An Unemployment Crisis During Covid 19- in Louisiana and Beyond
This piece was originally published by Big Easy Magazine on September 1st, 2020.
“New Orleans is slowly bleeding to death. I don’t know how much longer my job will be able to continue leaking.”
It’s a desperate statement, from a New Orleanian on Twitter, that’s all too familiar to those who depend on businesses being open, and life returning to some semblance of normal, in order to make a living during a global pandemic. For these people, working from home isn’t an option and they’re dependent on the few government resources available to feed their families, and survive, in a crisis that no one could have predicted.
When the Covid 19 pandemic caused the shutdown of non-essential businesses, including live music venues, theaters and bars, it was originally believed to be temporary. Now, more than 5 months in, with no real end in sight, many New Orleans businesses are still shuttered, with some unlikely to return. Those who work in those businesses, especially those in the hospitality and gig industry, are struggling.
On August 18th, Governor Edwards announced that $375 million of FEMA federal disaster assistance will aid those in Louisiana who are unemployed due to Covid 19. Sam Karlin of The Advocate, reported that 400,000 laid-off workers will be able to tap into an extra $300-a-week unemployment benefit. The Louisiana Workforce Commission will also reach out to 20,000 of the unemployed who may not have originally qualified for federal Lost Wage Assistance.
This came on the heels of 450,000 of the unemployed in Louisiana losing their eligibility to receive a $600 weekly supplemental payment from the federal government on July 31st.
While the jobless wait on financial supplementation, how does someone survive when their job is gone and their options are limited?
The answer, for many, is alternate means of employment and making ends meet. While the selection of jobs is limited, and unemployment relief is spotty (in early August, Governor Edwards implemented a rule in which unemployed workers must apply for jobs, in order to continue receiving benefits), people are having to resort to a new plan in order to get by.
Figuring out what’s next
Michael Patrick Welch, a writer and teacher, who was employed at Delgado Community College in the English department, has been out of work since earlier this year. As an alternative to a job in academia, Welch now catches fish and crabs and sells them.
“It’s just what I like to do, but I monetized it once I had to,” Welch said. “I go fishing or crabbing about once or twice a week, then spend a day making crab quiches, crab bisque, and also ceviche. Sometimes I just sell the fish and crabs, but it’s more lucrative to cook. Delivery is lagniappe.”
Makeup artist Amanda Hampton Bravender was working steadily in the hair and makeup department for theater performances and doing makeup for brides, through her business AHB Hair and Make-up Services. The mother of 4 said that her hair and makeup work is likely on-hold until next year.
“My main work experience is unique wig work, makeup, and theatre makeup all of it is gone until January,” she said. “All of my wedding bookings are gone. I don’t have a salon clientele to work in a salon. None are hiring because they can only work 50%. My hands are really tied in my options for job applications.”
As an alternative, Bravender is now working towards getting her real estate license.
“I’ve always had an interest in real estate, especially after I bought, flipped and sold my first home,” she explained. “I’ve always wanted my real estate license, but never had the time. Covid erased all of my work and made time for me to do it. With no real income like before, I need a plan C.”
Bravender said that it’s frustrating not being able to work in the field that she considers her passion. She wasn’t expecting a career change at this point in her life, even if it’s temporary.
“[I’ve] always felt prepared,” she said. “If I didn’t have movies I had theater, if not that, I had weddings. I even had a part time retail job in outside sales. That’s all gone.”
For many, finding another way to make money isn’t an option. For these people, the future looks bleak and, without serious government intervention, many are facing an uncertain future.
Wayne Shook is a touring sound engineer whose work dried up when the pandemic hit. He doesn’t have the wherewithal to start a new career and he’s not sure what the future holds.
“I don’t know if I can make it until venues open up again,” he said. “I didn’t have much savings when this happened, so I’m relying completely on unemployment. With the current amount that Louisiana pays, I will drain my meager savings and be homeless in about 8 months. I’ve lost my will to do anything and I feel absolutely hopeless. I have no desire to learn something new.”
