Money

10 Newly Unemployed People on What It's Like to Lose Your Job in a Pandemic

"Relying on a social safety net with rent relief or universal healthcare—especially in this busted-ass country—is downright unfathomable."

by Reina Sultan
May 20 2020, 2:58pm

Photos by Marlon Snape, Gabby Spear, and Jade Gomez

Despite partial re-openings in some states, New York, California, New Jersey, and Maryland are still shut down, and the unemployment rates in the United States continue to increase throughout the country. The total number of unemployment claims include (at least) an astounding 33 million people. That number is growing daily as more people are laid off.

The soaring unemployment rate has put a huge strain on a social safety net in the U.S. that was already inadequate before the COVID-19 crisis. American reliance on employer-funded health insurance means that millions lose coverage when unemployment rates increase; without universal healthcare coverage, those people will remain uninsured. Unemployment sites are crashing under the strain of record-breakingly high traffic, meaning that financial aid to newly jobless Americans with few future employment prospects has been subject to further delays and red tape. Some workers do not qualify for unemployment at all, either because of their or their spouse's immigration status, a recent move, or the type of work they do.

For those that do qualify, many report that it’s not enough to cover all of their expenses and lost benefits, especially healthcare. For others, unemployment benefits are more than they made while working, reiterating that American capitalism perpetuates a system in which employers are able to pay far less than a living wage—some businesses are contending with the uncomfortable truth that the relief bill’s $600 a week amounts to $15 an hour, which is more than twice the federal minimum wage.

Unemployment, though wrenching for those who experience it, presents itself in very different ways, dependent on a person's professional field, class, race, gender, location, and luck. VICE spoke to 10 people about their experiences navigating job loss during a global pandemic.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Some names have been withheld or altered for professional and privacy reasons.

Gabby Spear, 27, Queens, NY

Before COVID-19, I was among the 70 or so people employed as an educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. We provided tours of buildings whose histories span the Civil War period to the late 20th century. We tell the stories of immigrants, migrants, and refugees who lived there. Our tours connect struggles of the past with struggles of the present including classism, racism, ableism, immigration law, gender inequities, and gentrification. Each educator is equipped with a vast knowledge of the lived and historical context of the families we discuss, adapting tours for K–College school groups and multi-language learners.

The museum announced on March 13 that it would be closed until the end of the month. The closure is now indefinite. As employees who are front-facing part-time workers, we educators would be furloughed and only paid for hours scheduled through March 20. The museum began to make budget cuts. Within the next two weeks, we were informed that 13 full-time employees which the museum excused as a means of the institution’s survival.

We unionized almost a year prior, so we are quite lucky to have collective support. Our bargaining committee immediately created a mutual aid fund to support union members (later extended to all staff) and continued to advocate for us. However, they were in the midst of contract negotiations, which have since stalled due to COVID-19. The museum created a fundraising campaign to save the institution, but the institution has not publicly disclosed that the fundraiser will not go to supporting its workers.

Through the CARES Act, I'm actually making more money unemployed than I ever made at the Tenement Museum, which just goes to show how undervalued we were. The stimulus check has definitely helped. My roommates and I are on rent strike, which also cuts a significant expense from my budget for now.

Applying for unemployment was a terribly archaic, confusing, and annoying process. I applied for benefits the day after I was furloughed and only began receiving the benefits in direct deposits a few weeks after. It only feels like enough because, prior to COVID-19, I was working multiple part-time gigs. It's a strange relief to be more valued while unemployed than while working.

My fears about the future of my job are tied to my larger fears about the future of cultural institutions in this city. Will there even be museums to work at once the city opens for business again? Our continued efforts to receive a fair union contract are tied to the longevity of museums, in general.

As an educator who taught about the labor movement and unions in a tour called “Sweatshop Workers,” who gave a tour called “Hard Times” about financial support during economic depressions, the irony of our situation is baffling. My colleagues and I need a fair contract. We want our city, state, and federal governments to bail out and support cultural institutions. We want Governor Cuomo to cancel rent. We want to experience the same monetary benefits employed as we do now unemployed. We want transparency about the future of the Tenement Museum. We want a Tenement Museum that values its workers as much as it values profiting off of the history of the American labor movement.

