Photo courtesy of William Nowak; photo courtesy of Ngozi; photo by Allison Greenlea
A series in which people across the U.S. offer firsthand perspectives about how social issues impact their real lives.
In September, unemployment in the U.S. fell below 10 percent for the first time since March 2020. Unfortunately, this still leaves tens of millions of people out of work, looking for jobs, and trying to collect unemployment. The crisis is far from over: 870,000 new claims were filed last week alone.
When the extra pandemic unemployment funds of $600 a week expired at the end of July, people faced even greater financial pressure to find work. The wrenching combination of smaller unemployment checks, fewer available jobs, and no second stimulus check in sight have all left American workers struggling to ensure they can pay for rent, food, and health care.
VICE spoke to seven people around the country about what it’s like to still be unemployed and job hunting nearly seven months into the pandemic.
Some names have been changed for professional and privacy reasons. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Ngozi, 25, Brooklyn, NY
I was a receptionist at a global investment firm. I was laid off because everyone was moving to remote roles, which wasn’t possible for me since my job was front-facing.
From the start, navigating job opportunities has felt pretty hopeless, especially as the death toll and unemployment numbers skyrocketed. I have an autoimmune condition, so becoming an “essential worker” isn’t an option for me. I did interviews and waited months to hear back about companies’ decisions—some places’ responses were constantly getting pushed back until I just never heard from them again. In one instance, I was in various stages of interviews over the course of three months for a job that I didn’t end up getting.
My economic situation is not fantastic. I never received a stimulus check, and after having difficulty claiming my unemployment benefits, I haven’t been able to collect any funds since July. It was nearly impossible to talk to a human to get some help with figuring out either problem, and all the sleuthing I did to figure out what’s going on at the NYS Department of Labor and IRS was taxing, mental health-wise. My unemployment checks will be held until NYSDOL assigns someone to help get that resolved, so I’m waiting.
In the meantime, I’m sticking to a tight budget and leaning on my mom for a little bit of financial support for rent. I’ve been looking to get more creative and maybe become an independent accessibility consultant for companies rather than seek traditional employment. I hate capitalism and would prefer to do other things I am good at and enjoy for pleasure.
I was able to schedule a few career coaching sessions through some Black justice movement fam involved with BOLD. The organization also offered to pay for some online therapy sessions. My mental health has improved a bit, so I’ve had more capacity to apply for more jobs and interview with headhunters. I’ve been getting really good feedback on my resumé, and friends have been sending openings to positions I might actually enjoy, so I’m feeling more hopeful these days.
Kaitlin Stevens, 27, Queens, NY
I was a marketing associate at a small publisher and educational materials company. I got laid off in the second week of March since most of the company’s business relies on in-person sales at New York City public schools, which had closed due to COVID. I’ve been looking for jobs in the same field, specifically in young adult fiction. I apply whenever I see something relevant, which is typically one or two times a month. I haven’t heard back about anything since I started applying for jobs in April. My major frustration is knowing I’m qualified, but feeling like I can never get a foot in the door.
I’m living off of savings for the most part and taking freelance writing gigs as often as I can, often for less pay than I feel is fair. With my unemployment running out, the pressure to find something steadier is weighing on me. I’ve also been doing odd jobs here and there between writing gigs—I’m working an event for a wine company this week, as I have a background in doing that. It isn’t exactly the safest time to be working with people, but it puts money in my bank account. I’m also writing a YA novel and am planning to find an agent by the end of the year and start pitching the book by the top of next year.
Photo by Lucas Michael
Clare Palo, 26, Brooklyn, NY
I was a social media editor at Vulture at New York magazine/Vox Media. I was laid off in mid-July, when my position was eliminated due to COVID-19 cuts and restructuring.
Since then, I’ve been applying and interviewing for jobs, and I’m getting pretty far in rounds of interviews. I’ve applied for about 40 jobs and had real interviews for 12. My biggest frustration has been the long interview process. On average, I’m doing four or five rounds, including phone calls, tests, and video calls, all of which takes several weeks, if not months. Interviewers are asking a lot of intense questions about why I was laid off, as if COVID-19 and an economic recession isn’t a good enough answer.
The job market in media is grim. Layoffs have hit almost every single media company I’ve interviewed with. I’m not sure when the industry will bounce back, especially since ad sales, in-person sponsored events, and other revenue sources that fuel the industry are on hold until further notice.
My economic situation is not great. Next week will mark two months without ever receiving unemployment benefits, and no one seems to have an answer as to why. The NYS Department of Labor has been completely unresponsive, and I’m out of ideas. I’m not sure how much longer I can go without having money in my bank account. I was laid off a week before I turned 26, making it impossible for me to go back on my family’s health insurance. Luckily, I have health insurance until the end of the year (due to New York‘s union negotiations). If I don’t get full-time work before then, I’ll join the long list of people applying for Medicaid. I’m continuing to apply and interview for jobs daily. I haven’t taken any time off from job-hunting at all.
