With six jars of hot sauce sealed and on their way to customers, Olafemi Mandley was feeling optimistic.
Sylvia, Calypso, Green Mamba and her famous onion jam were Ms. Mandley’s new ticket to financial security.
She had spent the past 12 months thinking about food but hadn’t yet started a big push to launch her own product line of hot sauces, jams, pickled vegetables, corn meal coating and other specialty ingredients.
Instead, she had been planting.
Unable to work and unable to collect unemployment benefits for reasons she couldn’t discover, Ms. Mandley, 59, from Duquesne, immersed herself in rows of spinach, okra, cucumbers and tomatoes.
She was an experienced chef and caterer and was used to relying on the land around her for food. But last spring, the ingredients she grew in her backyard became her only solution to battling the food insecurity she worried about for herself, her family and her neighbors.
“All I started thinking was if I can’t get this or that, I can grow it, I can make it. I tried to grow everything I could possibly think of,” Ms. Mandley said. “I was worried about everybody I could think of and everybody in this world.”
Lost her job at a marketing agency and lost her contracts through her own food service and catering business.
Waiting for unemployment benefits to arrive.
Received unemployment benefits without any issues.
Benefits arrive twice but are inconsistent.
Unemployment benefits begin again.
She was even worried about her cat, Bobbi Buttons, who belonged to her son but was staying with her. She often found herself scooping food up that the cat had knocked out of the bowl and scolding her: “We’re in the middle of a pandemic, we cannot waste food.”
Ms. Mandley couldn’t grow any food for Bobbi Buttons but she did grow enough to share with her neighbors. She relied on monetary donations to get herself through a period of unemployment that still hasn’t ended.
Last spring, Ms. Mandley was working at a marketing firm and running her own business as a caterer and a chef. She lost both sources of income in a matter of weeks. She left the marketing firm in February for reasons unrelated to COVID but, shortly after, started to lose contracts through her catering business as a result of the pandemic.
She filed for unemployment benefits in February but didn’t receive any payments until June. The benefits came consistently for a few months then stopped.
She received one check in November and another in March 2021.
“I don’t know what’s going on, I really don’t,” she said. “It’s so ambiguous when you call down there. You can’t get an answer.”
Ms. Mandley missed credit card payments and fell behind on utility bills. Her phone was cut off and her water was shut off twice. She relied on social programs, charities and help from friends and family.
“I didn’t have enough of this or that, but you don’t really think about it until you’re reflecting because we’re still all caught up in COVID,” she said. “We’re still very much impacted by it.”
Last fall, she decided it was time to stop calling the unemployment centers and she attempted to reach somebody in person. She visited the unemployment center in Duquesne and tried to call in to the office through an intercom system she thought was set up to phone-in for help.
Instead of walking away with answers, Ms. Mandley said the center called the police, who “said never come back down.”
A spokesperson for the state’s Department of Labor and Industry, which runs all of Pennsylvania’s unemployment centers as well as the phone lines and email accounts set up to answer questions about claims, said the Duquesne center doesn’t offer in-person services.
Ms. Mandley didn’t think she was being threatening or disruptive. She wanted someone to say, “We’ve got your application and we’ve got 10,000 in front of you. Just be patient.”
“I just wanted somebody just to talk to me,” she said. “I just want to make sure they got my paperwork.”
By March 2021, Ms. Mandley got a response.
She got through on the unemployment center’s phone line and a staffer was working to get her set up in the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, a new federal system to get unemployment benefits to people who had exhausted traditional unemployment compensation.
In the meantime, Ms. Mandley came up with other ways to bring in some money. She was working on launching her line of jams and sauces through word of mouth and social media and she had started hosting “underground supper clubs.”
For $45 a person, she would grow, cook and cater.
She spent about a week preparing peanut soup, plantain chips with black-eyed pea hummus, a “simple” curry and lemon tart complete with candied fruit on top for her first round of guests.
To make a living wage, Ms. Mandley estimates she will need to host three clubs a week. That’s doable on her end, she said, but she’s not sure that many people are ready to start trying new things, even with vaccinations and relaxed health and safety restrictions.
“There’s irons in the fire,” she said. “Nothing is matured as of yet. But I’m confident that it will.”