Marla, 25, Philadelphia, PA

I've worked in exotic dance clubs for two years. Stripping the night shift every weekend sounds like a party, but you have to hustle hard for the money to be worth aggressive patrons, inconsistent income, and ruthless management.

Pennsylvania shuttered clubs upon the March 16 stay-at-home order, but I had already stopped working the week prior because it was clear that the risk of contracting COVID-19 in the club was only going to get worse.

In January and February, I averaged $500 per shift. In March—the beginning of the more lucrative spring season—I averaged $800 per shift. Since the club closed, I haven’t been working at all. The compensation for the essential jobs currently available is horrifically low, so I would rather stay home and count my blessings than risk my life for minimum wage. I have enough savings to get by for a few months, but unless I start receiving unemployment assistance soon, I’ll backslide into financial ruin.

Independent contractors like me have had to wait on instruction from states about when and how to apply for unemployment benefits. I recently moved from Texas to Pennsylvania, and I’m worried the move is going to cause confusion and put my eligibility in jeopardy. I waited for Pennsylvania to roll out its pandemic unemployment assistance process, but was immediately rejected from the application portal for not having worked in the state long enough. I applied in Texas last week, since that’s where I filed taxes last year. On May 11, I finally got an email from the Texas Workforce Commission that I'm eligible to receive assistance which amounts to weekly payments of $207 from the state and $600 from the federal government. I should start getting direct deposits this week. I also got the stimulus check the first week of May. It covers about half of my bare-bones monthly expenses, which are about $2,350 for rent, utilities, food, and other necessities. (Before stopping work, I also spent about $500 a month on “reinvestment expenses,” like mani/pedis, stripper outfits, and stripper shoes.)

Trying to imagine relying on a social safety net with rent relief or universal healthcare—especially in this busted-ass country—is downright unfathomable. This kind of pessimism about government help is a huge reason why dozens of sex worker–run mutual aid funds have been redistributing money since March. Normally, as a stripper, I go into work every day with a cutthroat mentality—but now I’ve spent more time connecting with other sex workers during quarantine than ever before. We’re crowdsourcing information about things like applying for unemployment and club openings. Regardless of how many of us get a stimulus check or receive unemployment benefits, we still know we are one another's best and most reliable resource.

Since the beginning of quarantine, customers have repeatedly messaged me asking to meet up in person, a service I never previously offered to them. I have the luxury of turning them down because of my current financial situation, but many of my coworkers cannot afford to miss out on the opportunity to make money. The environment is ripe for predatory customers to take advantage of out-of-work strippers, and the customers know it.

Almost all of my co-workers have transitioned into online sex work. The longer the clubs stay closed, the more reasonable creating an OnlyFans account seems. I've held off because I’m intimidated by the level of harassment cam/clip models face. At the same time, I’m terrified of going back to work in a club, even after it's allowed by the government. The customers who are champing at the bit for a lap dance are the least likely to be concerned about my health and safety.

Realistically, I’m going back to work in the club in Philadelphia as soon as it opens again. I’ll likely have to travel back to Dallas to work in June, since they’re opening faster than clubs in Philadelphia. Most likely, dancers will get together in the dressing rooms and talk among ourselves about how we should interact with customers.

Marlon Snape, 31, Silver Spring, MD

I provide high-end personalized haircare services. I opened my own studio in Montgomery County earlier this year after years of working in a horrible work environment. I had to stop working as much when schools closed in the first week of March. I was able to maintain a couple days a week while caring for my children, but my income was nothing compared to before. A few weeks later, I shut my doors when all non-essential businesses had to close.