Anthony*, 40, San Francisco, CA
I’m a substitute teacher in the SFUSD. I was laid off from my last full-time position in March. I was given a small amount of money by the district each month until the end of the semester.
I’ve had job offers to be a private teacher/tutor, but none of the potential employers made me feel like my safety was a priority. I’d take a 100 percent outdoors private job if it were not a contractor position, with all equipment (educational materials, PPE, etc.) paid for or provided by the employer. I’d want a fair wage with all the benefits I would receive as an employee (breaks throughout the year, life insurance, sick leave, etc.). All these basics are what I have when I work for the SFUSD. I’m not going to compromise that for a dangerous job.
None of the wealthy families seeking private teachers/tutors have offered me the combination of outdoor teaching space, materials, and employee status, the last of which seems to be the sticking point. If I want to go back to being an independent contractor risking my health and safety, I can just go back to driving a taxi. At least then I don’t have to deal with rich people telling me how to do my job.
We’re hanging in there—my wife is working, and I’m collecting unemployment. There’s supposed to be an increase in available distance learning substitute teaching jobs, though I have yet to find one. I’m hopeful that in-person education will return by January, which will allow me to work full time again. I’m going to continue to solicit tutoring and teaching jobs that are safe for my family and me.
Kitty Milford, 39, Syracuse, NY
Before COVID hit, most of my income came from sex work: generally, full-service sex work, but also porn. I have autoimmune issues, so as soon as I became aware of COVID, I stopped seeing clients because I was at higher risk of getting sick. My fear is that there lots of sex workers will get sick because they were not able to take time off.
The expectation that sex workers can just go online is extremely frustrating. Like a lot of sex workers, I can’t just switch: For starters, my kids are home all day. It’s also a completely different business model and market, which has become saturated, and celebrities are making OnlyFans accounts and fucking things up for actual sex workers.
I’ve fallen back on my most degrading side hustle: writing personal essays (lol). My spouse’s job is safe, but that’s only one income, and not quite enough to support six people. I was able to get unemployment beginning in May, which was so helpful, because we have four kids. Since the extra pandemic assistance ended, I’m only getting $182 a week. We’re running up our credit card debt! If we keep going like this, we’ll eventually max out our cards.
In about a month, I think I’ll start seeing select clients again and make them take COVID tests first. Some won’t want to, but many will be happy to. Then I’ll just hope I don’t get sick.
I was working as a server when COVID hit. On March 15, the team received an email from corporate stating the entire chain of restaurants would be shut down until further notice.
Job hunting has been the most humbling and frustrating thing. I was gearing up for a career change and moving from food service into my Big Girl Job search. I decided to apply for Foreign Services, and started looking into Department of State jobs. The process for applying to FS is a long one; I probably won’t see an offer for employment for another year. Recently, I dropped my resumé off to some restaurants in the area, as things in Virginia have started to open up again. I had some promising leads with a few, but no offers yet.
Thankfully, my economic situation hasn’t been too gutting. I moved back home in May after I broke up with my ex and when COVID really started to get bad. Not having to pay for rent or utilities has helped a lot. I’ve been on unemployment since late April. Since my living expenses have decreased significantly, I’ve been putting all that money into savings. I’m super fortunate to have a stable place to rest my head and my family to support me.
For now, my plans for employment are continuing to apply for jobs with the Department of State and networking as much as I can. I’ve had time to reflect and reconnect with my personal creative endeavors, but I’m hesitant to do these things for profit because I’m afraid of tying the things that bring me joy to a paycheck. I don’t want capitalism to completely ruin the things I find solace in.
William Nowak, 30, Chicago, IL
I was a full-time floor leader (essentially, a manager/supervisor) at Lush Cosmetics. At the end of March, I was furloughed. Come August, I was permanently terminated based on company decisions as businesses remained closed. My health insurance coverage ends after September.
After being terminated, I started applying to as many jobs as I could. I had an in-person interview with World Market for a management position and I was offered the job the same day. I took it. But the requirements of the job were not clearly represented when the offer was made; I was expected to do tasks that were extremely labor-intensive for a very small amount of pay. The store was also staffed with a pretty sizable amount of employees, making it difficult to socially distance. So I quit.
Brick-and-mortar retail is a dying industry, so it’s really hard to see a lasting future post-COVID. The only reason I’m still job hunting within the retail pool is because it’s where I’ve worked for the last 10 years. I graduated last year with a music business degree and was hoping to get into the live entertainment industry this year. But if there’s an industry that looks even bleaker than retail, it’s live entertainment.
I’m receiving unemployment benefits, but without the additional $600, it’s not a livable amount of money. I’m fortunate enough to have family who help me out with groceries, bills, and rent, but it’s not sustainable to constantly ask for help.
Unfortunately, my job search has been put on pause, as my laptop broke two weeks ago; it has my resumé and other important documents on it. It’ll cost $300–$400 to fix, which is an unimaginable amount of money right now. I’m not exactly sure when I’ll even be able to actively apply to jobs again.
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Via Vice News