‘We have lost it all’: Millions of US workers lose their jobs due to coronavirus

‘I’m feeling scared, I know I’m not in good shape,’ said a 41-year-old who is worried he cannot pay his $15,000 medical bill

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So much has changed so quickly for Joseph Palma that he barely recognises his life.

On Tuesday last week, he was going to work, helping passengers in the customs area of the Miami airport. The next day, he was laid off without severance or benefits. Five days later, he moved back in with his 59-year-old mother, loading his bed and his clothes into the back of his friend’s pickup truck.

Now he is staring at his bank account — totalling about $3,100 (£2,488) — and waiting on hold for hours at a time with the unemployment office while cursing at its crashing website.

“I’m feeling scared,” said Mr Palma, who is 41 and nervous about the $15,000 (£12,043) in medical debt he has from two recent hospital stays.

“I don’t know what’s the ending. But I know I’m not in good shape.”

For the millions of Americans who found themselves without a job in recent weeks, the sharp and painful change brought a profound sense of disorientation.

They were going about their lives, bartending, cleaning, managing events, waiting tables, loading luggage and teaching yoga. And then suddenly they were in free fall, grabbing at any financial help they could find, which in many states this week remained locked away behind crashing websites and overloaded phone lines.

“Everything has changed in a matter of minutes - seconds,” said Tamara Holtey, an accountant for an industrial services company in the Houston area, who was on a cruise to Cozumel, Mexico, as the coronavirus outbreak intensified in the US and was laid off on her second day back at work.​

In 17 interviews with people in eight states across the country, Americans who lost their jobs said they were in shock and struggling to grasp the magnitude of the economy’s shutdown.

Unlike the last economic earthquake, the financial crisis of 2008, this time there was no getting back out there to look for work, not when people were being told to stay inside. What is more, the layoffs affected not just them, but their spouses, their parents, their siblings and their roommates - even their bosses.

“I don’t think anyone expected it to be like this,” said Mark Kasanic, a server at a brasserie in Cleveland who was one of roughly 300 workers a locally owned restaurant company laid off last week. Now he is homeschooling his children, ages 5 and 7, one with special needs.

Julian Bruell was one of those who had to deliver the bad news to hourly employees like Mr Kasanic. Mr Bruell, who helps run the company with his father, said only about 30 employees are left running takeout and delivery at two of its five restaurants. He has not been earning a salary, his goal being to keep the business afloat through the crisis.

“If it’s going to July this may not be sustainable,” he said. “I just want us to have a future.”

On Thursday, he was planning to file for unemployment himself.​

Many described a feeling of sudden economic helplessness that did not match how they saw themselves. In the space of two weeks, Olivia Fernandes and her husband, Fabio, both fitness instructors in Miami, went from earning $77,000 (£61,823) a year to frantically trying to file for unemployment online.

Now everything is on hold as the couple, who married three years ago, scramble to figure out their newly unemployed world — from next month’s student loan payment to the long-planned vacation to Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where Ms Fernandes would have met her in-laws for the first time.

“We watched it all collapse,” she said. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, my God, we have lost it all'.”​

Whether to opt for a high-risk job has turned into a common subject of conversation.

Covid-19 has caused a wave of unemployment around the world (AFP)

Scott Yates, who was indefinitely furloughed from his job as a head bartender in one of the busiest and largest hotels in Charleston, West Virginia, said he and his wife had decided not to, even though it seemed that Walmart, Sam’s Club and Kroger were “hiring left and right".

“It’s not worth a $13-an-hour job coming home and infecting my family — and then who else does that spiderweb to?” said Mr Yates, who has two teenagers, and Friday got his last paycheck, which was about half of what he normally makes with tips.

The last days of work came suddenly and had a dreamlike quality. Spring Drake, an events manager at a large hotel in Charlotte, North Carolina, said cancellations swept her department like a wave beginning around 9 March - first a large snack industry conference, then one by an aviation association.

By week’s end, its book of business was almost entirely gone and employees were told they would be working only four days a week. On 17 March, four out of five event managers were furloughed. One stayed on to handle the remaining cancellations.​

Sometimes there was sweet with the bitter. Maggie Johnston, a waitress, was nervous about losing her job at Joe’s Inn, a popular neighbourhood restaurant in Richmond, Virginia. She had turned 60 a few days before and did not have a lot saved.

On the last night, the restaurant was open to diners, a customer came up and slipped her a $20 bill with a note attached: “This is for when times get tough.”

Someone started a GoFundMe for the employees. On Friday it stood at $17,000 (£13,649). She has received several checks in the mail, including one from a name she did not recognise. Her landlord has agreed to let her pay just half her rent until she starts work again.

“I’m humbled,” she said on Thursday. “Even though I lost my job after 20 years, it could be so much worse.”

Severe economic collapse, something like war, can bring changes so sudden that there is no time to adapt. Melissa Dellapasta was setting up a meal for executives of the Cleveland Indians on 12 March when everyone seemed to just get up and leave. An announcement had come: Baseball was postponed indefinitely. She has not worked since.

“Maybe they’ll open in April,” said Ms Dellapasta on Thursday, what would have been the opening day for Major League Baseball. Her employer runs the concessions and caters the meals at the ballpark where the Indians play.

“Nobody has any idea. But I have no paycheck.”​

Young parents said they now understood the extreme stress their parents experienced when they had been laid off, a mood they mistook as just another bout of grown-up grumpiness.

Nawaz Haraish said that when his mother lost her job in 2012 she was suddenly home all day and “super stressed” all the time.

He understands her now. Last week Mr Haraish lost his job as a curbside assistance worker at Terminal 4 of John F Kennedy Airport.

He is deeply worried about providing for his daughters, ages 2 and 4, who he called “my two sweethearts”. He said his first destination after leaving the airport the day he was let go was the store, to buy diapers and wipes.​

New York Times

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