By now, the country was supposed to have dug itself out of the hole wrought by the coronavirus. By now, the millions of Americans who lost or left jobs during the pandemic were supposed to be back to work.
Conversations with people who received the enhanced benefits during the past 18 months reveal a complicated picture of the nation’s economy today. Some have started new jobs, out of necessity as much as choice. Some haven’t stopped worrying about how to stay afloat. There’s both gratitude and guilt, relief over having made it through and concern about what comes next.
The same holds true on the other side of the dynamic, among the business and property owners who are trying to maintain themselves or rebuild with a workforce that has changed in fundamental ways. Some are struggling to hire after having employees quit for “better opportunities.” Others have easily brought back former staff and found new workers as well.
Here are the voices of more than half a dozen women and men and the economic stresses they face at this pivotal moment. They make clear that the country’s recovery still has far to go.
Hurd, 39, is the still-new coordinator at a nonprofit in Columbia, S.C., that helps survivors of sexual trauma. An Army veteran and mother of two sons, ages 11 and 15, she spent much of the pandemic juggling temporary jobs, child care and bills. She credits unemployment insurance, rent relief, the eviction ban and a modest Veterans Affairs assistance check with keeping her from homelessness.
I left the military in 2013 after 9½ years. I lost my marriage, started failing school. That was the beginning of me living single as a mom on a fixed income. After that came a toxic relationship that ended in violence.
I graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2019 with my master’s degree and found a full-time position at a nursing home working with patients with dementia and psychosis. I loved what I was doing and I loved the people, but the drive was an hour each way. I was always in a rush trying to get home to the kids. Then covid hit.
I was stuck in a situation where I’ve got two children, one of whom is immunocompromised, and schools are shut down. My children might catch covid from me, or I might catch it and then take it into the nursing home. I decided to leave my job. That was scary.
I applied for unemployment and went three months without a job. I had a small assistance payment from the VA. But no savings. No nothing. I chose rent over everything else. I went three months without paying credit cards and my car payment. I took a job at a gym, but I was faced with leaving the kids at home alone, so I decided to move them to their dad’s. It was the hardest thing.
My unemployment eventually came through, and that’s how I paid back my debt. But at the gym, I was under an incredible amount of stress. They let me go on Nov. 5. This time, I didn’t pay rent. I was living on base at Goose Creek, and there was a private company that managed the housing. They were very lenient and there was also an eviction moratorium. It took me three to four months to get unemployment again. Not paying rent — it wasn’t a way to abuse anything. It was, “I can breathe and figure out my next right move. I know I will catch up when I get another job.” But I would end up thousands of dollars behind.
I didn’t get my next job until February, at a substance abuse facility an hour and change from my house. I was putting in 17 to 18 hours a day. I eventually chose to leave because I had three blood-pressure spikes that were in stroke territory. They had a mass exodus of people — burned out, tired and fearful. I was in despair.
On the day in August that I found out I had been approved for rental assistance, I got an offer for my current job in Columbia. I cried in relief. I also felt guilty. Like, I may have taken that money from someone who really needed it — even though I needed it. Right now, my job is virtual, but I need to move to Columbia. I’m in the rental market, but because of not paying my bills, my credit has tanked.
I’m just one of many people who have had to make many decisions based on an invisible enemy. It has affected everyone on an individual and social and economic level. And I know there are people who are worse off than me, who don’t have another parent to send their children to or have some assistance with a check. I don’t know how people who don’t have some minimum assistance like that are making it. I don’t have a clue.
— as told to Chris Dixon
The Sias have long been professional entertainers — Sabrina, 44, as a stage performer and Dan, 41, as a drummer. Their livelihoods dried up as the Vegas Strip shut down last year, and they’ve been scrambling since, dipping into savings while navigating unemployment benefits not geared toward gig workers. They have a 4-year-old daughter.
Sabrina: The only certainty we’ve known for the past year-and-a-half is uncertainty. We see a lot of positive signs right now. It feels like live entertainment is coming back. But then we hear about another show or venue closing down. It’s very unnerving.
This is the first month with no extra check from unemployment or stimulus. I keep checking my bank account to make sure there’s enough to pay the bills. It feels kind of sickening. We’ve had that cushion supporting us while entertainment was at first completely gone and then while it’s slowly been trickling back.