In order to survive, I will need about $5,500 a month to cover expenses. That is easily what my revenue would have been for the two months I was out of work. I am living off of my savings. I've still been unable to file for unemployment because of the constant system overload and the phone lines being down. Online, there’s a queue-in-line method—it's similar to when you’re buying concert tickets, except, filing for benefits, there are typically thousands of people logged on at once. Accessing the site can take hours! Because I own my own business, I had to wait for guidance from the state to apply. I have not even been able to get into the system to know if I’ll be approved, so I have no clue if I’ll receive anything. I’m hoping the total will cover most of my rent. I qualify for the stimulus check, but I haven't gotten it yet. It wouldn't be enough to cover all of my monthly expenses, but would cover some, so I’m grateful.

The government could be far more helpful in making sure small businesses survive. Major restaurant chains getting disaster relief is disheartening and shameful.

This has been challenging and humbling. I have two little girls. They know we have to do our part to make sure there is a chance it doesn’t get worse, but the last thing I want them to do is worry and panic.

Mary, 24, Richmond, VA

I was a kitchen worker at a restaurant. I was going to be promoted to a shift lead, according to management, though they had been putting off my promotion since November. I didn't actually get fired. I quit because my job wasn’t doing anything to prepare for the outbreak. My spouse has taken a job as an essential employee doing aquatic maintenance (cleaning pools and surrounding areas to prevent insect breeding and other hazards), so we have some income.

I qualified for the stimulus check, and I got it. Unfortunately, it is not enough to cover my expenses. Before I stopped working, I was making about $700–$1000 every week. Rent takes about half my pay each month, and I pay car insurance, internet, food, and car maintenance.

I tried to apply for unemployment for the fourth time. The phone lines were busy—again. From what I have heard, the money being sent out is about $700 a week including VA unemployment in addition to the relief from the federal government, which is what I used to make waitressing on a slow week. It isn't enough to live on.

Physically speaking, I've actually been getting enough restful sleep for the first time in months. Without work, I finally have enough time to take up my workout regimen. Mentally, all the uncertainty has been draining, but working within my community has helped improve morale. I've been keeping busy by creating a garden, forming a tenants’ council within my complex, and making masks for others. In the afternoons, I typically apply for job listings on Indeed. I'm trying to change industries—being in restaurant service work seems to have quite a high fatality rate due to this pandemic. I loved working with food, so I'm gonna try my hand at growing produce or plants.

Mickey, 24, Queens, NY

I work part-time as a security guard and do freelance writing on the side. Before COVID-19 hit New York, I was trying to call my local security union to get security guard shifts at Citi Field in Queens, where the Mets play. During game days, I monitored gates, wanded people walking in, and made sure everything was going smoothly where I was positioned. I was making $20.61/hour for eight-hour shifts, plus overtime based on when guards were dismissed.

A few days after a scare in a shift—Citi Field revealed that a higher executive had to be tested for COVID-19—I received an email saying I was furloughed for the rest of the season because of stay-at-home orders.

I'm relying on unemployment insurance. I've been on it since November of last year due to a lack of shifts—I nearly became homeless in the winter. Unemployment and the stimulus check have been helping. I also received $1,000 from the New York Mets, which offered a $1.3 million grant for seasonal employees affected by COVID-19. Though my father, who also works at Citi Field, and I got money from it, others didn't; apparently, there wasn’t enough money to help everyone. That's bullshit, especially for many folks who’ve worked for Citi Field for over a decade.

Work isn't the only thing on my mind as I go about my days right now. My grandma has been struggling—she’s in hospice and may not have much time left to live. I cannot reach her in my hometown of Long Island because of the stay-at-home orders, especially given my selfish roommates, who choose to go out and otherwise not take these orders seriously. What has been helping me survive at this time is my friends and contacting my family when I can. Therapy has helped a lot, too, as well as watching movies I missed in the cultural zeitgeist going back to the early 1970s.

Meghan Malone, 23, Baton Rouge, LA

I worked as a bartender, server, and part-time manager in a restaurant in downtown Baton Rouge. I earned tips, and two to three days a week, I earned hourly as the closing shift manager. I was let go on March 16 due to the governor's decision to limit restaurants to take-out and delivery. My restaurant couldn't afford to keep everyone on staff to process orders, so only salaried managers were kept. I was making about $1,000 a month—maybe a little more depending on business and how many hours I worked.

