For three decades, Kelly Flint flourished as a corporate travel agent, sending everyone from business titans to oil riggers around the planet. Then came the worst pandemic in a century, leaving her jobless and marooned in an uncertain economy.
Furloughed since March, Flint has dipped into her retirement account to pay her bills, frustrated that her $600 weekly emergency federal aid payments have expired. She yearns, too, for an end to the twin disasters that now dominate her life: recession and pandemic.
“I don’t deal well with the unknowns,” she says. “I never have.”
Across America are legions of Kelly Flints, women and men who don’t know when they’ll receive another paycheck — or if.
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The coronavirus outbreak and resulting economic upheaval have thrown millions of lives into disarray. Industries have collapsed, businesses closed, jobs disappeared. Compounding the misery is a question no one can answer: When will this all be over?
In recent congressional testimony, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell repeated his earlier warning: The strength of any recovery will rely on the nation's ability to contain the virus. The outlook for the U.S. economy, he said, is “extraordinarily uncertain."
Uncertain. If 2020 had to be condensed into a single word — and there are many, many words to describe it — uncertainty would hover at the top of the list. Uncertainty about health. About the future. About the country itself. And uncertainty about livelihoods and jobs and economic security in a historical moment where each day seems to bring a fresh wave of unwanted developments.
America has faced economic calamity before, most recently during the recession of 2008, when the jobless rate soared to 10%. That pales in comparison to the two crises that have cost more than 160,000 American lives and ushered in spiraling unemployment — 30 million job losses, of which 17.5 million people remain unemployed.
“It’s not just the scope of the losses,” says Martha Gimbel, an economist at Schmidt Futures. “Until we have solved the public health crisis or have a timeline ... none of us is going to know what’s going on.”
Uncertainty, painted onto the landscape by the numbers. And behind each one, a human being.
When she lost her job, she wrestled with a flood of emotions: shock, panic, then determination.
“I went into survival mode,” Vines says. “My faith kicked in like a ninja.”
Her first task was to research every possible government benefit. But even with that, she turned to food banks to provide for herself and her 8-year-old granddaughter, who shares her home in Memphis, Tennessee.
Vines was stunned when she was laid off in March from her sales job at a promotional product company. She'd worked there 20 years. “You think you're going to be taken care of,” she says.
A calm set in as Vines inventoried her life, knowing she had a small savings and a home she could sell. “I looked at my granddaughter and said, ‘OK, we’re to get through it,’” she says.
She doesn’t know what the future holds. One possibility: working for the same company, but on a commission basis. But at 56, she has a philosophy: “You learn what to worry about and what to pray about.”
She’s confident a way forward will emerge. “I’ll either be here or I’ll build my peace elsewhere,” Vines says. “I can’t get wrapped up in the unknowns when I have blessings in front of me.”
He had a road map for his future. A new job in his hometown in rural Michigan. A chance to use his marketing skills. The comfort of living with his parents.
Saigh was eager to start over after being laid off in 2019 from a Detroit-area marketing company. After a half-year of searching for work, Saigh decided it would be cheaper to continue his quest from home. He moved in with his parents in Iron River, in Michigan’ s Upper Peninsula.
A few months later, Saigh was hired to lead a nonprofit attached to his local hospital. He’d be working 5 miles from home, reuniting with friends in Iron River, population 3,000 — and doing something positive for his community.
“It was just perfect," he says. "It was like, “Wow! Everything is falling in place.”
Then the pandemic swooped in. Hospitals faced new financial pressures. The offer was rescinded. Saigh went from dream job to no job.
It was back to sending out resumes, checking LinkedIn, canvassing for interviews during one of the most brutal job markets in decades. “It can be overwhelming at times just to go through this again,” he says.
He considers himself lucky, avoiding rent and other expenses living with his parents. He recently turned down a job offer to head a local economic organization; it didn’t seem like the right fit, and he feared there might not be money for the position beyond the end of the year.
Now, Saigh plans to do some photo and video freelance work as he tries to land another job. He’s adjusted to an economy where so much remains unknown.
