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Stories of Pandemic Unemployment: ‘It … Eats Away at You’

Low wages, risky jobs put LGBTQ+ People, BIPOC and Women in the Line of Fire

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Above image credit: The pandemic recession cost women and LGBTQ+ people more, data show. (Adobe Spark)

Marietta Williams’ work depends on events and people. 

A caricature artist, Williams found herself unemployed when the city and state leaders initiated lockdowns last March. She was the primary earner for her household. 

“Business was good. And then of course the event industry has been completely wrecked by the pandemic,” she said. 

By June, she was scraping by, supported only by Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) for self-employed people. Williams said she got $660 per week, which was “not remotely what I make.” 

That wasn’t enough so she looked for work outside of the creative field. She landed a job doing invoicing and worked there from July until October, but left because of a hostile work environment. Leaving voluntarily meant she no longer qualified for PUA. 

Williams is one of many in the Kansas City area hurt by unemployment brought on by the pandemic recession. More often than not, women bore the brunt of the economic pain.

According to the December Bureau of Labor Statistics report, employers cut 140,000 jobs. However, women were hit harder by those cuts, accounting for 156,000 jobs lost while men gained 16,000.

That has been a recurring theme throughout the pandemic recession.

“Women, regardless of education level, mostly had higher unemployment than men during this period,” reads a study by the Carsey School of Public Policy study, out of the University of New Hampshire. The report researched the inequities that arose because of job loss during the pandemic. 

Even though the overall unemployment rate dropped, unemployment rates among female workers rose. 

In February 2020, women had a lower unemployment rate than men, Carsey School of Public Policy found. But by April 2020, that had reversed. 

Of those women, Latinas had the highest jobless rates, followed by Black women. The Carsey study found that in April 2020, the rates of unemployment among Latino (19%) and Black (16%) of all workers were higher than other racial and ethnic groups. The rate of unemployment among white workers was 13%. 

However, the official labor statistics may not show the full picture, contends a study by the Ludwig Institute for Shared Economic Prosperity (LISEP). Expanding on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey data, the institute developed a broader way to measure economic health, called the “True Rate of Unemployment.” 

The Ludwig Institute added two additional elements in its calculations: the respondent’s age and full-time work status. 

The Ludwig study concluded that official LISEP found that the official unemployment numbers were underreported and excluded nuances such as income above the poverty level ($20,000 annually) and hours worked per week. The study produced what they call a “true rate of unemployment” and, as it turns out, its rates were much higher, particularly for women. 

During the past year, women were hit particularly hard because they tend to hold jobs in industries most affected by the pandemic shutdowns, according to a study produced by Didem Tuzemen and Thao Tran at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. The study noted big job losses in accommodation and food services, health care and social assistance, and retail trade.

The pandemic also illuminated a lack of support and protection for working mothers.

PaKou Her, who works for the nonprofit news site ParentsTogether, said women are devalued across the board.  

“Culturally, we learned to devalue women’s work and the devaluation shows up in how little we pay or disproportionate rates of pay,” Her said. “Women will be … oftentimes the first to be released from positions, the ones who don’t get the structural support. Again and again, gender is very, very clearly shows itself around those places of unequal opportunity and inequitable access for women in the workplace.” 

PaKou Her
PaKou Her, digital campaigner for ParentsTogether. (Contributed)

Working mothers are also overwhelmed, she said. As one herself, she said that work goes unpaid as she continues to juggle a full-time job. Other parents may not have a supportive partner or childcare help, another added challenge that has caused some working women to leave the workforce altogether. 

“There’s always a story in the numbers and it’s not a story you have to make up,” Her said.  

Another part of the workforce that is rarely examined is how LGBTQ+ were affected by the pandemic. The Human Rights Campaign Foundation and PSB Research conducted an online poll of 1,000 people in April 2020. 

About 30% of LGBTQ respondents said their hours were cut, compared to 22% of the general population. Roughly 14% of the general population and 12% of the LGBTQ population became unemployed because of COVID-19. Also, 20% of LGBTQ people say their personal finances are “much worse off” than they were a year earlier, compared to only 11% of the general population

Though mitigation efforts were put in place to slow the spread, some workers couldn’t do their jobs from home. They were left weighing the risks of maintaining an income versus their own health. 

‘It was hairy’

This was the case for Fanny Mendelberger, 64, a licensed occupational therapist. She moved to Kansas City from Brooklyn, New York, four years ago and lives with her partner and mother. 

Last March, at the onset of the pandemic, Mendelberger was three weeks into a new job. There was a shortage of Personal Protective Equipment and, simply put, “it was hairy,” Mendelberger said. She was concerned because she worked with high-risk individuals hands-on. 

Mendelberger made it a point to stop by her patient’s rooms, knock on their windows and wave “hello” for some human interaction.

As the case counts rose, though, she began to weigh the risks versus benefits of keeping her job. 

“Most of the places I worked were hotspots, (like) nursing homes,” she said. “It was a real moral choice. I was like, ‘What’s the right thing to do here?’ I could be a carrier … I have a 95-year-old mom.”

Mendelberger is her mother’s caregiver, so she decided to resign. She’s among the 75% of all caregivers who are female, according to a 2018 study by the Institute on Aging.

But she’s using the time she has now to be creative. She’s taking tap dance classes and bought a guitar.

“Listen, right now I’m feeling the expanse of the experience and opportunities that the pandemic presented,” she said.  

Unemployment Isolation

The service industry was never stable, said Al Cousineau, a long-time service worker and graphic artist. 

Cousineau has worked in restaurants for about 15 years and money was always in flux. At the time the pandemic hit, Cousineau worked at Mission Taco in the Crossroads. News reports kept flooding in about rising infections, deaths and impending lockdowns. 

As Cousineau recalls, the employees’ eyes were glued to screens. Then reality set in.

“I remember a regional manager … sitting in the corner crying,” Cousineau said.

Al Cousineau worked in the restaurant business for nearly 15 years. (Contributed)

People were being laid off or opting to leave because they felt unsafe. Managers were sending surveys asking how employees felt about working in-person. But Cousineau had questions about employee safety. 

“What (is) the pay scale going to be? How long is that going to be for? What protections are you going to put in place for us? Um, are we going to have access to free testing?” they said. “I just wasn’t getting the answers that, um, would make me feel safe.”

Then Cousineau was furloughed. 

On top of job instability, Cousineau’s relationship dissolved and a friend had died suddenly — exacerbating the mental health struggle. 

Cousineau survived on unpredictable unemployment checks, lived in subsidized housing and still barely made ends meet. At one point, Couseineau’s electricity was about to be shut off and there was no money for food. An aunt sent a paper check that got lost in the mail. 

Today, Cousineau serves as a “surrogate mama.” After the death of a mutual friend, another friend moved in with her four-year-old daughter, Lala. That gave Cousineau the added perspective of working, parenting and juggling a small child’s boredom during a lockdown. 

What Cousineau really wants people to understand is how humiliating it is to be in their shoes. 

“We have ingrained in us this idea that if we’re not working, then we’re not worth something. … It kind of starts to eat away at you,” Cousineau added. “The embarrassment of it can isolate you from people, especially other people (who) are working.”

But life is looking up for Cousineau, who recently landed a job in the mental health field. They have a full house, a support system of good friends and a job that focuses on helping others.

“I would say, like, the best thing that has happened to me during all of this is community,” they said. 

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