Before the pandemic, I was mostly a stay-at-home mom who would sub in for shows on the Strip when they needed me. In March 2020, we had just opened our new Madonna tribute show at a casino in California, and Dan had every night booked with multiple shows for nearly two years. Then everything ended. Wiped off the schedule. It felt like the world just stopped.
We thought about selling our house and moving in with our parents. We even got to the point of discussing logistics about living in the basement. But then what? We are performers. This is our life. We’ve got degrees in music and theater. I have a master’s degree. We have bands we’ve created. We have connections. This is where our network lives. You can’t just pick up and start a new career in a new city and expect to make a living.
Dan: I thought, the world never shuts down. And then I kind of panicked. What are we going to do? Do we go back to school? Do we have to find completely new careers? How do we do that and make money now?
The ups and downs have been a constant cycle. Even now, as shows are picking back up, there’s a worry — are things going to shut down again? Will the venues be able to afford to stay open? We’re working again. But we’re not 100 percent back, that’s for sure.
I’ve got a mortgage and have to put food on the table. It mentally drains you thinking day by day, what do we do, how do we get out of this? Just this past August, we had a full month's worth of shows on the books for the Bee Gees Gold cover band when the lead singer came down with covid. He wasn’t hospitalized, but the rest of us were out of work for the month. There’s always that worry that someone will get sick or the casinos will shut down a showroom.
Sabrina: We tried everything. We tried doing live streams. We even looked into becoming wedding officiants. We got our characters together, costumes, our promo reels. But there’s been a backlog for the training to get licensed.
All the promise we felt in the spring of this year was gone by summer. Thirteen shows canceled. That’s a blow to a lot of people. Not just those you see performing onstage, but the musicians, the managers, the sound engineers, the lighting technicians. Here we are thinking, oh good, life is about to come back, and then the rug is pulled out from under us. It’s seemed like one long nightmare.
Right now, Dan has three different gigs. Bee Gees Gold just resumed, and he’s got the Elvis tribute “All Shook Up” at Planet Hollywood and the Michael Jackson show “MJ Live” at the [Stratosphere Hotel]. I’m busy trying to sell our Madonna show and the Olivia show, an Olivia Newton-John tribute that we wrote mostly during the pandemic. The Glamorous Ones, our ‘80s band, just started booking shows at casinos off the Strip.
Dan: We’ve lost friends and colleagues over the past 18 months. Some have moved away; others have passed away. A sound man I worked with just died from complications due to covid. One of the guys at “All Shook Up” got covid, then pneumonia, then a blood clot that has doctors talking about amputating his toes. It’s so surreal. People are going through a lot — we know this is serious. But we also need to work.
At “All Shook Up,” we’re doing weekly covid testing now. That’s great, but it’s also scary because what if you have covid and you’re out of work for however long until you get your negative test result? That keeps me on edge and wearing a mask whenever I’m out in public, even though we’re vaccinated.
With the Bee Gees show, we’re booked a year in advance now. That’s my bread and butter, so as long as that stays, then we’re good. Things seem headed in the right direction. But we’ve had that feeling before.
— as told to Dan Michalski
Rahman, 71, worked for IBM as a project director before using his corporate pension to invest in real estate to fund his retirement. He now owns properties across Chicago’s western suburbs, with tenants who he knows will have a hard time paying rent given the loss of federal jobless benefits.
I have 10 properties, and I also manage four for my brother. Everything was working fine until March 2020, when the pandemic hit us, and the eviction moratorium started taking place, and tenants started defaulting.
The crucial thing was the right to access justice. I’ve changed the term. We are “landlords” no more; this is a useless British-dictionary word. I neither have the land, nor am I the lord. What the crap is that? You call me the “land” and the “lord,” and then snatch my right to go to a court in a genuine case where there is no covid-related issue? I am a housing provider.
We housing providers are human beings. We are not ruthless people. There was a tenant whose daughter had covid. I was talking to him, and I said, “If your daughter has covid, are you staying at home? You should be in quarantine.” And then he quarantined. His employers fired him. Well, I felt really bad. So I cooperated with him. He didn’t pay me for four months. We went for emergency rental assistance, and he got it — $6,250. And then he got a job.
Sometimes he pays me short, things like that. I work with him. What can you do? He’s trying to do his best to pay me. You need to trust housing providers as human beings. I will comply and work with people, who, because of covid, have lost their jobs. I’m not going to throw them out.
