Out of Work
The coronavirus shutdown through the eyes of the recently unemployed
JULY 12, 2020
Out of Work
The coronavirus shutdown through the eyes of the recently unemployed
Restaurants let go of their servers and cooks. Hotels furloughed housekeepers and concierges. Corporations laid off managers and salespeople. With extraordinary speed, the coronavirus has torn through nearly every corner of the economy. Even as states have lifted their shelter-in-place orders and people return to work, millions still remain at home, waiting to jump back into a job market that may no longer have space for them. Workers across nine industries reflect on paying the bills, filling their days, and — as the clock on expanded federal benefits begins to run out — facing an economy dramatically changed.
As told to Rowan Moore Gerety and Laura Rena Murray
Photographs by Gracieux Baraka, L. Kasimu Harris, Marissa Leshnov, Meron Menghistab, and Bethany Mollenkof
I had a pretty typical life in San Francisco. I’d see friends and go out to eat and date a ton. I’d go to museums and shows, and I was dedicated to a few yoga studios around town. I was definitely a free spender. After I was laid off, I was in a state of denial: Things will be fine, I told myself. There’s no way people are going to be forced to pay rent. Millions have lost their jobs. I felt strength in numbers. I emailed my landlord and asked, Are you doing anything for other tenants? She was as kind as a stranger-slash-landlord can be, but she was upfront and said, This isn’t a free ride. You can defer rent, but you’re going to have to pay now or later.
I gave up my apartment and moved in with my mom in Orange County, where I grew up. It’s very suburban — very beige, very conservative, and very hot. I’m contributing as much as I can. I buy groceries and cook dinner every night. What I get for unemployment has been more than enough, though it wouldn’t have been if I’d stayed in San Francisco.
My mom is good at saving money because she’s had to. She’s a public school teacher, and she was a single mom raising my sister and me from the time I was a kid. She’ll say, I don’t want things to be as hard for you as they have been for me. I’m taking this time to examine my relationship with money: how I spend, how I save. And how, weirdly, this is the most insecure I’ve felt career-wise, yet money-wise, I’m able to save and pay off some credit card debt.
I’ve always worked for small, women-owned businesses, but now I feel called to bigger companies and industries that can provide security. The thought of reentering the workforce at the starting level — it’s humbling. But if that’s what I have to do to secure my future, I have to be OK with that.
I do performances and teach workshops at colleges, but by late March, my next three months of gigs were canceled. Obviously, I started panicking. I picked up a part-time job that’s considered essential: maintaining ATMs, which is so random.
Washington state is 70 percent white, and a lot of the places I have to go are outside of Seattle, way outside of my safety zone. I get a lot of disbelief from people when I say I’m there to fix the ATM. At one grocery store, I was asked by about four different people what I was doing, even after I’d checked in with the manager. Something I’m scared of is when I have to drive a rental cargo van or a big box truck because I’m removing an ATM out of the store. I’m wearing a mask and going into this place, fiddling around with the ATM, and I get fearful that I’m going to have to engage with police, or that I’ll make everyone around me afraid in a way I never intended. Even with the protests this summer, a lot of people don’t understand that Black folks live a very different life than the rest of the country. The person who gave me this job is a person of color, but I don’t think even they had the experience to warn me properly.
I have a food service background, so I started making whoopie pies as an experiment. I thought, I’ll have a few friends try it and tell me what they think. I wanted to make people feel good. The secret is using un-ordinary flavors, like Earl Grey cake with lemon drizzle and lavender-marshmallow cream. That first batch, I had 56 orders. I said, If you want to pay me for shipping or gas, here’s what it costs to make one. So folks donated to my Venmo. I was doing the math, and while not everyone donated, the people who did donate paid for everyone else: One person paid for another, and it just worked out. For the most part, I broke even, which I found really exciting and hopeful — I’m like, Huh, even without talking to each other, people can figure it out.
Up until March 27, I’d been working at ConnectYourCare in Boise. It’s a huge third-party administrator for health-service plans, so I was answering calls about flexible spending accounts. Every week, they let go a couple more, a couple more, until there were only about 40 to 70 people left out of 300 or 400. My husband is still working full time. He does windshield replacement, so he’s essential.
I bartended and served for 17 years, starting when I was 14. It’s hard on your body. It hurt my feet, my back — sometimes I couldn’t get out of bed. Four or five years ago, I started working at a call center, and it meant my body didn’t hurt in the morning. My husband and son noticed, because I was finally not too tired to do things. For the first time in my life, I could supply my family’s health insurance. I thought I was done with being a server. But if all else fails, I can go back.
I don’t know what’s ahead. I don’t want to set myself up for disappointment. I already suffer with depression and anxiety, so those have been heightened; I don’t get out of bed a lot of days. My son is a rock. He’s 15. One day, it seemed like everything was going wrong, and he asked me something, and I just snapped at him. I said, “I’m sorry, bud. I don’t mean to be upset with you.” And he said, “It’s all right, Mom. Sometimes your best ideas are when you’re upset.” I try to shield him, but he has a pretty good grasp on things.
