Covid Unemployment Gig worker Travel agent Caterer Therapist Office administrator
Anxiety and dwindling savings
Those out of work during the pandemic faced hard quest for state jobless aid

About the series

In the year since the first case of the novel coronavirus was detected in Pennsylvania, the state has received more than 2 million claims to collect unemployment compensation.

At its peak in April 2020, the unemployment rate in Pennsylvania was 16.2%. That represented more than 1 million individuals in a workforce six times the size. By spring 2021, the state unemployment rate was hovering around 7%, with more than 460,000 people still out of work.

Things weren’t any better nationally, where the unemployment rate rose to a scary 14.8% at the beginning of the pandemic. The data continued to show a stop-and-start comeback as COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths spiked through the year and government officials adjusted health and safety guidelines. Some industries bounced back faster than others and the financial burden of job loss was not felt equally across demographic groups.

In 2020, Congress rushed to pass a $2 trillion relief bill to help states pay people who had not previously been eligible for unemployment benefits and to ensure the checks lasted longer than usual for those who did — trying to keep a recession from tipping into a depression. Months later, the federal government invested another $1.4 trillion into fixing the problem, and then another $1.9 trillion.

Despite all the efforts, those filing for jobless benefits said the payments were inconsistent and the system difficult to navigate.

In Pennsylvania, officials are in the process of recruiting and training at least 500 more workers to help manage unemployment claims — and to cut the time filers spend on the phone attempting to get through. Staff have fielded more than 1.5 million phone calls and 2.8 million emails since spring 2020, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

More than a year into the pandemic, some people are still struggling with many of the same problems seen months ago. Workers waiting on jobless benefits that they were expecting to come through found themselves without electricity or water after missed bills, waiting in long lines at food banks and other charity services, risking eviction or foreclosure and looking for help from family and friends to cover an expense or chip in a few dollars for any work they could offer.

Some have returned to work but aren’t logging enough hours to match their usual salary, others are still waiting to be called back. Many have started looking for jobs but say they’re having trouble finding options that fit in with child care and caregiver responsibilities and that value health and safety regulations.

Now, employers are blaming the extra payments for what they are calling a labor shortage. Unable to fill open positions, some say the increased unemployment insurance is keeping workers at home instead of on the job hunt.

But some workers say they are looking and applying with little success. One woman who spent months applying online recently boarded a bus Downtown to walk in and out of establishments looking for work. Another is struggling to find work that can be done around her children’s virtual school schedule. Another is opting to start her own business, unable and unwilling to rely on a company that previously let her go.

The Post-Gazette talked to five workers about their experiences navigating the workforce and the safety net meant to help those attached to it.

‘This whole thing is making it impossible, especially for gig workers’
Cathy Stewart, 56, is a musician and ride-hail driver who stopped working early in the pandemic to take care of her mother
May 28, 2021
Cathy Stewart teaches at the “For Those About To Rock Academy” at David Granati’s Maplewood Studio in Ambridge. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)
  Video: A year of unemployment in six words.
BIO
Cathy Stewart, 56, from Jefferson Hills. She had worked as a music teacher, providing hospitality services backstage at concerts and as a ride-hail driver before the pandmeic hit. She stopped all those gigs last March. Now, she's looking to get back into them but her role as a full-time caregiver for her mother leaves her without many options for work.

Cathy Stewart had just finished fitting a shower curtain rod into her car and stacking it full of cleaning supplies when she decided to change her plans.

A ride-hail driver for Lyft, Ms. Stewart had fully intended to continue offering rides to strangers to the airport, the grocery store or wherever else they needed to go, even as the novel coronavirus spread quickly through the region last spring.

But after a few masked rides, she realized the situation was not sustainable — for her sanity, for her health and for the health of her mother whom she lived with and cared for.

“This wears me out,” Ms. Stewart, 56, of Jefferson Hills, said, thinking back to how she felt driving around last spring. “I could drive for hours and hours and not have a problem. But wearing a mask and trying to spray the car down in between passengers and all that other stuff, it just was too frustrating.

“Plus, the money just wasn’t there.”

With no trips to the airport, no happy hours after work and no late-night rides home from the bars, Ms. Stewart found herself driving passengers down the street with fares that didn’t come close to making up for the health risk she accepted every time she logged on to the app.

She made the decision to stop driving last April. In doing so, she lost her last source of income — the one she had been holding on to since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down her other jobs just weeks earlier.

“I wish the world would go back to normal,” she said. “This whole thing is making it impossible, especially for gig workers.”