In my case, I had to sell a house because I was not getting the funds that I should have to keep my business running. When a tenant defaults, I still have to pay the homeowners’ association. I still have to pay the property taxes. I still have to pay the repairs. So where the hell do I get the money? One tenant who defaults means income from the other properties goes toward paying this. I’m at my wit’s end. People do not understand.
And the emotional pressure: Instead of having a normal life, I have been putting a lot more time into doing repairs, painting, things like that. I keep fixing the flushing part of the toilet bowls because everyone is at home. I had to replace an air conditioner, and it cost me $4,000.
Once the Illinois eviction moratorium is done [on Sunday], then I have to talk to my tenants about raising the rent. Property taxes are going up. Assessments are increasing. I’m scared to go to those tenants where I’m not on good terms. If you go with an increase in rent, no one would say that is good news.
I am absolutely concerned about the end of federal employment benefits, because if you withdraw any support system, that is going to hit the housing providers harder. And if someone is already struggling, your brain is saying, “Don’t go and put more pressure on them.”
I am learning. I am asking for co-signers. I’m much pickier. In the past, with potential tenants, I would say, “Someone has a 450 or 500 credit score? I can take that risk.” But now, 650 minimum. This is bad for tenants with low scores because, really, no one will give them a place.
— as told to Erin Chan Ding
Roddy, 43, left her teaching job in mid-2020 to help her daughters, ages 11 and 14, with their virtual schooling. When extended jobless benefits ended in Texas in July, she was dealing with major medical expenses for a newly diagnosed kidney disease. Financially, she felt forced to return to the classroom.
March 16, 2020, is when we got the notice that we were going to go virtual for the rest of the semester. I was in the same district as my kids — I was at home while they were at home. I was teaching and they were taking classes. When the school year was done, there were so many unknowns.
I’ve been teaching for nine years, and I’ve been driving for Uber for six years just to supplement. I thought, I’ll just turn to Uber, make money that way, and we’ll be fine. Then covid got really bad and everyone got scared. Everything was shut down. My only thought was they’re going to allow gig workers to collect unemployment. That was the only thing I could do. So from June 2020 to July 2021, I was collecting unemployment.
I knew since last Christmas that I wanted to go back to the classroom. I looked and looked and looked, but it was difficult to find positions in my teaching field that semester. I had one interview, and I didn’t get the job. I was able to get unemployment up until July 6 of this year, when Texas ended it.
At the time, I was newly diagnosed with an autoimmune kidney disease. I have half-functioning kidneys, and the treatment is long-term high doses of chemotherapy. I take pills twice a day. It has progressed quickly. In a matter of months, I’ve gone from stage 1 to stage 3, and it’s terrifying. I don’t even want to think about catching covid. Because I’m a single mom, my focus is staying healthy for my kids.
My doctor told me it would not be a good idea to continue with Uber because of international passengers. For three months, that meant I went without a paycheck. I had no choice but to start a GoFundMe campaign at the end of July. Still, it wasn’t enough to pay for all my medical bills, pay for my prescriptions, pay for my rent. It’s been a horrible struggle. It’s been probably the hardest three months of my life. I don’t know how many nights I cried myself to sleep wondering, ‘How are we going to get through this? How are we even going to survive, because I can’t buy food?’ I have this GoFundMe, but I also have my health that I have to worry about. What’s going to take precedence: my life or my shelter?
My landlord has been amazing. But I haven’t paid rent in three months; now he can’t pay his mortgage. I applied two months ago for Texas rent relief. I just found out that they are paying all my past-due rent and two months ahead in rent and utilities. I am now working in the Richardson district as a high school special education teacher. I’m getting my first paycheck today, thank God.
I finally feel like I’m going to have some relief. I was three months behind on rent. Three months behind on water. I was three months behind on my car payment. Finally, I can take a breath. I feel like I’m going to be okay. My family is going to be okay.
— as told to Mary Beth Gahan
Thompson, 42, has been in the restaurant business in Florida for more than a decade, helping her partner expand his original Bull Top Taste Caribbean restaurant to four outlets in Palm Beach County. The pandemic forced some temporary closures last year, but each location is open again — even as Thompson struggles to find enough workers.
Last year, I had to close two restaurants and change the hours in the other two, based on what was going on with the pandemic. Staff were unsure, they were scared, they didn’t want to get exposed.
I still haven’t gone back to my normal operation because of staffing issues. I’ve not fully reopened those two restaurants; their hours were 8 in the morning until 9 at night, but I can’t do breakfast anymore there because I don’t have the staff.
