What It's Like to Be One of the Millions of Newly Unemployed Americans

The bar where I work shuttered mid-shift on Friday the 13th, abruptly furloughing all of its staff around 6 p.m. I got the news from a friend working the shift, and then got the email clarifying that we were furloughed immediately so that we could apply for unemployment.

I realized this morning that today, Thursday the 26th, is the longest I’ve been off work in over 10 years. This is more time off than I even took for my wedding, or my honeymoon. The texts and emails I got from my co-workers and company that Friday put me into an emotional tailspin — I had worried something like this was coming for the restaurant and bar industry in New York City because of the spread of COVID-19. I had already been driving my friends crazy with worst-case scenarios: Would I lose my job and not be able to pay rent? Where would we move? Would we even be able to move? Could I move back in with my mom? And it seemed like it had finally happened to me. By this point, a lot of people were still hopeful they would have their jobs, even at reduced capacity. I felt heartbroken though. I didn’t get out of bed for two days, and I could barely talk to anyone. I truly loved my job.

I’m good at bartending. At 34, I didn’t totally expect to find myself working in bars full-time. I have an MFA in poetry from the New School, so I always expected to be a writer, but I worked in bars before I went to graduate school, and worked in bars during it to pay my rent, so when I graduated I just kept bartending. I think a lot of people in the service industry are always waiting for “what’s next,” but aside from daydreaming, I’m not sure what would be next for me.

Like a lot of my friends in this industry, we wear a lot of hats. Maybe you’re serving brunch, but also writing a screenplay in the afternoons. I’m a bartender, but I’m also a writer. I’ve been writing every day since this happened, but this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I wished for more time to write. I published a book of poetry in 2018 and work as an assistant editor at Hanging Loose Press (without salary), but I never run out of things to read. I’m happy to be passionate about both things. The service industry became my home, not just because I’m good at my job — and have a knack for making themed cocktail menus — but because I genuinely like other people, the guests and my co-workers. This year I finally felt like I was hitting my stride, working in a bar that I loved, learning from our beverage director, and teaching staff every day. And then the city shut down. At 34, I did not expect to be filing for unemployment.

The Monday morning following the bar’s closure, I started the process. I’ve always thought well of New York City’s social support systems, so I didn’t feel daunted, but I couldn’t get through it all in one day. The website would let me get through most of the application, then time out. As most people are finding out now, once the website times out, you have to completely start over. I got similar texts from friends, so I figured there were just too many people trying at once, and set an alarm for early Tuesday morning. That Tuesday morning, my husband learned that his bar would be closing completely the next day, and that’s when I began to panic about the prospect of rent. By mid-month, we usually don’t have rent saved for the following month, that comes from working the next few weekends. This wasn’t poor financial planning, but a reality for most people in the service industry. Every shift counts.

My husband asked me that night about applying for unemployment, as did a lot of my friends that day and the coming weeks. I’ve been in the service industry for over 10 years, so I know a lot about applying for jobs and leaving jobs, and usually have good advice for people in the industry. This situation feels completely different, because we are all out of work at the same time, with no one able to hire us. My husband and other friends asked me how much they could get on unemployment, but it’s different for every place depending on how many hours you work and how you get paid — tipped employees will get different amounts than salaried workers. At my bar, I was paying into unemployment, so I was entitled to it. I had been averaging about 45 hours a week for the last three years at this bar, so I felt hopeful.

Finally, Tuesday morning I got through on the website at 8 a.m. I got through all the questions, and they said my application was complete, but that I still needed to call and make a weekly claim. I wasn’t totally clear on this, but when I was able to get through to the claims number on Sunday, it explained that even though I wasn’t receiving money yet, I had to make a claim for each week I was unemployed. What’s frustrating for a lot of my friends is that they’ve been able to partially complete the online portion, but they have to call and finish their application by phone. This is different from the call for the claim they will still have to make.

Because of the number of people in New York City overwhelming the system trying to get and claim benefits, a lot of people aren’t able to get on the phone to finish their application. I finally got the letter in the mail giving me the amount; it was about half of my normal take-home pay. Friends of mine who didn’t work as many hours as me, or didn’t claim all of their tips, were getting their unemployment amounts back and crying. A dishwasher at my job said he was approved for $90 a week. Each day, I got texts from friends about how they couldn’t get through, or didn’t know when to call, or what to do next.

The system seems purposefully confusing, and it obviously keeps crashing under the added traffic. I consider myself a pretty computer-savvy person, and even I felt frustrated with this. I can’t imagine how someone with kids that are home from school could do it. How would you spend your whole morning trying to call if you had to cook breakfast or connect your kids with their new online learning platforms? The offices are also closed for in-person applications, so I worry about my co-workers who don’t have phone service, let alone laptops and WiFi. So many of my friends are in the service industry and everyone’s in the same boat.

For the first time, I feel like I don’t have helpful advice for anyone. I only keep telling people, keep trying to log in, keep calling. Everyone’s worried about getting these benefits, but also wondering if their restaurants will even re-open at all. We aren’t the only ones worried about rent. Small businesses will suffer also, with some people warning that we could lose 75% of our restaurants and bars nationally. As of today, my husband still hasn’t been able to get through. Rent is due next week.

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