When I first heard about the coronavirus, I wasn’t worried. San Diego is the number-one sport-fishing city in the world, and no way did I tie those two together and think I’d end up without a job. I work on charter boats; we take a group of 20 or 30 passengers out for two or three days, restock the boat, and do it again. You make really good tips, and the trips go for several thousand dollars. There are days when you’ve got 30 highly upset people coming back from a bad day of fishing, but, hey, that’s fishing. I’d work for six months straight, from April or May to October. Then I’d find something to do until fishing season. I’ve worked at a fisherman’s landing, as a travel assistant, as a chef.
I thought it’d just be a week things closed, then one week turned into two, and two turned into four. My fiancée and I were flat broke with bills coming up. A fishing buddy had moved an hour inland to a place called Hemet, so we went to stay with him.
I ended up getting a job at an Amazon warehouse. I was excited because it paid $17 an hour, plus $2 extra. But it was hell on earth. You feel like an ant in an anthill, standing in a cubicle doing the same thing for ten hours straight — box after box after box, scanning, unpacking, packing one box onto the next box, and it never, ever, ever stopped. The first couple of days, my feet and my lower back absolutely hurt, but what bothered me was all the mothers and the grandmothers and people less physically capable than I am who had to stand there. I knew how bad their backs and feet had to be hurting, but they’ve got to do it for their families. A couple of weeks in, I turned in my resignation.
The first thing we did after I resigned was buy a car, a Chevy Tahoe for 2,000 bucks. I thought, Well, we got it for so cheap, I’ll just sell it and we’ll upgrade. We were just trying to get a better vehicle, but then the process kept repeating itself. We bought two cars and then three cars and then four cars. We started going to public auctions twice a week. We’ve sold about 28 cars in the past couple of months. My fiancée takes care of paperwork and advertising. I buy the cars and fix them. We work from probably 6 a.m. to midnight, and we’ve gotten somewhere around $20,000 to $24,000 of pure profit in the last 30 days. I’m gonna ride this wave as long as I can.
I was a behavioral technician for children with autism — I worked 15 hours a week while going to San Francisco State University full time. I did play therapy, working on things that seem mundane for neurotypical people — eye contact, mimicking sounds and movements. I was the kids’ cheerleader: Anything they’d do, I’d go, “Yes! You did great!” And because some of them were nonverbal, I narrated the whole experience — making noise, sounds, faces.
You couldn’t do social distancing with my job — I got sneezed on and spit on and peed on. I had this job for a year and a half. I never would’ve thought that, at 23, I’d be getting laid off. That seemed like an older-person thing. Most of us at my level were college students or recent grads. We’re pretty expendable, if I’m being honest.
First, there was panic. I was 11 in 2008, when everybody was getting laid off. My parents couldn’t pay the mortgage; my childhood home in San Francisco got foreclosed. I graduated this spring and moved to New Orleans, but I worked my way through SF State right up until I got laid off. My parents have always contributed the little they had left over, but I didn’t want to be a financial burden. My mom jokes that I always have five jobs at once: I’ve worked at Chipotle, a kids’ bounce-house place where they do birthday parties, Best Buy, Uniqlo. At one point, I worked 30 hours a week while taking 18 credits.
On the one hand, I miss work, but on the other hand, being laid off opened my eyes — so this is what the privilege of not having to work and go to school feels like. To not feel like, Not only do I have to apply myself 110 percent at school, but I need to make money to survive. I thought, Is this what it’s like to have generational wealth? If this had happened a couple years ago, it would have changed the direction of my life: I wouldn’t have had zero dollars in my savings and be living from $200 paycheck to $200 paycheck. I would have had the economic stability to focus on school. I wouldn’t have burnt out at 21.
I used to leave my house at 1 in the morning and stay busy driving all night long. You’re getting people coming out of clubs and bars, and they go in two directions, either to the Valley or Santa Monica. Then, from 2 a.m. on, they go to after-hours places. Then, at 4:30 or 5 a.m., people go to the airport. That was my rhythm. Once the government said businesses had to close, I said, Game over. I wasn’t counting on unemployment. All the Uber and Lyft drivers who applied before April 28 got an award letter with zero dollars. To me, it wasn’t a big deal — if you grew up a little poor, you know how to hustle. I had a little money saved, and I thought, Fuck it — I’ll figure it out.
Throughout the pandemic, realtors have still been working. They couldn’t do open houses or knock on doors, so they needed someone to make cold calls. I don’t have any shyness — I grew up promoting warehouse parties and raves in Los Angeles, and I got good at gauging people. So I call people to see if they want to list their house or if they’re looking to buy. You listen to their tone, what’s going on in the background. If I hear a lot of noise, I figure they’re busy and try to be mindful. I ask them questions about the weather, and if they engage, then I know that we can have a conversation.
