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Restaurants across New York are closed temporarily, as the city tries to slow the spread of COVID-19. Spencer Platt/Getty Images
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Young, newly unemployed, and facing the COVID-19 recession

Samantha Fields Mar 26, 2020
Restaurants across New York are closed temporarily, as the city tries to slow the spread of COVID-19. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The whole first week after she got laid off, Valerie Katz spent all day everyday calling to file for unemployment. Over and over and over. Five hundred times at least. Probably more. She’d call first thing in the morning right when they opened, and then on repeat all day long. She couldn’t even get the hold music.

“For once in my life,” she said, “I was dying to hear elevator music.”

It was mid-March, and she had just been laid off from her job as a server, along with every single one of her co-workers at BONDST, a Japanese restaurant in New York. All across the city, and in many other cities and states, the same thing was happening at countless other bars and restaurants and cafes.

It was not a good time to be calling the unemployment office. That same week, last week, more than 3.2 million people across the country were trying to file claims, more than any other week in history, nearly five times more than the worst week of the Great Recession. State unemployment websites and phone lines could not keep up.

“Sometimes the automated message said, ‘oh, we’re dealing with too many customers at once,’ and then they hung up on you. And then sometimes they said, ‘we’re having technical difficulties,’ and they hung up on you. And sometimes they said, ‘please wait for a representative to pick up the phone,’ and they still hung up on you,” Katz said.

Her co-workers, in constant communication on a WhatsApp group chat, were all having the same experience. No one could get through. Somehow that made her feel a little better.

“Luckily, you don’t just feel left alone completely,” she said. “You know that everybody’s in the same boat as you.”

In other ways, though, that’s not a good thing. With millions of people newly unemployed and millions more projected to become unemployed over the next few months, Katz, at 25, is suddenly looking into a very different future than she was just a few weeks ago. So are most of her friends and much of her generation. Now, instead of trying to start their lives and careers in a booming economy, they’ll be trying to do those things in a recession, potentially with one of the highest unemployment rates in history.

“It’s really scary,” she said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. Just the uncertainty of the future, it is worrisome.”

Valerie Katz got laid off from her restaurant job in New York in mid-March, along with all of her coworkers. She is one of the more than 3.2 million Americans who filed for unemployment last week. (Courtesy Valerie Katz)

She doesn’t know, no one knows, if her restaurant will open again any time soon — if any restaurants will.

“I worry about not even being able to have a service industry job for a long time,” she said.

And while working in the service industry was never her dream, it is how she’s supported herself for the last few years, pretty much since college, while she figured out what she wanted to do with her life.

Right before she got laid off, right before everything started to collapse, Katz had signed up for an information session for a year-long program to become a personal coach. That’s what she really cares about — “working one-on-one with people, helping people in need, helping people to get their life together,” she said. “But I need some type of certificate, I need some type of degree.”

Now, with no job, and no idea when she’ll have one again, is not the time to invest in a class. Not when she’s worried about the basics, like how she’s going to pay rent.

After a week, and hundreds of calls, Katz did finally manage to file for unemployment — thanks to her manager from the restaurant, who eventually got through on his phone, and then conferenced her in. But she has yet to receive her first check. No one she knows has gotten one yet.

“It still just feels up in the air, and it just feels scary,” Katz said. Especially with the first of the month just a few days away. “Rent is coming up, and how do you pay?”

She got by fine when she was working full time, but after two weeks with no paycheck, her savings is already running low. She has enough to cover April rent for the apartment she shares with two roommates in Brooklyn, but, she said, “If I pay rent this month, I would be down to zero.”

A lot of her friends are in the same position, or worse. Almost all of them worked in the restaurant industry. Almost all of them have been laid off. Many don’t even have enough to make April rent.

The staff of Zuma, a restaurant in New York City where Valerie Katz worked until changing jobs recently, on New Year’s Eve. The entire staff has since been laid off. (Courtesy Valerie Katz)

“They are becoming really worried. I’ve gotten a lot of texts and emails saying to sign petitions to freeze rent because most of them can’t afford to pay it this month. And they’re becoming worried about supplying themselves with food. They’re worried about health insurance,” Katz said. “What if they need to go to the hospital because of coronavirus and they don’t have access to that anymore? So I know that we all are just in a weird state where we’re trying to be optimistic, but it definitely is a scary time.”

She has signed all those petitions for a rent freeze, and she’s called and left messages at New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office, too. But she has no idea if anything will come of it.

“I’ve thought about canceling my apartment, so that way I don’t have to pay rent every month, and that way at least the unemployment money goes further,” she said. “If this goes on long enough, then that would make more sense.”

She knows she’s lucky to have parents she could move back in with, if it comes to that. She hopes it doesn’t. But she’s starting to wonder.

It’s a weird, unexpected, overwhelming place to be. Just a few weeks ago she was optimistic, excited, ready to jump into the next phase of her career, of her life.

Now, she has no idea what the future holds.

“I feel like we all are kind of just holding our breath, waiting for what’s to come next.”

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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