The economy is improving, vaccines are widely available (or will be soon), businesses are reopening, and spring is here! But for countless Americans, job prospects are still slim. The unemployment rate remains stubbornly high at 6.2 percent (compared to 3.5 percent before the pandemic started), and that’s not counting the millions of people — overwhelmingly women — who had to drop out of the labor force entirely. Many of those who lost their jobs in the past year still aren’t able to find full-time employment, or work in their field of choice. And millions more have had to cope with multiple layoffs and inconsistent paychecks. Here, three women talk about looking for work, month after month, since losing their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic.
“I’m never going to be able to retire.”
—Sandy, 61, aesthetician in the Bay Area of California
Before the pandemic, I was working as a personal trainer and an aesthetician. At least half of my income came from my part-time job at a hotel. I also worked at an aesthetician place, and I had my own little workspace for private clients too. I was making pretty good money, between $100K and $150K annually, but I didn’t have a regular day off for years and years. Then the pandemic hit, and I went from a hundred miles an hour to zero. Everything closed for months.
When things finally did open, it was very inconsistent. The aesthetician place closed and then reopened and then closed again. I couldn’t reopen my own business space or bring clients there, even though I had to keep paying rent on it. The hotel laid me off. I’d make a little bit of money, enough to lose unemployment but not enough to support myself, and then things would shut down again. And I didn’t want to live off unemployment — I wanted to go back to work!
I have some friends who own a restaurant, and I started volunteering for them, just to help them out. Eventually they got enough business back that they were able to hire me. So I’ve been working as a hostess for them a few days a week. I’m also back at the aesthetician place, but the money is terrible — there’s no minimum wage, it’s just 40 percent commission. So if someone books an eyebrow wax, I’ll get $5 for that. Or if someone wants a Brazilian bikini wax, I’ll get $24 for that. I’m working all the time, and I have to say yes to everything out of financial need, even if it means I’m driving 30 minutes just to make $5.
In the past two weeks, I got two paychecks, one for $1,300 and one for $900. In a lot of places, that would be a great wage, but where I live, that doesn’t even cover my rent.
Another problem is that I’m 61. I don’t look 61, so people assume that I’ve got all this time. But I’m never going to be able to retire. I don’t have a 401(k) or anything like that. I’ve been thinking a lot about making a career switch to something more stable, like admin work. I did that years ago, and I’d like to get back into it. It’s hard because everybody tells me, “Oh, you’re so good at what you do.” But there’s no retirement, no benefits, no sick leave. I’m a pay-as-I-go kind of person, and I need to think more long term. So I’m looking, but the job market is just so tight.
“I’m five months pregnant, so finding a job feels more and more urgent.”
—Jessica, 38, former art director at a fashion brand in L.A.
At the beginning of 2020, I knew that my company wasn’t doing well and might have to cut their head count. I wasn’t happy there, so I was actually hoping to be laid off so that I’d have more time to take stock and apply for new jobs. I have a toddler, and I was exhausted and burnt out. But I did not anticipate the pandemic. When the layoff did come, and I did lose my job, it was right after L.A. shut down completely. So that was bad timing.
The silver lining was that I was able to take care of my son when his day care also shut down. I don’t know how my husband and I would have handled child care if both of us were still working. We probably would have gotten divorced. He has the kind of job that requires him to be in back-to-back Zoom meetings all day, so I would have had to shoulder a lot more of the work with our kid, and we would have fought about it. It just would have been really hard. So even though losing my job was tough, it was a little bit of a saving grace. I approached it kind of like a second maternity leave. My severance package was about a month’s worth of pay, which I thought was more than fair, since I was at my former company for a year and a half. And luckily, I get my health insurance through my husband. I filed for unemployment, and that was helpful too.
I didn’t really bother looking for new jobs throughout the summer because there was nothing out there. It seemed embarrassing to say, “Hey, do you know if anyone’s hiring?” Plus, I had to take care of my 2-year-old, and it just wasn’t feasible to try to coordinate Zoom meetings around that.
Finally, in September, my son was back in day care and I started actively reaching out to my contacts and looking around on LinkedIn. Financially, we were okay, but we were careful. Without my unemployment benefits, we’d be very stretched. Also, I associate a lot of my self-worth with making money. Maybe it’s because I’m an immigrant, but I do not feel like I am living at my full potential without a good paycheck. Being financially insecure is really terrifying to me. I never want to be in that position.