“I’ve learned that you can’t possibly plan for everything and, though it’s a cliche, you’ve just got to roll with the punches,” he says. “And I’ve learned to go where the next thing leads me. Hopefully, that will be soon.”
Every day, he confronts the realities of too many bills, not enough money, a job that’s on hold — and no timetable for when any of it will change.
Jackson is among tens of thousands of hospitality workers who've been sidelined in an industry devastated by the pandemic. His employer, the Diplomat Beach resort in Hollywood, Florida, closed in March because of the outbreak. That left Jackson, an assistant to the bartender and server at a hotel restaurant, and his wife, an elementary school teacher, scrambling to provide for their three asthmatic children.
They’ve tried to shield them from money troubles. “It’s not their job to go out and make things happen,” Jackson says. “As a parent, you don’t want to give kids the perception that the ground is crumbling under your feet.”
Complicating the situation is Florida’s unemployment system, which has been marred by computer glitches and lengthy delays. Despite countless calls over the months, Jackson, 51, says he has yet to receive a single $275 weekly state unemployment check — even though his last day of work was March 21. That cap is among the stingiest in the nation.
The stress has frayed his nerves. His doctor, who waived copayments for visits, prescribed medicine for his high blood pressure, but he can’t afford it. His hair is thinning. He gets migraines.
Jackson and his wife have traditionally depended on help from her teaching salary, but she’s been off during the summer. With $3,200 in monthly bills, the two regularly face tough choices. “If you do have money,” he says, “do you spend it on gas or do you get food?”
Jackson is hoping to find a warehouse job for now. He worries about having enough food for his kids — 8 to 18 — and being able to afford school supplies, clothes and everything else they'll need in coming months.
He refuses to look too far ahead. “This is a day-to-day process,” he says, “and I can’t worry about the things I cannot change.”
He can’t help but think he was a victim of bad timing.
Last year, after tiring of being an educator, he gave up a job teaching French in a private school in suburban Milwaukee. He was recruited to become a bilingual software trainer, traveling to Canada three weeks a month. In the spring, he rushed back to the U.S. as the border was about to close.
Then suddenly, at 46, Lipshutz was out of work — something entirely new for him. He filed for unemployment and joined a support group of jobless workers in Wisconsin. He began figuring out how much to dip into savings that had taken years to amass.
“Not having enough money can paralyze you,” he says. It’s a lesson he learned at a young age.
“I grew up with a single mom on welfare in the ’80s,” Lipshutz says. “And I know what it’s like to collect government cheese and free lunch and to live paycheck to paycheck and feel that stress of financial instability. .... It brings back trauma from that time of, ‘Oh, my God, am I going to have to live like that again?’"
Lipshutz’s second software project was canceled because of budget cuts. He’s now starting a tofu business with friends. He also expects to be back in the classroom this fall, teaching French to Milwaukee public high school students.
Lipshutz has become more comfortable, too, accepting the limitations of this chaotic environment.
“There are certain things you can’t control, and you have to let it go,” he says. “I can’t control the pandemic. I can’t control the job market.”
"In the back of my mind,” he adds, “there’s still a tiny drawer of anxiety and worry. ... But I’m starting to tell myself, ‘Listen, you’re going to be fine.’”
For her, the pandemic has been a health risk and a job destroyer.
Last March, she had to quit her job at a marketing company in North Carolina because face-to-face encounters with customers at big-box stores were potentially dangerous. A diabetic, Githmark, 24, has an increased chance of becoming seriously ill if she contracts the coronavirus.
“I feel like I don’t have very much of a purpose now,” she says. She feels as if she’s “floating around in life” as she searches for work, with her father helping retool her resume. She knows her job possibilities are limited because she can’t be exposed to large groups of people.
Githmark plans to enroll in grad school, though she hasn’t chosen a field of study. She taught in a charter school in Durham, North Carolina, before moving into marketing. She may return to education.
Meanwhile, gardening and writing help relieve the tension. “It’s just been a very stressful time,” she says, and sighs.