When live stages go dark
Live performers are among the hardest hit. With venues closed indefinitely, many of those who rely on regular gigs to get by find themselves at a crossroads.
Bella Blue, a burlesque teacher, producer and performer, is facing a new reality of not being able to produce live shows and teach burlesque classes at her school, The New Orleans School of Burlesque.
“This is seriously the longest I have gone, in over 13 years, without doing multiple shows a week,” Blue said. “My industry was decimated overnight by this. Overnight, I went from a standard 5–8 shows per week and 3–5 classes per week to nothing. It was a bit of a shock to the system, to say the least. I had just purchased a space for my studio and we were just coming off of Mardi Gras and getting geared up for a really exciting Spring. What I didn’t anticipate was that we would still be here.”
Although it’s hard to see the bright side of not working, Blue has found that the downtime has given her a chance to focus more on her health and her future.
“Before the pandemic, I was admittedly working too much,” she explained. “I had become used to it. However, my body was not well- my degenerative disc disease and an ongoing hip injury left me in pain most of the time. I didn’t sleep much, ate at weird hours, and was just overworked. During the pandemic I have experienced an immense amount of healing in my body. I sleep really well, I naturally wake up between 6:30 and 7:00 a.m., I’ve lost 20 lbs., my eating has become more consistent, and overall my body feels strong.”
Blue also said she is using the newfound free time to pursue a degree in social work- a cause that is close to her heart.
She explained, “I have been wanting to go to school to get my bachelor’s and master’s in social work for some time but, with as much as I was working, I couldn’t figure out how to cut back enough to be able to go to school full time and work. This pandemic allowed the space to be able to get that ball rolling. I currently have a full schedule at Delgado with plans to transfer to a university and get my bachelor’s and after that, an accelerated master’s program.”
However, like many others, she has been struggling to find work.
“I have been looking for work but have not been successful in this landscape,” she said. “I don’t know what being in burlesque will look like when this is done. We don’t know what we will be going back to or what tourism will look like. All I know is that I can’t wait any more. I have to figure out what’s next, regardless. Some days it feels exciting. Some days it feels like mourning a death. What I do know is that New Orleans always takes care of each other and I have seen more of that lately than I have since after Katrina. I need to believe that if we hang onto that, we’re gonna be ok.
Lack of communication, in the hardest of times
In the current employment climate, many don’t know whether or not they will have a job to return to, when things stabilize. Jesse Brooks was a journalist at The Daily Star, a newspaper in Hammond. He’s frustrated because, after being placed on furlough in April, his employers have been uncommunicative, leaving him unsure of his next step.
“It was strongly implied that I would be brought back after the federal benefits for unemployment expired- that has not happened,” he said. “I still haven’t heard from my office since April. I’m still ‘employed’, but I’m drawing no paycheck and I am not working. I now have no confidence I will be called back and that the corporate offices are using the pandemic as an excuse to downsize our branch.”
Brooks said that he’s exploring his other options and wishes that his employers had been more forthcoming about his employment status.
“Currently, I’m full-on job searching,” he explained. “I wish I had known that I was totally free, rather than sitting on furlough. It’s been stressful and my anxiety has been high.”
Brooks continued, “I’m experiencing fatigue and aches and pain related to mild depression. These feelings can be distracting and cause procrastination.”
A service industry on the brink of crisis
In New Orleans, where service industry jobs are very much the backbone of the tourism-driven economy, the struggles run deep. With restaurants operating at 50% capacity, and bars completely closed, the industry is in the midst of a crisis that might last for years.
One individual, who agreed to speak with me anonymously, said that employees are no longer being furloughed and, instead, are being laid off completely, until something changes.
“I am in the food and beverage business and what I am currently witnessing is dire,” the anonymous source said. “Staff is cut down to managers, general managers, executive chefs and sous chefs. Salary managers are working reduced hours for reduced pay.”