In the past seven months, I’ve had eight job interviews. Nothing has worked out yet, but I’m only applying for higher-level roles with companies that I’m interested in, so I’m trying not to feel down about it. I’m happy that I’ve been considered. In the meantime, I’ve been taking on some freelance work, mostly doing visuals for direct-to-consumer brands, so that’s been tiding us over.
Now there is some added pressure, though, because I’m five months pregnant, so finding a job feels more and more urgent. But at the same time, I’m not sure what to do — if I get a job somewhere, I’ll only have a couple of months to work before I have to take maternity leave. I don’t think it’s the right move to get hired and be like, “Surprise! I’m going to need time off.” I don’t know how I’d expect the company to respond. So I’m not totally sure what to do. I’m still looking, and if I get an offer, I guess I’ll try to negotiate.
“I am starting to feel a little bit like yesterday’s news.”
—Carla, 35, former magazine editor in New York
I lost my job in a big, company-wide layoff last May. In the magazine industry, this happens all the time, but I was still shocked. I felt pretty essential in my job. I was actively working on some big ongoing projects, like a cover story, that the magazine wanted me to finish after I left. I wanted to finish that work, too, because I cared about it and it seemed good for my future job prospects. But it meant that I spent my first month or so of unemployment doing work that I was never paid for.
My severance was not generous. I got two weeks’ pay and two weeks’ worth of health insurance, which made me very worried, especially in the midst of a pandemic. I didn’t even know how to start looking for work or ask people for help. It was also really isolating. At that point, it didn’t feel safe to be physically near anyone, so I couldn’t go be with friends or family. I couldn’t even go across town to get a hug from my sister.
My former employer did offer career counseling as part of my severance package. And I was like, “Great. Maybe a career counselor can tell me about jobs outside of magazines that I might be qualified for.” I was hoping she could give me some concrete advice about how to translate my résumé to other professions. Like, should I sign up for LinkedIn Pro? Are there jobs in tech that I don’t know how to look for? But she was the opposite of helpful. Pretty much all she wanted to do was sell me on additional services, like paying someone to put more SEO keywords in my résumé. She also suggested that I join these job-hunting workshops that were essentially just networking sessions for unemployed people. They might have been useful if I had no work experience, but they were telling us things like, “Remember to unmute yourself when you talk on Zoom.” I tried to keep an open mind, but it was really demoralizing.
Meanwhile, I was freelancing as much as possible. At first, things were okay. Through my contacts and friends in the industry, I got enough work to get by, especially during the summer. But I felt like I had to say yes to everything, so I was incredibly busy and doing a ton of little things that didn’t pay that much. Finally, I decided to stop saying yes to the little stuff, and only say yes to the bigger, more ambitious projects. But of course, then there was a dry spell, which was stressful for different reasons. It became clear that I really needed something more consistent.
I’ve had a couple of job interviews that seemed very promising, but then I would get ghosted and find out they weren’t hiring anymore. In one case, things were going really well, and I went through the whole process and they were like, “Okay, we’ll reach out to you on Monday to schedule a final meeting on Thursday.” And then I just never heard anything. I sent them several follow-up emails, and they finally wrote back and said, “We loved you, but we’re not hiring for this role anymore. Can we keep this on ice?” And I was like, “Oh. You’re never hiring for this role.”
Now, I’m basically going back to what I did when I first got out of college. I’ve been setting up informational interviews with people to say, “I think your industry is really cool. Can you tell me more about it?” It’s like I’m starting from square one. People keep asking me, “What do you want your career to be?” And I just have no idea how to answer that question when I’ve had the rug pulled out from under me. I wasn’t expecting to be an editor at a magazine forever, but I wasn’t expecting to be in this position either. I’ve also had a lot of people express shock that it’s been almost a year since I lost my job, and they want to know what I’ve been doing with myself all this time. There’s a lot that I can tell them about, but I am starting to feel a little bit like yesterday’s news. And I’m uncomfortable feeling like I’m treading water. I want to grow, and stay relevant.
I also have to pay my rent. I know I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to get by so far. I will not be on the street if freelancing continues the way it has been. But in terms of being able to have the kind of life that I want, this is not sustainable. I’m trying to broaden my search, but it is discouraging.