My mother left me with my grandmother when I was 3 months old, and I’ve lived with her my whole life. I’ve called my grandmother Mom since I was a baby, and now I take care of her and count out her pills every morning. The most I’ve ever been apart from her was a couple weeks. Now that I’m working from home, she’ll say, Why don’t you sit down and watch TV with me? And I’m like, I’m 10 feet away from you at all time — I spend more time with you than anybody.
Two or three days before the shelter-in-place order came down, I sent an email to my clients detailing the steps I was taking to keep the workspace safe. I saw three or four people who were in pain from a car accident, a bike accident, and someone who was pregnant. Then it just died out. Nobody booked, and people canceled their appointments.
I have two children, and I had four months of savings to cover the mortgage, bills, and food. I tried to apply for unemployment, but it took the government a month and a half to come up with a system for independent contractors and sole proprietors, so I couldn’t apply until April. I decided not to use my credit card at all and just use the cash I’d received from tips this year. I froze my mortgage, and now all I buy is food. That’s it. I like using only cash: It keeps it real; it keeps it tangible. I know what I have in my hand and what I’m going to spend.
When I was 23 or 24, I was traveling in Southeast Asia with a backpack. I visited this island in Indonesia, thinking the boat would come in the evening to take me back to the mainland. I was sorely mistaken — it came two or three weeks later. There were no stores, and no one spoke English. I didn’t know when the boat was coming to take me back. I was stuck with my own self and forced to live from the inside out. Before the shelter-in-place, I just worked all the time. Now, I try to remember: Right, I don’t work. I don’t make any money, but I don’t need to be anywhere. When, as an adult human being, can you just sit back, not for a weekend, but for months?
Since early 2019, I worked at a company that did IT support work — networking services, hardware repair. This spring, my boss said, I don’t know if I can afford you. A lot of clients were cutting costs, and IT is one of the easiest places for businesses to cut.
I live with my parents still. They were part of the boat people, and they immigrated here around the Vietnam War. They’re traditional: You go to college, work at a good company. In the Asian community, it’s about respect. Let’s show that we’re a successful family. We want to look good for friends. They might think, We can’t say Justin is unemployed or else people will look down on us. My grandmother lives with us, and she’s even more traditional. I think my parents told her that I’m still working.
Since September, I’ve been studying software development on the side, and the goal was to make a career switch into that. Last fall, I started an Instagram to keep myself accountable to coding every day: I’d post about what I’m learning, what roadblocks I run into, and I hit 30,000 followers. A lot of my followers are learning to code, either because they have more time or they’ve also lost jobs. I get comments from people hitting walls, saying, I don’t know if I can do this. I’m stuck. There was a construction worker who reached out and said, I’m so happy I found you. I’ve been depressed with construction work, and I’m going to learn this.
Now, I’m pushing myself to make an income through my personal brand. I’ve started a podcast where I interview other developers, and I’m investing more time in YouTube and Instagram. If you look at some of my photos on Instagram, my mom is right behind me working, because I used to have two desks in my room, and she took one. Then I got fed up because I couldn’t record if she was talking in a meeting, so I said, “I’m moving your desk out into the living room.”
At every job I’ve ever had, someone could always say, I don’t need you anymore. You’re cut. I didn’t like that feeling. My parents are thinking, My kid has a job that doesn’t exist. It can create a hurricane of self-doubt. But once I make this a thing, I can come back and say, “Hey, I did it. I told you so.” I live for that moment.
People get depressed if they are not working. It’s not about money. It’s about being a leader and being good at your job. I would like to be able to go somewhere for eight hours and feel tired from actually doing something work-related.
I was in charge of the operations of a Park & Fly lot at the Sea-Tac Airport — I was going on almost nine years. At the beginning, I was a booth attendant, and in one year, I became a manager. I loved that job, and I loved the fact that I had responsibilities. I’d email with customers anytime they had concerns or complaints. In some cases, I was in charge of hiring and firing. I was born to do that job.
I filed for unemployment the Sunday after I got laid off, and I got paid up until May 16, when I was put in adjudication. That’s when the government says: Your account is in review because there’s a discrepancy, and until this investigation is complete, we cannot pay you. When your status is pending, there is no other help in the meantime. By calling a thousand times and being on hold two to three hours every time, I was able to get my account resolved.
After I was laid off, I searched for Facebook groups for people who were unemployed in Washington. Those groups were better than any of the official posts by the state unemployment offices, because they had people explaining their stories. People were losing their cars and having trouble with health coverage. People had successful careers they had to stop. One person wanted to commit suicide because they couldn’t deal with the stress of bill collectors. It was hard to hear these stories.
So after my account was cleared, I posted on a group and said, I’m here to answer questions. In the group, we feel like we’re family now. COVID-19 has taken a part of everybody: our sense of security and freedom. I know I can’t help put money in people’s hands, but when I give somebody advice, and they come in the next day saying they’ve been paid, that’s rewarding to me. We’re still all in this together.