I've received the $1,200 stimulus check. It's enough to cover rent for me and my girlfriend for a month, but since she didn't qualify, it's gonna be spread between the two of us. We're ironically lucky to live in a poorer state where rent is cheaper, so the check goes a little farther here than it might elsewhere.

I applied for unemployment the week after I was let go. The website to apply was very hard to navigate—to find where to even start a claim—and the phone lines have been clogged up for over a month. Filing the initial claim took around an hour and the website asked a lot of specific questions that I couldn't answer exactly; I didn't have my tax documents from last year on hand, so I had to make guesses. The IRS used my income from October 2018 to September 2019 to determine how much I would qualify for, so I had to have answers concerning work I did over a year ago, which was frustrating, because I made less money then. All throughout the process, the website reminds you if anything is wrong you could be prosecuted, denied, or fined, which just adds to the stress of filling out the claim.

I was approved for $116 a week. I make three times that when I’m working. The only thing that made it better was that unemployment started sending out an extra $600 a week from the stimulus bill. That's more money than I've ever made working.

My girlfriend and I have moved in with her parents to save money on groceries and utilities until we can go back to work. My cost of living usually comes out to around $800 a month for food, rent, and bills. Since we’re not living at our apartment, my monthly expenses have gone down to around $600 a month. We're so privileged to even have this option, but this is such a disruption to both of our lives. We had plans to move to New Orleans when our lease is up in August, but now our future is up in the air. I was going to try to go back to school in the fall, but I'm not sure if I'll be able to afford it.

I'll be able to go back to work soon, but serving and bartending isn't going to pay the bills while people are still afraid to go out in public. The uncertainty of this pandemic has really brought back my anxiety about planning and my fear of failing to be able to support myself.

Alejandra Miguel, 54, Gustine, CA

I was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and currently live in Gustine, California. Before COVID-19, I worked at a famous restaurant off of Interstate-5 for 17 years. I started off as a hostess/cashier and worked my way up to waitressing. I love it there—I love meeting and interacting with new people, and the job allowed me to do that. I also cleaned houses twice a month.

When COVID-19 became more serious, the restaurant began cutting our hours to a couple days a week to limit contact, then to three-hour days twice a week for take-out orders only. I went from 25 hours a week to six. Eventually, the owners decided to close the restaurant. Our general manager tried his best to keep it open, but, being off of I-5, a majority of our customers are travelers. Most other businesses there also closed.

I am not making any money at all. My daughters are helping me—my 24-year-old daughter moved in with me to help take over all my bills. As an undocumented immigrant, I do not qualify for any type of aid from the government. I can’t apply for unemployment; I can’t receive a stimulus check.

My anxiety and stress levels are out of control right now. I constantly worry about when the restaurant will reopen so that I can go back to work and to provide for myself again, and not depend on my daughters. I hope to keep a positive mindset and pray that my job can reopen soon. My friends and family have been very supportive and have donated to help me in this difficult time. I can’t express how grateful I am to have people that are willing to help me out through this. It’s unfortunate that during times like these immigrants to the United States can’t lean on the government for support. It would help a lot of families.

Jade Gomez, 22, Newark, NJ

I worked as a sales associate in a retail store, a sales associate for an independent designer at a large tourist spot in New York, and a dog-walker in the Financial District. I am also a freelance writer and photographer.

I was furloughed from my jobs rather suddenly. The independent designer was abruptly forced to shut down by the building owners immediately before my scheduled March 13 shift. The day after my shift at the retail store on March 16, its owners made the decision to shut down. The end of that week, the dog-walking company I worked for shut down, too. So, in one week, I was furloughed from all three of my part-time gigs.

I didn't make very much before this happened, and I actually make more on unemployment. Before I stopped working, I was making $15/hour at the job I had just started; $150 a week at my jewelry job; and $150 a week walking dogs. I'm thankful to still be living at home, and aside from food and bills, most of my prior paychecks went towards transportation costs. I am lucky to be in the position I'm in, but it's scary if the money runs out.