Anonymous also notes frustration with surrounding parishes not being as strict about Covid regulations as Orleans parish.
“A lot of service industry businesses in New Orleans are becoming disgruntled because their business is hampered by regulation, but the neighboring Metairie, Kenner, and the Northshore seem to be wide open,” they explained. “Large events like weddings are simply moving to our more open neighbors. We are talking about large chunks of money.”
What anonymous fears might happen, when culinary jobs reopen, is large amounts of people competing for fewer jobs, especially if some restaurants permanently close
“If 50% of eateries close, everyone will be competing for the same jobs,” they said. “I fear that when culinary jobs reopen, it could create a scenario where businesses can justify low pay because people will feel lucky to have a job. It will probably be a situation where the business is struggling to recover and simply won’t be able to pay the wages from before Covid. This will probably result in a mass exodus of service industry talent from the city.”
$300 a week and no end in sight
The problem with unemployment isn’t just a Louisiana issue. Amy Anderson moved from New Orleans to Chicago 8 years ago. When the pandemic hit, she was working at Second City, a famed Chicago comedy theater that employed 700 people in 3 different cities and trained some of the biggest names in entertainment, over the last 60 years. Second City closed its doors on March 13th, and they have remained closed since. Anderson was laid off, via Zoom, and originally thought she would be out of work for 2 months. 5 months later, she’s still unemployed and, with unemployment benefits uncertain, she’s looking for a new job.
“I filed for unemployment and the other state benefits the day I was laid off so within a couple of weeks I had enough money for rent, food, and state issued health insurance,” she explained. “I am one of the people who with the federal and state UI, was taking home more actual money than I did at my job; the $600 alone was more than I got to take home in a week, working full time- which means I was taking home less than the federal minimum wage.”
Anderson now finds herself in a difficult position. Since she has lost her job as the manager of a major Chicago theater, she had hoped to fall back on being a server. However, jobs are scarce- Chicago restaurants are only operating at 50% capacity and 1/3 of restaurants are expected to close permanently.
Anderson is currently surviving on $300 a week and is actively applying for work.
“Right now my inbox is full of cattle calls for insurance phone representatives,” she said.
Anderson doesn’t know what comes next, but she knows that she isn’t alone.
“I do not know what I am going to do,” she said. “I’d love to be able to sum up this story and let you know what my plans are but the truth is, I don’t know and I don’t know when I will. I am, like a lot of people, in a free fall and I have no idea where the bottom is. I suspect that for a lot of us it’s going to be worse than we ever imagined.”
International students facing deportation
Lindsy Greig is a former New Orleans resident who moved to Australia over two years ago and found work at a brewery, as an assistant brewer. The country went into lockdown in March, and Greig was out of her brewery job by April. She said that she’s struggling because, although the government is providing assistance to Australian citizens and permanent residents, the benefits don’t apply to her because she’s in the country on a partnership visa.
“I do not qualify for any aid,” Greig said. “I have lived and worked here legally and paid taxes for 2.5 years, and paid for my visa, and I receive no aid.”
Greig finds the treatment of international students particularly egregious. Australia is expected to be on lockdown until at least October. International students, living under a work-sponsored visa, are faced with a choice: find a company to sponsor you, or leave.
“It’s absolute sh*t, because Australia has a massive international student population and they work the majority of hospitality jobs and they have literally just been left,” she explained. “A lot of people here are on work-sponsored visas and have now lost their jobs and are probably having to go back to their home country.”
She continued, “It’s heart-breaking to see so many students being absolutely screwed over. I think the government gave them a one-time payment of $1,000, but that was back in April or May.”
Back here in Louisiana, those most in need are playing a waiting game. Waiting for more businesses to reopen and waiting for more jobs to become available. Waiting for life to get back to some semblance of normal.
The federal assistance is a temporary fix- until numbers of those infected begin to drop, and businesses are allowed to reopen, the people of Louisiana will continue to struggle to survive. The magnitude of this disaster will, no doubt, be felt for years to come.