'I'm going under trying to find a job': What it's like looking for work during the pandemic

Alisa Mitchell says she was making some of the best money of her life at the beginning of the year. In January, the 50-year-old Alabama resident started a job working for a remodeling company where she traveled to work on projects at stores like Target, Walmart and Lowes around the state. But when the governor halted nonessential business activity to curb the spread of the coronavirus in March, Mitchell was let go. Without much of a home to return to, she settled in Jackson County to wait out the virus.

For a while, she was able to make ends meet. She bought a mobile home for herself using funds from Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA ($114 per week, plus the $600 weekly federal enhancement), and a $1,200 stimulus check. She had enough to stay housed, fed and current on her bills. She looked for new work that would accommodate her respiratory issues and health concerns during the pandemic, but found opportunities few and far between. At its peak in early May, roughly 240,000 Alabama residents were collecting jobless benefits. As businesses reopened and coronavirus safety precautions lifted through June, the state saw a spike in virus cases. Then, in July, the lifeline that was keeping Mitchell on her feet came to an abrupt halt — for reasons still unknown to her three months later, she stopped receiving unemployment benefits.

The job search she'd already poured her energy into for months took on new urgency, even though little had changed about her prospects.

Millions still aren't receiving unemployment, but 'it costs money to go job hunting'

According to September data, an estimated 3 to 6 million workers are still waiting for a decision as to whether they're eligible for unemployment benefits, says Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation.

But for Mitchell, who had already been receiving benefits for several months, a state-wide re-determination caused her claim to go into payment limbo after July 5. Mitchell says she sent in additional documentation to prove she was laid off due to Covid-19 and was notified she was actually eligible for an increased benefit of $211 per week. But the system has not disbursed the payment even after Mitchell certifies each week. Countless calls to the state department of labor have done little to improve her situation.

"It's the most irritating thing trying to get in touch with someone about your livelihood, and they don't consider it important to call somebody back," Mitchell says. "I'm going under trying to find a job, and I don't know what to do."

She hasn't received any unemployment aid since July 17.

In the months since, she's had trouble paying her electric and water bills, and she stopped making payments on her home and car insurance. "I won't be able to keep [my home] much longer if something breaks," she says. "I'm treading water."

All of this makes it harder to look for a new job.

"I don't have money to look for work," Mitchell says. "It costs money to go job hunting. I'm scared to go out without insurance on my car, so I do what I can online, but my phone got cut off the other day and a friend had to turn it back on for me. All day I'm either checking email or on Indeed."

While she's grateful for the generosity of her friends, she worries what will happen if she can't support herself as the pandemic wears on. In early October, she found work on a production line but realized she was unable to do the physically demanding role. She was let go after just over a week and has tried to stretch her earnings from that period as far as she can. Now she's back to square one trying to find work in the worst job market in decades. Nationally, there are roughly two unemployed workers for every job opening, according to the latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey from September.

"I'm eating beans and potatoes," Mitchell says. "I was making good money before. I wish things would get back to normal. I guarantee I'll appreciate what I have more when things go back to normal."

Lack of affordable child care is a barrier to work

While jobs in some industries have rebounded through summer and fall, workers with added household responsibilities may not be able to take them.

Jonathan Sapp, 48, is a single father to an 8-year-old daughter in Kernersville, North Carolina. The audio-visual technician does voice-over work from home but saw a rapid drop in projects due to the pandemic. He finally got through the unemployment claims process in April and began receiving PUA benefits nearly two months later.

"It drives me insane to sit around and wait for it to pay my bills, but I need it until my daughter goes back to school," Sapp says of the federal assistance. The expiration of the $600 weekly stimulus in July leaves him with just $132 in weekly aid now. Sapp says he is thankful his dad is able to help him out financially to stay current on rent and utility bills: "If he wasn't, I have no idea where I'd be," Sapp says.

But he also has another deadline on his radar: Unless the program is renewed by Congress, his PUA benefits will expire at the end of the year. And while some of his clients have resumed their work requests, he says he is unable to take them on because he must supervise his daughter who is taking her fourth-grade classes from home. Her school district was set to return in-person by early November, but a new spike in virus cases has pushed the date by another two weeks.

Sapp gets a slight reprieve in the form of a YMCA program in a neighboring town, which his daughter attends two days a week, but the $600 monthly expense is more of an opportunity for her to socialize and be in a classroom-like setting, more so than for him to make up lost earnings.

Sapp is far from alone. According to the Senate Joint Economic Committee, nearly 13% of parents report they were forced to quit their jobs or reduce their work hours due to a lack of child care, which in turn is slowing economic recovery. Mothers are disproportionately impacted. According to a National Women's Law Center analysis, 865,000 women dropped out of the labor force altogether between August and September, compared to 216,000 men who also left the workforce during that period.

Meanwhile, hopes of a new coronavirus recovery package to provide more aid to workers and child-care facilities, among many other economic lifelines, diminish by the day.

Sapp refers to stalled negotiations between Congress and the White House as "maddening" and that he's now "at the point where I've given up on any help from the government. The stress of wondering whether or not I was going to get any help was actually higher than everything else I'm going through."

Still, "there are lots of people worse off than me," Sapp says, adding that his daughter's resilience to the changes gives him hope. "I'm blessed that we're making it. But we're going in the ninth month of this and it seems to me people have less of a clue what to do."

99 applications, 1 interview

Jobless numbers indicate that more people are experiencing long-term unemployment every week. Roughly 3.75 million Americans now are receiving benefits under Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) or their state's Extended Benefits — two programs federally funded through the end of the year intended for people who've exhausted their regular state-provided benefits, which typically run for 26 weeks.

Brian Heyman, 60, has worked as a chef for over 37 years and lives in Long Island, New York. Since losing his restaurant job in March, he's looked for work and taken up odd jobs cleaning; doing home and yard maintenance around his neighborhood; and helping people run errands. But the side income did little to make up for the expiration of the $600 weekly benefit. Even with continued jobless aid from the state, Heyman says he's used nearly all his savings and by September felt he was "pretty much going to lose everything."

New York restaurants are open but operating at reduced capacity, so "nobody can get a position where they can make a living," Heyman says.

Through it all, he considers himself relatively fortunate: He has not contracted the coronavirus, he doesn't have a family to support financially and his landlord has forgiven his rent while he is out of work and doesn't expect Heyman to make back payments for missed months.

In the last seven months, Heyman says he's sent out 99 job applications, heard back from five employers and finally has an interview for a head cook position at a local school this week.

It's common for cooks to move from restaurants to working for schools and hospitals during an economic downturn, Heyman says. "The food and atmosphere are different, sure, but at this stage, you really just want to have a position where you have a paycheck."

Have you taken on a seasonal or temporary job during the coronavirus pandemic? CNBC Make It would like to hear from you. Get in touch at [email protected].

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