Because I work in New York, I have to file for unemployment there despite living in New Jersey. The site crashed a lot, and filing days were based on last name. The questions were easy enough, but you cannot save your progress, so any time the site crashed, I had to start over. It was a grating process. The site is also basically useless on Safari, Chrome, which I only found out on Twitter after it rejected my claim seven times due to browser failure. I had to download Microsoft Edge, a version of Internet Explorer that works with Macs, which finally let me file my claim. The process to file for benefits every week is easier, but the unemployment portal is not user-friendly and it takes a long time to find the right place to go.

Combined with the stimulus check, I don't have to worry. I was severely underpaid in my other jobs, so it's sad that unemployment is better than what I used to have. Right now, I need healthcare. I cannot access treatment for my depression or anxiety, or a tooth infection without going to the emergency room.

A lot of the updates I'm getting from them now focus on how quickly they want to go back to making a profit, and not enough on how they care for us as workers. I just want to make enough to survive and preferably without working three part-time jobs, which is what I was doing prior to COVID.

Veronica Salcido, 22, Long Beach, CA

I was a full-time student and marketing assistant for an online fashion brand. I worked at the company for almost two years, starting out as an intern before getting hired as an assistant. In mid-March, my hours were cut to limit the amount of people in the office. On March 20, I was notified that the physical office was closing. Most of the staff transitioned to remote work, but I was not given that opportunity. I was set to be offered a full-time position after my graduation, but, due to the tough financial situation the pandemic created, the company could no longer afford to hire me. This left me in a stressful situation—I signed a one-year lease in January because I was certain I had a secure plan after graduation, but now I can't afford rent, bills or groceries.

I received the stimulus, which helped to relieve some of the stress. I applied for unemployment benefits soon after I was without work. The process was confusing—I was unsure of the information I needed. Not many people speak openly about unemployment, so I did not know who to go to get advice. The whole process took a few hours. It was such a relief to find out I was approved. I feel a little more secure for the time being and can focus on finding a job and finishing classes.

I'm on the computer almost all day, studying for finals and job-searching. I try to distract myself, so I'm taking some online fitness classes and I schedule calls with my friends and family. Preparing meals helps me break up the day, so I spend more time preparing and eating food. The days all kind of merge together, so I’ll try anything to add some excitement.

My future is uncertain. I'm trying my best to stay up to date about what's happening in the world and in my state and adapt to whatever I have to do to make it through. I would love to find a job in my field, but I'm considering different career paths, even if they're not an ideal fit. I have to be less selective and take whatever I can get.

Many of my fellow students who lost their jobs have moved back home to stay with their families, but I'm not able to do that. Both of my parents are high-risk, and I wouldn't dare take any chance of exposing them to a potentially fatal virus. The distance is the hardest part—it feels selfish of me to prioritize my own financial situation when I know members of my family are struggling with their health.

Rhiley Crawford, 23, Phoenix, AZ

I’m a server. I made between $700–$1,100 a week before I was furloughed on March 20.

I applied for unemployment the second I found out I was furloughed. It was pretty easy, but I did have issues getting my card. It was so hard to get on the phone with Bank of America—in Arizona, you’re expected to keep your unemployment card for three years, and I was briefly unemployed two and a half years ago. After that, there were issues with the PIN, and I couldn’t use it to buy anything. Now, I go to the bank every Tuesday and withdraw the money.

That being said, financially, I’m doing fine and am trying to help others who aren’t. I’m making $840 a week on unemployment. I live with my parents, so I don’t pay rent or buy groceries. Every month, I pay my student loans, phone bill, and some debt. I’ve actually been able to almost pay off a credit card because of how much I’ve been saving.

Emotionally, it’s hard. I’ve always looked at work as something that’s helped with my depression because it gives me a routine—a reason to get up, shower, and put on makeup every day. I also work with my boyfriend—not seeing him five times a week sucks. I had this whole schedule, and all of a sudden, they just collapsed. I know it’s not as bad as other people’s situations—it’s just hard to go days without leaving my house.

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