When the Portland, Oregon, club where he tended bar was forced to close in the pandemic's early days, he had no time to plan how he’d pay his bills. But he knew some routine expenses would have to wait.
At the top of the list were $250 monthly payments he’d been making for more than a decade to whittle down $45,000 in student loans. There was no way he could shoulder that. His immediate worries were food and shelter, and he was pleasantly surprised when he was given some leeway in paying rent and utilities.
For the past six months, Anderson, 37, has relied on state unemployment and $600-a-week pandemic-related federal benefits that just expired. In Washington, Democrats and Republicans are clashing over how much of that aid should continue and for how long.
Anderson has been cautious about spending. He walks almost everywhere. He has reduced his food budget to essentials. He doesn't go out with friends. He’s become politically active, calling the offices of federal lawmakers, urging them to back a bill creating a $120 billion fund to help rescue restaurants and bars.
And as stressful days give way to sleepless nights, he and his friends commiserate over their shared predicament.
“You’ve got kind of overwhelming sense of dread,” he says, echoing the sentiments of a friend who said being caught in the pandemic is “like standing on the shore and you’re looking at this huge tsunami wave coming in. and you know it’s going to hit. But there’s not a whole lot I can really do about it.”
She isn’t one to point fingers. She knows many others who’ve looked at the staggering numbers of unemployed and don’t feel the same way.
“I see a lot of people blaming companies, saying, ‘How dare they lay off their employees!’” she says. “But those decisions have to be made."
Kouskoulas, 30, was laid off in April, about six months after being hired for a copywriting-marketing job at a suburban Detroit construction company.
She’s now interviewing for jobs, preparing for the post-pandemic era. She spends part of every morning sharpening and expanding her skills, studying graphic design on YouTube, among other things, “so I can come out strong when things do go back to normal.” And she speaks regularly with a CEO she once worked for who acts as her mentor.
Shortly after Kouskoulas lost her job, she thought she had a lucky break: She was hired to do marketing at a software firm. She worked 60-hour weeks, she says, but was repeatedly rebuffed when she asked for a paycheck. After four weeks, she’d had enough.
In recent weeks, Kouskoulas says she senses the “quietness in the economy” that existed a few month ago has lifted and there are more opportunities. But she also worries some employers will be consolidating roles, producing fewer jobs with more responsibilities.
She’s prepared, too, for what she expects will be “a long haul."
“At the end of the day,” she says, "the only person who’s going to get me out of this is me.”
Uncertainty ripples outward. There are so many things that, because of it, simply can't be done.
It spreads to those who’ve permanently lost jobs as well as furloughed workers wondering if they’ll be called back. “People may tell you to retrain,” says Gimbel, the economist. “What are you supposed to retrain for? You don’t know what the economy is going to look like. Everyone is frozen because it’s so unclear how the situation is going to evolve.”
And long-term planning? Even murkier — impossible, really, says Adam Ozimek, chief economist at Upwork.
“We don’t know whether at the end of the year there are going to be 15 million people without a job or 5 million people,” he says. "From top to bottom, every single person in the economy is affected by this uncertainty in one way or another.”
Job uncertainty is new for Flint, 53, the travel agent. She's never been unemployed, and it's “doubly scary,” she says, because she's single. Her furlough is up at the end of October, but there’s no guarantee she won’t be laid off before then. Every week, she sends out fresh resumes from her home in Galveston, Texas. And every day, she fends off scam artists who call with bogus job offers as they try to ferret out her private information.
“I've had anxiety that I’ve never had before. I’ve even had panic attacks. I’ve had crazy dreams of zombies,” she says. "It has worn on me.”
For Micah Anderson, the uncertainty has been the hardest part — “having zero idea of what next week is going to even look like.”
“I’m the type of person who, if I if I have an idea of what I’m facing, I can try to make a plan that makes sense,” Anderson says. “But you don’t really know what it is you need to do."
“You just have no clue. You make decisions the best you can. And you hope that they turn out OK.”
Contributing to this report were Desiree Mathurin and Haleluya Hadero.