely, without pay, so workers could collect unemployment. The workers weren’t fired — a furlough is an employer-mandated unpaid leave — but few had any guess of when they’d be able to earn their next paycheck.

Within a few days, nearly 1 million workers were furloughed in retail alone. The next wave of furloughs soon hit the hospitality industry, media outlets, and airlines. Even hospitals, where the coronavirus displaced routine surgeries and care, started sending health workers home in good faith they would soon return.

The human toll of the current economic crisis is already so cataclysmic we’ve virtually lost all measurements to truly comprehend the scale. Over the past seven weeks, more than 33 million people have applied for unemployment — far more than the entire population of Texas. Weekly unemployment claims are well over five times higher than the worst days of the Great Recession. These claims don’t include people in the U.S. who don’t qualify for benefits, have dropped out of the workforce, or otherwise fall through the cracks of a system notorious for failing those who need help most.

Nobody knows precisely how many of those unemployment claims are for workers who could return to their job on the other side of this pandemic. In theory, these furloughs are a bright spot, giving workers a path forward once the threat of the virus is gone. They allow many workers to stay on their employer’s health insurance and collect unemployment for a set length of time. Having an experienced workforce available to reopen a business is better for everyone all around, says Heidi Shierholz, director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute and former chief economist at the Department of Labor under the Obama administration. It benefits businesses, workers, and the broader economy.

The reality of the crisis, however, is that the vast majority of Americans are experiencing multiple identity-defining traumas at once. The threat of a deadly and highly contagious virus is already anxiety-inducing; add on top of this the stress and agony of losing your job, worrying your industry may disappear, or watching your life goals snuffed out.

Jason Abbott, a 45-year-old living in Maine, worked within the IT department at a nonprofit mental health company before he was furloughed in early April. He says he’s not holding out hope that his bosses will call him back to work anytime soon, if ever again. The news stung especially hard, Abbott said, after he’d hustled for weeks to transition the company’s employees into remote work life. Now it’s unclear when any of them will return to their traditional office setting. Workers like him must now gauge whether a furlough merely delays the inevitable—a full-fledged job loss.

“Do you want to see the iceberg coming for you, or do you just want to know when it hits?” Abbott said. “Neither is a good situation, but they are distinct flavors of dread.”

Furloughed workers occupy a strange purgatory where the barometer fluctuates between hope and existential dread. Workers remain attached to their jobs, and many receive stopgap assistance in the interim. But most of those benefits — health care, unemployment insurance, job security — aren’t promised to workers indefinitely. They hinge on the blind optimism the U.S. will be prepared to safely reopen within months. By some estimates, that recovery period will be closer to a year, maybe even two. Nothing from our lifetime can adequately model what a post-pandemic future may hold. “Economic predictions on anything are laced in uncertainty even in the best of times,” Shierholz said. “It’s really hard to know how things are going to unfold.”

The concert halls, sports arenas, and tourist attractions that once-offered the highlights of our lives now seem almost unimaginable in this new world order. More than 57,000 people flood the Walt Disney World theme parks in Orlando on an average day. The company closed the gates of the Magical Kingdom in mid-March and furloughed more than 70,000 theme park and hotel workers weeks later. Now it’s unclear what any possible timeline may look like before the U.S. has figured out how to convene crowds safely. Even if the theme parks were to open at half capacity, the number of visitors would still rival the residency of some small towns.

Kim Hanley, who coordinates the custodial work at the Animal Kingdom, says she’s still trying to wrap her head around what social distancing at a theme park could look like. Any reopening plan would have a significant impact on her team, sanitizing attractions that were never designed with fears of a global pandemic in mind. From the way the lines snake back and forth, to the tight rows of seats on rides, much of the old ways of doing business will need to be reimagined. Hanley says going back to work someday is certainly doable, but the level of uncertainty undermines any plans for the future. “Honestly, it won’t be anytime soon,” she said.

Organizations anxious to return to normal have had a rose-tinted perspective on the recovery. The Broadway League, the trade association of theatre owners and producers, said they were “hopeful” that statewide shelter-in-place restrictions would be lifted as early as June 7. (Officially, New York State is on “pause” through May 15, at which time certain businesses could potentially be reopened by the governor.) This optimistic start date belied the unspoken truth few were willing to say out loud: Crowded New York institutions can’t simply will their way into a rebound. As Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the newly anointed father figure of the coronavirus response, deadpanned during an April 8 news conference from the New York state capitol: “I wouldn’t use what Broadway thinks as a barometer of anything.”

Furloughed workers occupy a strange purgatory where the barometer fluctuates between hope and existential dread.

