Statistics show that some jobs are coming back, but the unemployment rate in the U.S. is still more than double what it was before the pandemic hit. In the meantime, those out of work are also running out of money. The additional $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits expired in July, leaving millions without a lifeline. Now it’s been replaced by a temporary $300 weekly boost, but most people haven’t seen that money yet — and it’s still not enough for many of those who are struggling to pay rent. Here, three women who lost their jobs to the pandemic talk about making ends meet, finding work wherever they can, and waiting for the unemployment office to answer their phone calls.
“There were a lot of instances where customers weren’t tipping at all.” —Lisa, 25, waitress
I’ve been working at the same restaurant in Manhattan for three years now, commuting from my parents’ house in New Jersey and going to school at the same time. Living at home meant I didn’t have many bills except school tuition, and I never asked my parents for money or help with expenses. I was in school for about 20–25 hours a week, and then working 40–45 hours at the restaurant on top of that, and it was making me a little crazy. I worked the last shift in March, that Sunday night, before the city closed down restaurants. My classes shut down the same day, too. So I went from a packed 70-hour week to nothing, just sitting at home for months. It was a shock. But it was also nice to be home with my family. Usually, we’re all at work or school, so we enjoyed this time together without anywhere else to be or anything to do.
Before the pandemic, I was making about $700 or $800 a week as a server. That allowed me to cover my school expenses, which were about $500 a month, and save up to move out of my parents’ house. I have some student loans, too, about $6,000 that I have ten years to pay off.
When I first lost my job, I was super scared. My biggest fear was of the virus — how the numbers were growing, and that hospitals were getting overcrowded. I was really worried that someone in my family would get sick. I live with my parents and my grandmother, and I didn’t even want to leave the house for fear of infecting them.
I was able to file for unemployment, and I was eligible for the most that they pay. So I was one of those people who were making more money than they normally earn. When the restaurant reopened in June, I was scared to go back because I didn’t want to expose my family. A lot of other servers who were older and had health conditions weren’t able to return. But I was also worried that I would lose unemployment benefits if I refused work, because that’s the rule. So I said I would do a revised schedule. I didn’t want to work on weekends because that’s when people are out to party and aren’t as careful as people who are eating out during the week. I only work Monday through Thursday now. But I’ve been less anxious as we’ve gotten more information about safety procedures. We wear masks, have hand sanitizer, and do temperature checks. Everything is super clean.
I also moved out of my parents’ house at the end of the summer, to live closer to the city. That made me feel more comfortable going back to work, because I’m not as worried about exposing my family when I come home at night. I have a roommate, but she’s also a co-worker, so we’re exposed to the same things. The pandemic allowed me to save about $7,000 overall, which helped when I was moving. Between buying new furniture, paying rent and a security deposit, it cost me about $5,000.
Half of the customers have been super nice and grateful, and half are complaining and angry and uncivil. It’s a weird mix. Some people want to argue about wearing a mask when they arrive, because we ask that people wear them when they’re not sitting at their table. Some people are loud and aggressive. But others have been extra friendly, especially in the first week or two, and gave really big tips. Then there were a lot of instances where customers weren’t tipping at all. When that happened, our restaurant implemented an 18 percent gratuity on all checks.
Where I work, we’re very fortunate to have a big seating area outside. It’s equivalent to the seating that we have inside. So I’m making just as much money right now as I was pre-pandemic. But I know it won’t last, with the weather starting to change. And when we have to move our seating inside at reduced capacity, I know I’m going to make much less. Still, I’m going to keep working as much as I can.
I’m off unemployment now, but if I have to go back on it and tap into my savings, that’s what I’m going to do. I have about $2,000 left in savings, and I’m saving half of every paycheck right now. I plan to restart school next year. My program is not ideal to do online, so I’m going to hold off. This whole experience has made me more eager to get out of the restaurant industry, because it’s so unstable, but at the same time I know I need to be patient, because everything is in such a weird place. I’m just trying to figure out how I’m going to make it through the next month. I don’t have a timeline in mind. It seems pointless to try to make plans.
I wake up every morning and it’s like, Okay, what can I get paid for today? —Ashley, 26, e-commerce buyer and bartender
I moved to New York about a year ago for my job. It was my first job out of grad school, and I was working in apparel merchandising for a big e-commerce company. There were certain things I liked about it, but overall I had a difficult time. It wasn’t a good fit, skills- and culture-wise. And once we started working from home in March, things got a lot worse. There was no escape from work, and I didn’t think I could find a new job because of the economy. I felt trapped. If anything, my anxiety was worse before I lost my job, because I knew it was coming, I just didn’t know when. I was trying desperately to cling to it and not mess it up, even though I wasn’t happy.
I was let go in June, about a month before the company did a much bigger layoff. I had been making $70,000 a year, plus benefits, and they gave me $1,500 in severance, which I felt lucky to get. It took about six weeks to process and show up in my account. A lot of my co-workers have since lost their jobs, too. We’re all on the hunt right now.
