A Year of Unemployment Gig worker Travel agent Caterer Therapist Office administrator
‘I'm working, but I'm not getting paid’
Travel agent Jeremy Wescoat, 39, had to scramble when all those planned vacations were suddenly canceled
May 28, 2021
Jeremy Wescoat, 39, at the Rivers Club, Downtown, ran his own travel agency and drove for Uber before the pandemic hit. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)
  Video: A year of unemployment in six words.
Jeremy Wescoat, 39, from Mount Washington. Runs his own franchise of travel agency Dream Vacations. He had also worked as a ride-hail driver to bring in some extra income until deciding the health risk was too great to continue offering rides.

When travelers canceled their vacation plans last year, Jeremy Wescoat got stuck with part of the tab.

Though the money had never made it to Mr. Wescoat’s pocket, as a travel agent he helped facilitate refunds from vendors to clients as a result of canceled trips. Part of that included returning commissions that had already been paid.

The financial burden was short-lived: Vendors worked quickly to protect travel adviser commissions and customers quickly became interested in planning getaways again in 2021, Mr. Wescoat said.

His business is rebounding and off to a good year but, due to the nature of commission-based work, he is still collecting partial unemployment benefits.

“A lot of people, they’re ready to plan travel, but they’re not ready to travel yet,” he said in February. “I’m working but I’m not getting paid.”

March 2020

Travel stopped amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally decided to continue driving ride-hail as a source of income but decided after a few weeks the health risk to him and his family was too great.

May 2020

Began filing for unemployment benefits, received the payments within two weeks.

June 2020

Benefits were disrupted for two to three weeks as the state made changes to its system and payments process to combat fraud attempts.

December 2020

Benefits were disrupted as Mr. Wescoat’s benefits year ended and the federal government delayed passing an extension.

January 2021-April 2021

Benefits continue without interruption.

Mr. Wescoat, 39, from Mount Washington, owns Travel Come True, a local franchise for the travel agency Dream Vacations. He helps customers book flights, rental cars, cruises and travel insurance, among many other travel accommodations. Most recently, his job description also included help keeping up with ever-changing COVID-19 guidelines in different cities and countries.

He purchased the franchise about three years ago and had built a steady customer base by the time COVID-19 shut down travel for months in 2020. He estimated about 80% of the trips his clients had planned for the year were canceled. The other 20% were postponed.

Nobody was going anywhere.

By spring 2021, the company was back to operating at 70% of its normal capacity, but Mr. Wescoat was still trying to cover losses.

“We really were expecting 2020 to be a big year for us, and unfortunately, with COVID, it was just the opposite,” he said. “A lot of that income was lost. All of our income was lost for probably about seven or eight months.”

Uber driver Jeremy Wescoat shows his disinfectant wipes and sprays inside his ride-hail vehicle. (Steph Chambers/Post-Gazette)
Uber driver Jeremy Wescoat shows his disinfectant wipes and sprays inside his ride-hail vehicle. (Steph Chambers/Post-Gazette)

Even in a normal year, Mr. Wescoat rarely saw his work immediately reflected in his bank account. Usually, his commission-based pay came after a client’s trip. That’s one reason that, prior to the pandemic and the ensuing travel restrictions, he had also been driving for ride-hail services like Uber and Lyft to supplement his income.

He stopped picking up passengers in March 2020, worried about the health risk it could pose for himself and his family.

By November, the pandemic wasn’t easing but he considered getting back in the car.

“I will be more than happy when I can finally sever that tie [with the unemployment system].”

The unemployment program he had been relying on — one of the new federal programs established last spring to expand and extend jobless benefits — was nearing expiration.

The federal government ended up extending those programs at the last minute. Now, Mr. Wescoat said he tries not to think about any other looming deadlines for the jobless benefits he still relies on.

“You take the good with the bad [with the unemployment system],” he said. “But it really has been a lifesaver for gig workers and small business owners that I know.

“I feel very fortunate that it’s been an available resource to this point, but I will be more than happy when I can finally sever that tie.”

As of this May, Mr. Wescoat was helping clients plan more than 20 trips for the summer months. He was scheduling a joint birthday getaway for two families going to Turks and Caicos in July and a 40th birthday celebration in St. Lucia in October.

“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s getting closer every day,” he said. “Every day I wake up and get to work is a good day.”