A Year of Unemployment Gig worker Travel agent Caterer Therapist Office administrator
‘I got to figure out what to do before the ship sinks’
Kate Potter, 39, lost her job when she could no longer juggle it and parenting two children during remote learning. The state has yet to send her unemployment benefits, and her savings are nearing zero
May 28, 2021
Kate Potter at her Brighton Heights home. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)
  Video: A year of unemployment in six words.
Kate Potter, 39, from Brighton Heights. Worked as an office administrator until January 2021, when she lost her job because the responsibilities of work and full-time virtual schooling for her two daughters caught up to her.

Kate Potter checks her bank account every morning.

For the last several months, the balance has been inching closer to zero.

She’s holding her breath for the day she goes completely in the red — the day when she can no longer afford her mortgage payments and she risks losing the three-bedroom house where she has raised her two young daughters for the last six years.

“I’ve got to figure out what to do before the ship sinks,” she said. “Do I start bailing it out or do I jump off?”

For Ms. Potter, 39, from Brighton Heights, the hardest hit from the pandemic didn’t come right away.

March 2020-January 2021

Worked as an office administrator while raising two daughters who were playing and learning remotely amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

January 2021

Lost her job.

January 2021-April 2021

Filed for benefits but has not received any payments.

She was used to juggling a full-time job with her full-time role as a single parent. And for about a year, she worked as an office administrator for a North Side-based tech company from her dining room table while her girls worked in their bedroom and kitchen. She worked on bookkeeping, organizing company events and ordering office supplies in between grabbing snacks for the kids and helping them locate missing computer chargers.

But in January, as the tech company grew, her work responsibilities increased and the situation reached a breaking point. She lost her job shortly after.

After three months of no income, no job prospects and no unemployment benefits, she doesn’t know what the future holds for her and her girls.

“I’m shaking right now,” Ms. Potter said during an April interview. “I’m up all night, throwing up, not eating. You can’t mom when you’re like that. To mom, you have to be rested. You have to eat food. You have to keep your composure.”

“I can’t sleep. I cry every day. I feel helpless.”

She tried to follow all the right steps to tap into the safety net meant to help her family get through this.

Ms. Potter filed for unemployment benefits the same day she lost her job. She received the personal identification number workers need to fill out their claims on the state’s website. She continues to file her biweekly claims but the payments never arrive.

At the end of April, Ms. Potter still had not received any financial assistance from the state’s unemployment programs.

“Every day, I wake up and look at my balance and it’s going lower and lower and lower,” she said. “I filed for unemployment the very same day and I have gotten zero dollars — zero — and I have no answer as to when I will get money. Are they looking at my case? Are they reviewing my case? I have no answers.”

She knows she isn’t the only one in this position.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the state struggled to keep up with the influx of unemployment claims and hundreds of thousands of people waited months to hear whether or not they were eligible for jobless benefits.

By this spring, nearly a year later, the state had processed about 98% of the claims it has received. The other 2% are often left for weeks or months without any indication when the checks will start to arrive.

Ms. Potter spends hours at a time trying to reach someone at the unemployment center and is usually met with a busy signal. One day she called 16 times in 60 seconds.

She sought help from her state representative’s office and from nonprofit groups that help people navigate the system.

All she had been told from the unemployment center was that her claim is “in a pile, waiting to be reviewed.”

“Every day, I wake up and look at my balance and it’s going lower and lower and lower.”

She asked for a timeline, for status updates, for what she should do in the meantime. She was told to wait.

“I’m not coping well. I can’t sleep. I cry every day. I feel helpless. I feel really scared,” Ms. Potter said. “I need to plan. I need to know and they have no answer for me. They said there’s nothing you can do.”

She has years of experience working as a bookkeeper, an office administrator and in various roles in the nonprofit sector, but she isn’t haven’t any luck finding a new job. While her children are still learning from home, she doesn’t know what her availability will look like for months in the future — or even next week.

Originally from Maryland, Ms. Potter said she doesn’t have family in the area to help with child care. The kids spend time with their father, but Ms. Potter said her responsibilities don’t stop during those hours, whether that’s taking calls from the school or arranging doctor’s visits. Her circle of friends, neighbors and other care givers has shrunk as COVID-19 has kept people home and away from loved ones.

When she came down with the virus in July, she was left to care for her two daughters alone while she was bed-ridden, vomiting and running a fever. She still has residual symptoms and is battling fatigue and “brain fog” as she keeps up with her daughters’ education and job hunting for herself.

She spends a lot of time worrying.

About making mortgage payments. About paying her gas bill. About deciding which bill she can be late on this month before the utilities companies shut services off. And about the health and well-being of her kids.

“They see me being worried and that makes them worried,” Ms. Potter said. “And I try to shield them from that but they can see. They see, ‘No, baby, we can’t buy that, I can’t pay for that.’ They see that and it’s making them anxious.

“This is going to affect them for years to come.”