I crashed for four days after I was laid off. I was really sad and defeated, and I basically just slept. Then I got up and walked around my neighborhood to see which bars might be hiring. I bartended on weekends before the pandemic, to save up some extra cash and meet people, since I’d just moved here. Obviously that job disappeared in March, but I’m glad I had that savings. Restaurants started opening for outdoor dining right around the time I lost my corporate job, so I hit the pavement. I would just walk into restaurants and ask to see the manager.
I got my first bartending gig the week after I was laid off, and it was a huge relief — like, “Phew, I have something.” My income is obviously not the same as it was before, but I’ve also dramatically cut back on spending. I cook cheaply and I don’t go anywhere. I don’t even have a Metro card anymore because I can walk to work.
I’m also doing whatever small gigs I can find. I did a weeklong branding project, and I’m working for a temp agency doing minimum-wage research. I’m tutoring English online. I wake up every morning and it’s like, Okay, what can I get paid for today? I’ve generally been making between $200 and $700 a week.
I filed for unemployment right away, the first week of July, but I still haven’t received anything. It’s tricky because I live in New York, but my office was in New Jersey, so that added a layer of complexity. It took two months for the unemployment office to even acknowledge the claim and request further information. I call them twice a week to follow up. I’m trusting that it’ll go through eventually and I’ll get paid retroactively.
I know it sounds strange, but I’m actually much happier now than I was when I had my old job. Obviously it’s not a great time to be unemployed, but there’s a new resourcefulness that I’ve tapped into. I take it week by week — I can’t be stressing about my five-year plan. I just have to get rent money for the end of the month, and stay sane. I started prioritizing self-care more than I was before, not in a bubble-bath way, but in a utilitarian way. I went to all the doctor’s appointments I’d been blowing off for years, so that I could make use of my corporate health insurance while I still had it, and also because I have to be healthy if I’m going to support myself. I took care of things like negotiating down my rent. I could probably move someplace cheaper — I live in Chelsea and pay $1,900 a month — but there was so much uncertainty that I figured it was safer to stay put as cheaply as possible. I have two roommates, one of whom is my sister, so moving out would be complicated. My landlord gave me two months free, which has been a big help.
This experience has made me realize that what I was so afraid of — losing my job — is something I can actually manage. The unidentifiable terror is gone. And all of that has been really calming. I mostly just feel really grateful for what I have. I worked my way through school, so I don’t have student debt.
Having one foot in the corporate world and one foot in the restaurant industry has also given me an interesting perspective. Most of my former corporate co-workers aren’t happy about losing their jobs, but their lives have remained relatively stable. Whereas a lot of my peers in the restaurant industry were just out on the street with no severance, no benefits, nothing. Two of my former restaurant co-workers actually died, one from COVID and another from complications related to it. They were both relatively young, and it made me step back and realize, “You know what? I’m fine.”
“I’m pregnant, and we were terrified that we couldn’t afford health care.” —Grace, 38, freelance writer
My husband and I are both freelancers, and the majority of my income comes from copywriting for ad agencies. Before the pandemic, I was earning between $10,000 and $15,000 a month. I had four regular copywriting clients, and some extra projects would come up here and there. My husband works on a day rate, and he was earning at least as much as I was, if not a little more. Right before the pandemic hit, we were talking about buying a house and trying to have a second kid. Then, all of a sudden, it was like, “Oh shit, can we even pay our rent?”
Both of our incomes dried up overnight. He’s a photographer, so his work went on hold indefinitely. Most of my clients wouldn’t even answer emails. I was worried that I wouldn’t get paid for my outstanding invoices, but luckily, nobody screwed me. With the money that trickled in from previous months of work, plus our savings, we projected that we could last for about six months.
We applied for unemployment right away, but my husband only got something minimal, like $90 dollars a week, and for some reason never qualified for the extra $600 from the federal government. I’d had more contract jobs in the past few years, so I qualified for about $450 a week in unemployment benefits, plus the extra $600 in pandemic unemployment assistance. Whenever I did get work, which wasn’t very often — a couple of hours’ worth a week — I had to certify and report how much I had earned, and the government would take that out of my benefits and pay me the difference. I was also paying for all our expenses, which amount to about $6,000 per month for just the basics, once we cut out all the extras. My husband and I used to split everything, but I covered our bills for March, April, May, and June.
In July, my husband’s work started back up a little bit, and my work started coming back in August. Now I’m making enough that I’m not on unemployment anymore, and we’re splitting expenses again, even though we’re spending much less overall. Our daughter is back in day care, too, which is important for everyone’s sanity, including hers.
Health care is a whole different kettle of fish. Our daughter is 2, and at the beginning of the pandemic, we were terrified about affording our premiums. Right after things shut down, we canceled our PPOs and managed to get on state-subsidized health insurance. I don’t know what our situation will be when we have to reenroll at the end of the year, but for now we’re all covered. We had to switch a lot of our providers, though, which was stressful, especially because I’m now three months pregnant. It isn’t ideal timing, but I’m also in my mid-30s, so trying to put off a second child would have brought another set of risks. I may have to go back on a PPO during the open-enrollment period later this year, which would be expensive. But I’m not even going to worry about it yet, because there are so many unknowns. At this point, I’m not as anxious about money as I am about other things, like staying healthy.