It’s gotten worse each month. People tell me that because minimum wage was raised to $15 an hour, and I’m not paying that, they won’t work here. They say the job is too cheap. They’re misinformed, because the minimum wage in Florida won’t go up to $15 for a few years, but they think I should be paying it now.
And they want benefits, health insurance and all that. I hope to get there, but I’ve never been able to offer those benefits.
I normally have eight or 10 stacks of applications, so I could just go through and make a call if I need somebody. Now it’s the opposite. I’m begging for applicants. I posted on Indeed, and I got nothing. Nobody applied.
I had a guy here — I needed a food prepper — and I interviewed him and he started on a Monday. He came late on the second day. On the third day, he texted me and said he wasn’t coming back.
I had a new cashier who went out on her lunch break, and she never came back. I’ve never had those issues before.
A couple of my good managers — two of them left and started their own businesses. Two of them have their own food truck now. One of my cashiers — she’s now a manager at a hotel, and another one is working at a bank.
Different stuff — they’re looking for better opportunities.
My mom saw that I needed help, and my sister asked if I needed help. So they came over, and they brought my aunt. They all have their own jobs — my mom is a nurse — but they cut their hours at their other jobs to help me out. At first they started coming without being paid, but then we worked something out.
I’ve had to raise the price on a couple of items. Our oxtail dinner is popular with our customers; it's a specialty. It comes with rice and beans and cabbage and a drink. But the price of oxtail has gone up probably 80 percent. Before, I charged $12. I've had to raise it to $18, and my competitors are getting up to $20.
The price of gloves and masks has gone up, too. Before the pandemic, a case of gloves was like $32. Now it’s $120.
A lot of people were staying home because they were afraid of covid, and I understand that. Some of them just sat at home, but a lot of them were trying to learn a trade or do something to better themselves. So I don’t know when it’s going to get better for restaurants who need workers. I’m just hoping things get better soon.
— as told to Lori Rozsa
Lillie, 42, is the co-founder and chief executive of Caveat, a small performing arts venue on the Lower East Side. As the pandemic ground on last fall, he considered permanently closing his business and consulted bankruptcy lawyers. But with much of New York City reopened, Caveat is now breaking even.
Before the pandemic, we had about five full-time staff and 15 part-time. When covid hit, we shut down and let everyone go. Knowing that we could be getting a [federal] Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, we figured we could reopen. We decided June 1 would be the date. I got in touch with our general manager, Anne Huston, and said, “Hey, we’re reopening. Do you want to come back to work?” I think the exact text I got back was, “Best news I’ve heard all year.”
Anne has been with us since the beginning, in late 2017. For reopening, Anne has done a lot of the work of hiring the part-time staff — a floor manager, a door person, a bartender, just enough people to get going. We didn’t have a problem finding staff. Our head floor manager came back. We did have to replace a lot of people who left town, like our tech director and our bar manager. Our booking manager had gotten another job. We intentionally didn’t replace several full-time positions at first so that we could operate on a small budget while we were waiting for the grant to come through.
For every show that would come in — improv comedy, live podcasts — it would be people’s first time out or first time performing. They’d be very emotional or excited or scared. We are a 100 percent vaccinated space and have been since we reopened.
But by July, we were running out of money. With reopening, we weren’t making money. I was calling around friends and family for help. It was a tight situation.
Less than two weeks ago, I got the notice that we received the grant. That is now in the bank. We are set.
Now we’re refilling more positions, and we’ll probably end up at seven full-time staff by the end of October. I’m optimistic. If you’d talked to me two weeks ago, I would have given you a very different impression. If we hadn’t gotten this grant and a special [federal] loan, and if the delta variant caused a shutdown again, we would have been in trouble. It’s entirely due to getting this big grant that we can use to pay our rent; we can use it for payroll. The grant means being able to fill the last couple of positions, like a marketing person.
We got very lucky, given that we had to shut down for a year. A lot of shows have been selling out. A bunch of events have packed the room. People are vaccinated and happy and excited to be back seeing live entertainment with other people.
On Oct. 1, my next rent is due, and I still have some loan repayments. We do get hit with $30,000 in bills right away. But we’re okay with that.
— as told to Hannah Bae
All conversations were edited lightly for clarity and conciseness. Project planning and editing by Carrie Camillo and Susan Levine. Copy editing by Anne Kenderdine. Photo editing by Haley Hamblin. Design and development by Cece Pascual.