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Just Trying to Pay the Bills: Working During a Pandemic

by Alexis Gaskin

Believe it or not we still have a couple of months to go before the end of 2020, and (probably) many more months of a pandemic that has brought a new normal for everyone. This new normal being social distancing, face masks, self-quarantining when leaving the state and numerous additional precautions to stay safe during this time of uncertainties. While COVID-19 has forced a lot of changes, there’s no ignoring that one crucial part that affects us all: money and work. According to the most recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate has actually gone down, however it is still higher than it was before the beginning of the pandemic in February.

For many people, staying inside was just not an option: with 16 million people unemployed and not everyone qualifying for governmental aid, the fear of not knowing how bills would get paid pushed many into trying to get “essential jobs,” many of which are at a minimum wage with little to no benefits. With so many people losing their jobs and a whole class of graduates entering a job market with no jobs, I spoke to young millenials and Gen Z women who have found themselves in a limbo of school and the workforce that seemingly changed overnight. 

The College Student

Jasmine Batacan is a rising senior at St. John’s University who, at the time, was juggling an on-campus job, an internship, and running a fashion club when the pandemic shook up the small private university that forced students to move out within 48 hours without any clue when or if they’d be allowed back. Jasmine expressed the stressful changes that affected her on and off campus: “In the beginning, the pandemic affected me very negatively. I was forced to leave my school campus, still expected to attend classes, and separated from my very close friends. I went through a very depressive mindset simply by being inside all of the time. In addition, my family was hit hard with the aftershocks of the pandemic on the economy.” After being sent home to Hyattsville, MD Jasmine knew that she had to get a job to supplement the loss of her internship and to help her family. College aged students and young workers like Jasmine, were all but left out of the stimulus check aid that was given in April from the CARES Act.

Although she is considered in the high-risk category due to her severe asthma, Jasmine knew she had to work. “I began to apply for jobs every single day when I woke up. I knew I needed to help my family out any way that I could. It was never an option not to work or grind to buy groceries and keep food on the table.” After applying to dozens of jobs, Jasmine was able to secure a position as a cashier at a grocery store, and in case you were wondering, she can confirm that it was as bad as you think. She discussed how the store took every precaution to ensure the public’s safety as well as her own, including; cleaning the store hourly, wearing masks, and keeping count of the number of people coming in and out of the store. However, disgruntled customers made working during the pandemic a nightmare. Anyone who’s ever worked a customer service job knows that rude customers are often the worst part of the job, so add the pressure of a pandemic and those rude customers become downright awful.

“Dealing with frustrated customers who were impatient with the new COVID procedures to enter the store was immensely hard. Maintaining a calm demeanor and being respectful to these customers was hard when they were so angry. It was crazy seeing grown adults getting frustrated with me and my coworkers when we wanted to ensure everyone’s safety.” Jasmine continued by saying that she wishes customers would understand that she is just doing her job and following the procedures given, “I understand people are on a tight schedule and have their own things going on but lashing out at people who are putting their lives at risk every day to support families is not the solution.”

Uncertain Undergrad

A recent college graduate, Han Duong was more than excited to start her professional career and work towards paying off her student loans, however the pandemic caused her to lose everything. “I was living in Queens with my three roommates, working two jobs: babysitting for a family on the Upper East Side and working in the Diversity and Community Outreach portion of the non-profit HeadCount,” Han explained. Once NYC began shutting down, she quickly discovered that she could no longer afford her lease for her apartment in Queens, was unable to babysit for the family she worked for, and that her fellowship with HeadCount would be coming to an end since all outdoor voter registration drives were cancelled. “That sucked a lot because it was just about to be summertime when everything was the busiest.” While Han was able to apply for unemployment benefits, she only received two checks with a little less than $600 before she got hired for a pharmaceutical company in April.

Luckily for her, she expressed that her position wasn’t too difficult and that working remotely was easy to adjust to. She added that working with customers through the phone with many technology challenges was the hardest part especially when working with something as important as peoples medicine. Even though she was able to find a job, Han still has a lot of fears for what’s to come, “As a new college graduate, I am very nervous about having to pay back my student loans. Although I am working a full-time job, there are living expenses that I need to think about, as well as life experiences that I feel like I’m missing. The job market we’re entering is very sparse and I’m quite nervous for the future.”

Law Student Gambles Her Gap Year

The pandemic has created a lot of uncertainties with workers and their financial situations, however some, like Shannon Donnelly, have been able to adjust to these changes because of governmental assistance and changed plans. “I just want to say that I am so sorry and mournful for those who have lost a loved one because of COVID-19, it’s a truly awful thing and I’m sad it took a pandemic for me to get a break, but because of unemployment and the stimulus check I’m the most financially stable I’ve ever been.” Shannon is no stranger to working full-time through traumatic events, having worked multiple jobs and internships since high school during personal distresses, she has adapted to every curveball the universe has aimed at her.

“I’ve always worked numerous jobs to pay for my bills, my apartment, school, whatever needed to get paid.” At the beginning of the pandemic Shannon was finishing up her undergraduate degree in Baltimore and working towards attending Law School, however once she got laid off from her job at a local casino, she knew she would have to wait.

“I got little to no communication from the casino as to when I could come back or what was happening, all I knew was I could apply for unemployment, so I did that.” Shannon emphasized that she knows she’s been very lucky this year and that because of her unemployment she is making the most money she has ever made and was able to get her financial situations stable. After collecting unemployment for several months Shannon began taking classes through the casino to become a card dealer and she explained that the COVID-19 precautions at the casino are very thorough. “Everyone gets their temperature checked when they enter the casino, cards are replaced frequently, there is glass separating the dealer from the players and there are only four people to a table because of the personal blockades.”

While Shannon is excited to start a new job that will pay immensely more than minimum wage, she knows that because she will be in the public on a daily basis, she won’t be able to be around her family members, some of which are considered high-risk. “It’s hard not being able to visit my family or see my mom, but I know that I have to work now. There really isn’t any other option anymore since the additional ($600) unemployment aid is gone.” Law School is still on her mind and she plans on attending next year after saving up and with the hopes that the pandemic will be subsided by then. “I have a personal suspicion that we’re going to get shut down again, but until then I’ll be working.”

One thing all these young women agreed on was the urge to treat people with kindness everywhere you go, especially during this pandemic. Essential workers are still risking their health even though stores are opening back up and restaurants are taking reservations, these jobs aren’t easy on a regular day and they deserve even more respect and gratitude for their work. No one knows how long this pandemic will last or even if people will be able to return to work safely, but with the struggles of the millions who are risking their lives to make you a latte or are still unemployed the least we can do is be patient, continue social distancing, and wear a fucking mask!

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