‘I’m Praying We’ll Be Back to Work:’ What It’s Like to Lose Your Job in a Pandemic
Some workers found out through social media. Others were texted hours before their shift. Others were told, “Don’t come in,” but still don’t know how or when they’ll be paid what they’re owed. As New York enters the end of its first week of mandatory shutdowns for bars, restaurants, gyms, entertainment venues and schools, and as gatherings of 50 people or more have been banned, millions of New Yorkers’ lives have been affected.
We spoke with several workers who have already lost their jobs and are applying right away for unemployment. Others are experiencing an excruciating work slowdown in a chaotic economy that is forcing them to go day by day, client by client, to find out how the Covid-19 quarantine will affect their ability to pay bills such as utilities and rent.
Diana and Jesus Armengolt, 28 and 29, Jersey City Heights
Restaurant server and restaurant line cook
I found out on social media. The mayor was saying that restaurants were closing down so I texted one of the managers at my restaurant to see if I should still come in for my shift. He said yes. So I asked: “How’re we going to make money?” He told me to come in and help him take orders because we were actually going to offer delivery.
I worked my whole shift, 11 hours, and it was pretty sad because I only made $88 the whole day. Plus my actual pay, which is only $3 an hour. I was supposed to come in for my next shift, but I was told not to come in. It’s not worth us coming in, they said, and if I needed money, I should file for unemployment.
My husband gets paid $15 an hour, and after taxes, usually makes like around $600 a week working 10-hour shifts. Both the kitchen chefs from his job texted him and let him know that they’d be closing down the restaurant. They were very sad and wished everyone the best luck during these hard times, and told him to look for his last paycheck in the mail. It’ll be the last one we’re getting.
We’ve both been working very hard and we have a little bit of money saved up, so we’re hoping it’ll get us through this hard time. We’re staying inside. My daughters haven’t seen sunlight outside since Friday afternoon. The most important thing right now is that we’re able to provide for them. They go to public school and they’re actually offering free breakfast, free lunch. So every morning at around nine, I make my way over and they give me breakfast and lunch to bring back. We’re making it work.
Eleanor Shanahan, 24, Brooklyn
Cable series production secretary
We started hearing news of other productions shutting down so we knew it was coming. We got into the office Monday and heard our production, which is big budget, was “pushed”. I work in the office, so technically we could work from home because it’s a lot of paperwork. But we were supposed to start shooting at the end of the month. That’s 200 crew members on set, and certainly they can’t work from home. My boss told me for us that means we’d have to stop work immediately, get paid through two weeks, and then that’s it.
I’ve been working on productions for two and a half years, and in between gigs, my fallback is usually restaurant work. But that’s not going to happen. I can always babysit. But even that right now is dubious. I’m going to have to register for unemployment. I’m on an email chain with a lot of people that work in gig economy jobs, so I’m on that now finding out what more I can do. I know I can survive for a couple of months, paying rent and my bills.
We’re meant to go back to work in six to eight weeks if the city is up and running. And if it stays bad until the summer, I wouldn’t re-sign my lease in August and I guess I’d have to move back in with my parents.
Armen Agaian, 23
Ice performer, after-school figure skating coach
I’ve been in the US since 2017. I came from Georgia, where I was a national figure skating champion. I perform in the Ice Theater show and we do school programs after the show, and I do a lot of private lessons. Last week, the show and all the school programs started shutting down. Then at the beginning of this week, my manager texted us, no one’s going on the ice. The rinks where I teach shut down, of course. I can’t tell if we can get paid.
“I have enough to pay my rent this month. After that, I don’t know.”
Everyone’s in the same situation. All my students are at home. That’s a big problem. I stay in touch with my private students and give them work to do at home to stay motivated. But it’s hard. Every single muscle feels different when you’re on the ice. It’s hard for me to work out properly, too. I have a solo program coming up and have to be able to do triple jumps. I have enough to pay my rent this month. After that, I don’t know. I’m just praying we’ll be back to work and back on the ice.
Rebecca Leigh Silverman, 38, Brooklyn
I’ve been working as a bartender at a cocktail bar, Dirty Precious, since 2017. I’m a mixologist, which is like cooking in front of an audience, sometimes using eight or 10 ingredients for a cocktail. I’ve been in this industry since I was 21, and it’s the best bar/restaurant I’ve ever worked in. It’s been my full-time job. I work four nights a week, eight to 10 hours a night. The owner’s really hands-on. She and I have been having an ongoing conversation about it and Sunday, we ultimately decided that closing was the right thing to do. Right after we decided, the governor put out the mandate saying we all had to close anyway.
“I’ve been trying to file for unemployment since Monday. The website just keeps crashing.
This season, January, February, March, is usually our busiest time of year. But even though I worked last week, I would say I had an 80% income drop. Which is scary to think that even if we can reopen, I won’t have anything set aside for when things usually slow down in summer. I’ve been trying to file for unemployment since Monday. The website just keeps crashing. Looks like there may be a little bit of outside help.
A bartender association opened up to non-member bartenders to be able to apply for some relief, and Jameson’s just donated $500,000 to that fund, which is lovely of them. Also I read that the mayor announced they’re going to put a hold on people getting evicted due to lack of payment in the next couple of months, and I believe the same with utilities, which makes me feel safer knowing that.
I’ve never not paid my rent and utility bill – even when I lived below the poverty line as a professional dancer. But then there’s just this, in New York City, the bar is a community gathering place. It’s where you go when you’re bored. It’s where you go when you want to celebrate. It’s where you go when you’re sad. It’s just where you go. But now it isn’t there.
Oscar Kimjika, 32, Bronx
I work for Equinox, so when I heard about the closures, I knew that they’re one of the few corporate gyms that had a system in place already for us to take advantage of technology right away. I just had a conference call about how to cue clients during virtual sessions, you know, to get a client to achieve a specific movement. That was good insight, very effective. It helps knowing we’re going to be able to provide the some quality of service for clients online.
As far as being compensated, the company’s taking the average of our two pay periods for February, and they say that’s what they’ll be giving us for however long this thing lasts. So that helps. I’m not saying that’s going to solve everything. I’m going to have to hustle for more clients. But while I will still be working hard to keep my side business with private clients, what I get from the gym is going to help me stay afloat. You know, we’re all going to see how long this thing goes and try to stretch things to make it work as long as it lasts.
Camille Sweeney is co-author of “The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well and a contributor to The New York Times, Fast Company, and other publications.
Bryan Anselm is a freelance photographer based in New York and works regularly for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and ProPublica.
Co-published with The Guardian.