Unemployment
Graphic via Desirée Tapia for COURIER

The latest jobless claims report shows the number of applications are inching back up again. We spoke to people around the country about what life is like unemployed in a pandemic.

Leah Cathers can’t leave her house without people approaching to ask when the theater will reopen. Even with a mask covering half her face, the residents of Plattsburgh, New York, recognize her as the manager of their local, independent movie theater. 

It could be her red hair they notice. But the 12-screen theater she runs is also a fixture in this upstate town just across Lake Champlain from Burlington, Vermont, and a 30-minute drive from the Canadian border. And it’s been shuttered since mid-March.

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“I definitely start to worry how long this can go before people don’t want to come back,” she told COURIER. “The longer it goes on, the more nerve-wracking it becomes.”

Cathers first started working at the theater’s sister location in Vermont as a teenager. Later, she helped open the Plattsburgh cinema in 2008. She’s been there ever since. Right now, she isn’t just worried about the business that she’s poured so much of herself into—she’s also concerned about her bills. 

Millions of Americans like Cathers have lost their jobs since the pandemic began in early spring. As some states and businesses have reopened, the unemployment rate dropped, but the Labor Department on Thursday reported another 898,000 people filed new unemployment claims last week, indicating the crisis is far from over. Not only are applications for unemployment aid rising again, but so are new coronavirus cases.

Leah Cathers

“Further recovery looks to have stalled out,” AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist at Indeed, told the Associated Press.

A $600 federal unemployment benefit approved earlier this year by Congress ended in July, and lawmakers still have not come to an agreement on how to help Americans who need it the most. On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who’s spent the last several weeks negotiating with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said it was unlikely new coronavirus relief legislation would happen before Election Day. 

“I’d say at this point getting something done before the election and executing on that would be difficult,” Mnuchin said at the Milken Institute Global Conference. On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell all but agreed, saying he would not sign off on any deal the Democrats and the White House came to that totaled between $1.8 trillion and $2.2 trillion.

Meanwhile, Americans continue to struggle without help: A new working paper from researchers at Columbia University found the monthly poverty rate rose from 15% in February 2020 to 16.7% in September, with rates higher among Black and Hispanic individuals. Since May, as many as 8 million more people are in poverty, the New York Times reported.

The Worry That Comes With Being Unemployed in a Pandemic

John Hudgins, 25, is among the millions of unemployed Americans. He’s also in the film industry, working in costuming and film production in the Atlanta, Georgia, area. 

“Breaking into the film industry was a big deal for me, and it all went poof in 24 hours,” he said.

And it hasn’t come back. While unemployed, the home he was renting was condemned due to black mold and a sinking foundation.

“I was left without a house, unable to start a lease due to no job, staying with friends and unable to find consistent work,” Hudgins said.

The day he learned he’d lost his job, March 13, Hudgins filed for unemployment. He didn’t receive any benefits until early May, he said, and they’ve since run out. 

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Lauren Thomas, a tasting room manager at a small craft brewery in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, also lost her job earlier this year. The brewery has since reopened, but she hasn’t heard from her former employer.

“I’m worried that I won’t be able to find a job that allows me to protect my health and therefore I won’t be able to work until the US has widespread implementation of an effective vaccine,” said Thomas, who has an autoimmune disease and needs to be particularly careful about contracting coronavirus. 

Thomas, 31, taught herself how to paint needlepoint canvases while quarantining at her dad’s house in rural South Carolina this summer. She’s trying to turn that—and dog-sitting—into a way to earn enough money to avoid being evicted, because her unemployment benefits don’t suffice. She fears she’ll never be able to work in the food-service industry again.

Unemployed Brooklyn resident Tess Kaytmaz, who previously worked as a hostess at a classy Italian restaurant and as a bartender, is also trying to fill the gaps with a side hustle. 

“My baking business is on the front burner now,” she said. “Everything I do, everything I invest in, is to make sure I can turn this into a full-time job that pays my bills when this is over.”

Still, she said, “I am in a state of purgatory.” Kaytmaz loves baking, but without friends or family she could move in with as a safety net, being unemployed is scary. Returning to her former line of work doesn’t feel like an option, either.

“My industry has reopened, but at the risk of its workers,” she said. “No one protects my industry, and since I am at risk, going back would mean risking my life.”

Samer Khudairi, a writer and artist who lives in the Boston area, opened an art gallery at the beginning of March. Two days before his official launch party, the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a global pandemic.

Samer Khudairi

“That’s when I started packing everything up,” he said. “I took some sacrifices to open a dream project, and that got halted.”

His business wasn’t eligible for relief—it was too new—but Khudairi was able to qualify for assistance as an individual. At first he didn’t feel comfortable taking the money, because so many people were worse off than him, he said. But he’s tried to pay it forward by volunteering to make PPE gowns for medical professionals in his spare time. 

“There are other businesses that are closing, and that breaks my heart,” Khudairi said. “There are essential employees that need more [support]. Those people that are still working should get a tax break, or free health care. Something.”

The Government’s Inaction, Workers Say, Has Been Infuriating

Everyone who spoke to COURIER about being unemployed expressed a sense of fear, anxiety, stress, or heightened uncertainty. Several said the added federal boost to unemployment benefits had been a huge help and should be reinstated.

“Before it was fine—it was enough to cover the bills,” Cathers said. “People don’t realize how low the unemployment benefit is. I’m not even taking home half of what I was taking home pre-COVID.” 

She’s been able to defer her car loan for three months, but soon she’ll have to start prioritizing which bills to pay. 

“The government seems to have the money for whatever they need whenever they need it,” Cathers said, referring to Congress in particular. “The money is there if they wanted it to be there. You’re not worried about the people who are hurting—you’re worried about politics.”

“You don’t care about us,” she continued, “because we’re the ones who are hurting right now.”

Thomas, the former brewery employee, said she wants to see states like North Carolina taking more action, too.

“Both the federal government and the state governments have the responsibility to prevent evictions, support unemployed people, and protect vulnerable people,” she said. “The government needs to continue to offer unemployment support until such time as the economy has recovered or the pandemic has been controlled.”

Workers Wonder: Is Help On the Way? 

The picture is even bleaker for countless unemployed Americans like JoAlice Doggett, who have been told they don’t qualify for any unemployment compensation.

Doggett, a 58-year old living in Alamance County, North Carolina, lost her job working the graveyard shift at a clinical lab at the beginning of September. She alleges the work environment was toxic, and believes her former employer is fighting her unemployment claim to retaliate against her raising concerns.

The pandemic initially made her job much more stressful, she said, because the lab was testing patients for COVID. Now, it’s making it hard for her to find work. According to data from Indeed, the trend in job postings went unchanged last week, remaining about 17% below last year’s levels.

Doggett filed an appeal on her unemployment claim, but the state office told her that process would take several months, she said.

“I can’t wait a few months for you to send me a couple hundred dollars a week. I need it now. There is no money.”

“It’s like nobody cares,” Doggett said. “I can’t wait a few months for you to send me a couple hundred dollars a week. I need it now. There is no money. It’s rough. I have to decide, do I get my medication, or do I eat? I’ve got family, and I hate to ask, but if I have to, I will.”

In the meantime, Doggett has been volunteering while unemployed. 

“It’s a lot of people that have been denied and don’t know which way to turn,” she said. That’s why her church is assembling boxes of groceries for people who need it. Doggett picks up a box for her landlord, an elderly woman on a fixed income. She’s not taking one for herself yet.

“November’s going to be my test,” she said. “If I don’t get a job, well, I can’t have that. I hope to have something in the next two weeks where I can go to work.”

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