Even the most die-hard theater fans seem wary of returning to the stage. Katie Roscher saw her first Broadway show at eight years old and had her first gig in the theatre by the time she was 19. Before being furloughed from her Broadway marketing job in April, she saw upwards of 60 shows a year and regularly attended post-show events for work. Now the idea of sitting down for a live performance seems almost impossible in the current climate. “It would take a vaccine for the virus for me to feel 100% safe about going back into the theater,” she said.

The next few months will be the ultimate test for whether companies were overly optimistic, or willfully ignorant, of the existing realities. Many employers likely had every intention of returning to work by the beginning of May or June. After all, the president of the United States promised in late March that the country would reopen by Easter. But for industries that rely on people packed in close quarters, those timelines feel untenable.

The gaps between hope, expectations, and reality are forcing people to decide between the lesser of two evils: stick it out until the world reopens, or look for another job. Walking away means abandoning job security, and in some cases, pivoting a career path amid an economic downturn.

“I’ve worked in theater my entire career,” Roscher said. “Now I’m in a tough place. I’ve just never worked in another industry.” While being notified of her furlough, Roscher, 32, recalled how she was sitting on the same couch in her apartment almost five years to the date that she got her initial job offer with the company; she’d been negotiating a title promotion for the last six months leading up to the pandemic. If Roscher doesn’t return to work before her health insurance runs out by late July, she’ll have to decide whether she needs to proactively walk away from everything she’s built up in her career.

The global pandemic may turn out to be the final death knell for industries that were bleeding out even before the outbreak. If 2019 marked the great media apocalypse, when more than 3,000 journalists lost their jobs, then the last three months have descended the industry into hell. The New York Times estimates as many as 36,000 journalists have been furloughed, laid off, or took pay cuts since the beginning of March.

The pandemic exposes how there is little meritocracy with job security in media. Joe Sonka, a political reporter at the Courier Journal in Kentucky, found out he won a Pulitzer this week while he was out on unpaid furlough. Before the Baltimore Sun took home their prize, the newsroom had voted for pay cuts to offset threats of layoffs. Nicole Taylor, the former executive food editor of Thrillist, celebrated her two James Beard nominations one month after she was formally laid off.

The gaps between hope, expectation, and reality are forcing people to decide between the lesser of two evils: stick it out until the world reopens, or look for another job.

Poynter’s Kristen Hare keeps a running tally of newsrooms ravaged by the pandemic, with more than a hundred outlets ranging from print newspapers to alt-weeklies to digital sites hit by the sudden economic downturn, the outlook for media is dire. The future is especially opaque for journalists who typically cover live events, food, or travel — topics that don’t easily lend themselves to social distancing restrictions. (The New York Times recently announced it would be pausing the print edition of its Travel and Sports sections.) Alex Kirshner, 25, a reporter at SBNation who covers college sports, was among the 9% of journalists furloughed from his site’s parent company, Vox Media. While sports journalism will almost certainly change in whatever the post-Covid-19 era brings, Kirshner says he and his fellow furloughed colleagues are taking time off of work to write a book. Now, more than ever, they’re thankful that they were able to unionize Vox newsrooms last year ahead of this pandemic.

“You want that umbrella in case it rains,” Kirshner said, crediting the Vox Union for providing that cover. “It’s obviously pouring right now.”

For a glimpse into all the ways the system is failing workers, just look to the archaic and overburdened unemployment system. State-run websites have routinely locked people out of applying for insurance. Tech glitches have overwhelmed the process in other states, where sites rely on code developed more than two generations ago. If callers were ever successful in making through to talk to an actual person, they faced barrier after barrier in getting approved, let alone paid.

Julia Gomez-Garcia, 54, worked as a housekeeper at a Hilton Hotel chain in Florida before she was furloughed last month. Like the more than 1 million workers who started flooding the state’s unemployment insurance system all at once, Gomez-Garcia was told repeatedly that her claim was still pending, but had little more information to work with. Then, after five weeks of waiting, pestering, and hitting dead ends, Gomez-Garcia heard back from the agency: She was denied unemployment, no explanation given. There’s no end date to her furlough or indication of when she’ll be able to return to work and provide for her family. “I don’t know what to do,” Gomez-Garcia said while sobbing through tears. “I don’t have the strength to keep on going.”

There’s a countdown clock ticking at the back of the furloughed worker’s mind. While many say their furloughs are open-ended, with no set date for when to expect their next paycheck, there is a firm timeline for when their safety net is pulled out from under them. Benefits like unemployment insurance and employer health care are tied to arbitrary end dates that so far run a parallel track from the reality on the ground. The first waves of furloughed workers are treading water for now, but unless there are dramatic shifts by mid-summer, they’ll soon be drowning.

“Most Disney cast members live paycheck to paycheck,” Hanley, the custodial coordinator at the Animal Kingdom, said. “They’re thinking about today, not tomorrow.”

Editor/writer. Words in GEN, The Atlantic, Glamour, The Intercept, MSNBC, NBC News, NYT, Vice, Vox, and more.

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