Coronavirus Diaries: Three Americans Who Suddenly Lost Their Jobs

“Getting through to unemployment is basically my full-time job right now.”

A man holds his head in his hands in front of a laptop.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by iStock/Getty Images Plus and anyaberkut/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

As the coronavirus outbreak has forced most Americans to stay inside their homes, a huge swath of the country’s jobs have disappeared. The Department of Labor announced Thursday that 6.6 million people in the U.S. filed for unemployment last week. That broke a record set just the week before of 3.3 million people filing claims. Up until now, there’s never been a week in which more than 695,000 people filed for unemployment since 1967, when the country started keeping track. This mushrooming population of newly laid-off citizens has clobbered state unemployment websites, which keep crashing across the country due to capacity issues.

I talked to three people who recently lost their jobs—all of whom have been having trouble accessing the benefits to which they are entitled—about the strain this disaster is putting on their lives. Their accounts have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Pamela from Philadelphia

I started my new job in collections the first week in March, and the following week I was laid off because of coronavirus.* My co-workers were able to work from home, but I had just started, so I was not trained enough to work on my own at home. I went ahead and applied for unemployment. I had been receiving unemployment a couple months prior to all this happening, so all I needed to do was reactivate my account. Since that day I’ve been trying to call, email, and go on their website to at least check the status. There’s no possible way that you get through to a representative and there’s no way to check your claim status or file for biweekly benefits, because the site just crashes.

My son has sickle-cell disease, and he is in the hospital quite often. I’m in need of money for my son, taking care of his needs. At this point, I have nothing. I don’t even have the means to take him down to the hospital, because I don’t have any gas. He needs medicine. And another problem is that he gets into a depression because there’s nothing he can do. I get depressed because he’s depressed. I’m worried because what if something happens to him? Because of the disease, he’s very susceptible to the virus. My main concern is my son getting sick, so I can’t risk finding another job and possibly catching something and bringing it back to my son. And then my concern is once he is able to go back to school, how do you know for certain that none of those kids still carry the virus?

Currently we privately rent a duplex. I don’t know how that would apply when the government says that we can’t be evicted. I’m hoping that we won’t have to do that, because we have rent due today. I’m too freaked out to reach out to the landlords, but I’m pretty sure they would be accommodating. I have no backup plan. I can barely go to the food store. My only means of income is borrowing from people. That’s embarrassing, and then I have to pay them back. Someone may let me borrow up to $100. You know, $50 is for food to have it last for two weeks. We’re a family of four, so that’s really tough.

I’m doing my due diligence calling three times a day, hoping I’d be able to get through to someone for unemployment. Our main thing is just money. We’re at a low point.

Ann from Dallas

I worked at a hotel in the cafeteria. The first week of the coronavirus they told us, “OK, instead of two days off, everybody’s going to have three days off.” Third week, I saw them cleaning out the coolers in the banquet hall. The chef said, “I think this is going to affect us.” The next day, HR made the announcement that due to the coronavirus we’re forced to shut down because hotel occupancy has been low, and all the banquets have been canceled. I was the last round of people to be furloughed. I’m hopeful about getting my job back, but I’ll get hit twice because the hotel is doing renovations from August to November, so then I’ll be back to square one. I have a fiancé; he was also laid off.

I used my last paycheck to pay my rent. I’m aware of this rent strike, but I’m not doing it, because the pandemic isn’t going to be over for a couple of months. I don’t want to push myself back further into debt with my landlord. I’m worried about utilities. I’ve been using my washing machine and dryer less to cut down on the bills. The water company stopped disconnections, but our light company is not concerned about what’s going on. All the other companies are giving people leeway, but ours doesn’t care. I only have to pay them $82, but they keep sending me these emails saying I need to reply urgently because there’s a disconnect notice in effect for April 6. But when I called them and tried to get a deferred payment, they told us we’re not eligible.

Last Wednesday, I was able to get through to the unemployment website, and I filed my claim. But when I try to go back to check, I can’t get through. I called numerous times; it was shut down. I would probably buy more food with the benefits and pay a bill or two, but it’s only $230. My savings won’t cover very much at all. That’ll last us for two weeks. It’s three of us here. My fiancé’s been helping with food with the money he’s saved. My daughter is 19. She’s been helping me with a bill here or there.

I’ve been looking for jobs on I’ve been applying, but for hotel hospitality it’s not looking very good. I’m seeing more health care jobs. More jobs in nursing homes and hospitality. I used to be a home health aide, but I don’t want to go into anybody’s home. My other daughter is a home health aide in New York. The patient’s brother, who lives in the household, was diagnosed with COVID. Her agency didn’t tell her, so she was exposed all that time and didn’t know.

Morgan from Lowell, Massachusetts

I was a salesperson in the shoe department at Macy’s. The store was already going out of business, but we ended up closing a week early because of coronavirus. We’re all expecting a severance from Macy’s too, which we still haven’t gotten, and it’s been over two weeks. And also the unemployment website isn’t working for me. They have somebody else’s cellphone number instead of mine. When I try and reset my password, it sends an alert to someone else’s cellphone, and I’m just frustrated because I haven’t got through. I’ve been trying to get their website to work since March 17.

The benefits would help me pay my bills—electricity and car insurance. It’s pretty much my lifeline right now. Getting through to unemployment is basically my full-time job right now. When I call in, it’s an automated message that says the fastest way to apply for benefits is through the website, and then it hangs up on you. I have my fiancé at home. He’s out of work too, so we’re both calling and going on the website. But nothing’s working. The unemployment office is closed because of the virus, but it says it’s open on the website. Most of my bills are due at the middle and end of the month. The worst-case scenario is that I’ll get behind on my bills for three months. After you’re behind, it’s hard to catch up. I haven’t applied to other jobs yet. I’ve worked in retail the past seven years, but with all the malls closed it’s going to be a while before I find another job. I have my fingers crossed that I either get my severance or unemployment.

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Correction, April 2, 2020: This article originally misstated when Pamela lost her job. It was in March, not April.