Cathy Stewart, of Jefferson Hills, installs a shower curtain rod and plastic shield in her Subaru Crosstrek that she uses for ride-hailing. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)
Cathy Stewart, of Jefferson Hills, installs a shower curtain rod and plastic shield in her Subaru Crosstrek that she uses for ride sharing. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Ms. Stewart was used to juggling several different jobs at once, piecing together a living as she went.

She worked as a ride-hail and delivery driver, as a musician and music teacher, as an extra on movie sets and backstage at concerts and other events providing hospitality services. She had lots of different passions and liked the flexibility to control her own schedule.

She wasn’t expecting to rely on unemployment benefits when the pandemic cut off all her revenue streams.

Normally, unemployment compensation is off-limits to gig workers, independent contractors and those who are self-employed because the benefits are paid out of insurance programs funded partly by employers.

That changed last spring when the federal government set up a new unemployment program to offer jobless benefits to Uber and Lyft drivers and others who were making a living in the gig economy. The program was an effort to stave off at least part of the economic hit to workers.

“I wish the world would go back to normal.”

Pennsylvania was slow to set up the program — so the benefits were slow to arrive.

Six weeks into the pandemic and around the time she installed a shower curtain in her car to help shield herself from the virus, Ms. Stewart said it felt as if she was “treading water, hoping to God some kind of wave doesn’t come by and push us back down to the bottom again.”

Her gig work didn’t come back, but the benefits eventually arrived.

Ms. Stewart collected unemployment benefits through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, or PUA, through August. That month, she started a position working on the United States census.

She had worked the same job in 2010, but new management, an unorganized workplace and the extra health risk made her uncomfortable knocking on strangers’ doors this time around. She ended her employment the same month she got started.

Ms. Stewart didn’t reapply for unemployment compensation. She anticipated she wouldn’t be eligible and didn’t want to go through a thankless process if it wasn’t guaranteed to work.

“I hate going through that website; it’s so confusing,” Ms. Stewart said in March, several months after she had received her last paycheck and last unemployment payment.

“Whatever PUA I have left over, I’m basically living on. … I’m just trying to scrape by.”

March-April 2020

Stopped working as a ride-hail driver, music teacher and backstage providing hospitality services at concerts and other events.

April 2020

Began getting unemployment benefits through the PUA program, including retroactively for weeks in March.

April 2020-August 2020

Benefits came consistently. She stopped filing once she began work for the U.S. Census.

August 2020

Stopped her Census job after she felt it was poorly managed.

August 2020-March 2021

Did not refile for unemployment benefits. She lived off of what was left over from the PUA payments she received earlier in 2020 and stimulus payments from the federal government.

March 2021

Began teaching music classes once a week and started driving for ride-hail again while her mother was temporarily in rehab.

April 2021

Stopped driving again after her mother came home. Now, looking for support for her mother so she can take time to drive one or two days a week.

She paused payments on her car, sold some possessions online and started cooking in big batches — often making tubs of wedding soup and freezing it to make it last.

As a full-time caregiver for her mother, Ms. Stewart said her work options are limited.

Normally, there are volunteer programs to help caregivers get a few hours off to run errands or, in Ms. Stewart’s case, slip out to clock a few rides for Lyft. Due to the pandemic, most of those programs are on hold.

Now, she’s looking for jobs that allow her to work entirely from home with a flexible schedule or that she can do with her mother beside her.

She thought she had found the perfect solution — dropping off deliveries for a company called Roadie. It worked in the same way Instacart does, except instead of having to shuffle through a grocery store, the drivers drop off purchases from places like electronic stores and tractor trailer shops. Ms. Stewart could drive while her mom sat beside her, and the gig didn’t require any strangers getting in the car or as much running in and out of stores.

As soon as she started taking the steps to get signed up this spring, it seemed like demand for deliveries had dried up.

Ms. Stewart decided in April to don her mask again and open her car up to Lyft riders.

Cathy Stewart stands near the Subaru Crosstrek she uses for ride-hailing with Lyft. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)
Cathy Stewart stands near the Subaru Crosstrek she uses for ride-hailing with Lyft. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Fares have picked up again, she said. But she doesn’t have too much time — she has to find someone to help care for her mom while she’s out.

“It’s like when I’m driving ride share, I almost can forget about all of that stuff,” Ms. Stewart said, referring to things like legal issues covering her mom’s care and making sure the family can keep their house. “Do I enjoy the money? Yeah. But the social aspect of it, I really enjoy, too.

“I’m going to try to get back out on the road again and get some income coming,” she said. “Things are looking up, but right at this point, I’m kind of in limbo.”

Credits

Writing

Lauren Rosenblatt

Videography

Steve Mellon

Photography

Steve Mellon

Steph Chambers

Andrew Rush

Graphics

Ed Yozwick

Design

Chance Brinkman-Sull

Ed Yozwick

Development

Laura Malt Schneiderman

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