When My Father Called Me About His Unemployment
This piece was supported with Bold Voice Collaborative.
I’m sitting in my living room writing progress notes for work—I am a New York City housing case manager—while navigating Connecticut’s Department of Labor website in a different tab. I’m filing for unemployment for a 57-year-old car mechanic for Chevrolet, who was just furloughed after two years. The process takes about three hours, the beginning of a weekly routine to receive checks that won’t even cover the man’s bills.
And with that, my own 20-case workload now includes one more unofficial client: my father.
I’m not alone. The skills some of us have navigating bureaucracy are suddenly necessary for the survival of millions of people who never needed them before the pandemic downturn. So many children of parents like mine have become the translators and saviors of their aging mothers and fathers with no skills for this.
My own father’s education stopped at eighth grade in the Dominican Republic. A first-generation immigrant, he speaks mostly Spanish. And I have the human services and administrative skills, which I got as the first in my family to go to college. My father lacks the language, knowledge, and computer access to even attempt applying for pandemic-related unemployment and other benefits on his own. While I cheer the new $900 billion COVID stimulus package approved by Congress to include $300 more per week for laid-off workers like my father—and many of my friends as well—I know it means I will be busy saving him through paperwork for another few months at least as well.
My resentment isn’t only with the system. When I was a kid, my father was never around. He and my mother divorced when I was 5 years old. My mother, brother, and I moved in with my grandmother in a one-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights. My father would disappear for months at a time, calling occasionally to check in or to say he would be picking my brother and me up on the weekend. We would then excitedly wait for his call to say he was on his way, or better yet that he was already downstairs ready to take us to McDonald’s. More times than not, the call never came.
My father does not have the words to tell me how proud he is of me for beating the odds, for succeeding despite his little involvement in my life, for making do while my mother provided for my siblings and me with the help of public assistance. He is a prideful Dominican man, finally renting his own apartment after years in rented rooms. I know that while he now requests my help—embarrassed, no doubt—he did not make an effort to attend my college graduation or any momentous occasions.
Yet today, as a grown-up, a housing case manager, I know I must help my father through this continued social crisis. I navigate the system all the time, so I know how these things work. My father does not have these survival skills. And I worry he’s at risk in other ways. An avid cigarette smoker who is constantly feeling chest pains or experiencing breathing problems due to the nature of his job, he is at a greater risk of serious illness from this virus. Plus, he is single. Although he has a sister nearby, he does not get along with her, so there is no one else but me.
When I file for his benefits, I use my own email address because I know I will receive all the correspondence to translate and clarify for him. I have him send pictures of all the furlough paperwork, along with his Social Security and permanent resident card numbers. I read through unemployment paperwork. (I cannot assist him financially myself because I, too, am pressed for cash, with school loans, a mortgage, and two young children at home, whom I also co-teach while my partner works 13-hour days.)
It takes a few days for the application to be approved, and in the meantime, he contacts me constantly to see if I have heard anything back from unemployment, unlike the days of my youth when I would wait weeks for him to call just to be taken to McDonald’s. He asks if I can call the hotline to follow up and make sure his application was completed properly. I tell him that during the pandemic this process can take longer than usual. I attempt calling anyway to appease him but cannot get past all the automated machines.
Once the application is finally approved, I am then in charge of filing his claims every Sunday thereafter. Every Saturday evening or early Sunday morning, he reminds me to file his claims to get paid the coming Monday.
The benefits, when they do come, have been barely enough up until now, a mere $400 a week to pay for rent, utilities, groceries, cellphone, and cable, and to wire money to my older siblings in the Dominican Republic—my sister, who has four children and no job. At the Chevrolet dealership, he made about $22 per hour, or $33 an hour when working overtime.
As the pandemic continues, seemingly indefinitely, I have trained myself each day to be more empathetic. As much as I want to hold on to my grudge for my father’s shortcomings, I also know that COVID-19 could take him or anyone at any time, and in the meanwhile I need to give him the grace or forgiveness he deserves. I also fear he might be left without an income yet again. Unable to stay home because of restlessness, boredom, and a diminishing savings account, he might decide to go in search of work, placing his life at risk to stay alive.
For now, he is able to scrape together some money that, combined with potential payments from the new stimulus package, will provide him with enough to pay his bills. But only if I keep doing this paperwork. I love my father regardless and know he loves me, although he does not tell me often.
Lisa Ventura is a housing case manager in New York City.
Co-published with Slate.