Jobless Americans can’t pay rent, buy food

Jobless Americans can't pay rent, buy food


MIAMI – Roselande Guerrier lies in bed each night, waiting for her cellphone to display 7:30 a.m. – when the Florida unemployment office opens  – and calls, aching for answers, searching for help.

“All night, my eyes are open,” she said. “Five o’clock, my eyes are open. I call at 6 o’clock and the office is closed. I call at 7:30 and boom, ‘All lines are busy.’ Every number they give me, I try, but they’re always busy.”

Guerrier, 36, has spent 13 years changing sheets, picking up dirty towels and scrubbing bathrooms as a housekeeper at the Fontainebleau hotel, the iconic Miami Beach resort. At night, she would do the same at the Cadillac Hotel & Beach Club, an art deco resort a few blocks away.

Both those jobs vanished on March 23 when the hotels were forced to close because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With three children to care for, she hasn’t seen a nickel of unemployment benefits or federal relief money.

Guerrier is one of the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs during the pandemic. Millions more have been furloughed, seen their hours reduced, their salaries cut and their economic futures cast into doubt as stay-at-home orders and a growing death toll have produced the greatest economic contraction in more than a decade.

The financial crisis comes at a precarious moment for households already teetering on the brink of ruin. Even before the pandemic struck, nearly a third of Americans didn’t have a savings account. Average credit card debt per household topped $7,000 and personal loans were the fastest-growing type of consumer debt in 2019. More than 20% of all children lived in families with incomes below the federal poverty level. 

The pandemic shutdown has piled on the economic agony, with 52% of lower-income adults saying they or someone in their household have lost a job or taken a pay cut during the outbreak, according to the Pew Research Center.

In the final week in March, 6.6 million Americans filed new unemployment claims. The next week, 6.6 million were hit. In the one after that, 4.9 million filed claims, and so on, each week bringing a new scramble of panic, anxiety and fear as 30 million people filed for unemployment benefits during seven chaotic weeks.

USA TODAY spoke with Americans from California and New York – two of the states hit hardest by the economic fallout – and a dozen cities in between to document what the explosion of unemployment has meant for the nation’s workers and their families.  

Desperate to hold on, Americans are selling off assets, tapping into their savings, taking out loans or finding work delivering food and groceries, which puts them at risk of catching the virus that has killed 70,847  Americans in less than three months. 

In Washington state, a mother fed her son tuna and sardines for weeks as she waited for her employers to deliver her final paycheck. 

Americans are on the brink in the service industry amid COVID-19 pandemic

The economic impact of the COVID-19 virus has been harsh. A small business owner and a hotel housekeeper face different, but difficult challenges amid this pandemic.

Jasper Colt, Judy S. Reich, USA TODAY

An unemployed garment worker in Los Angeles worried about making rent as the virus tore through her brother’s body.  

In Delaware, an IT worker begged for donations online as her mortgage lender threatened to foreclose on her home.

Their cash is running out – and so is their hope. 

“I feel like I don’t know when it’s morning, I don’t know when it’s night,” Guerrier said. “I haven’t slept since I was laid off.”

In the early days of March, the coronavirus outbreak still seemed like a distant threat. There were just over 100 confirmed cases nationwide, and people largely continued their regular routines. 

New York locator map

On March 11, change came quickly. The World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and President Donald Trump announced a partial travel ban from European nations, following his earlier decision to limit travel from China. 

In a matter of days, a couple in New York City saw their income vanish.

Kate Chumley was told she would no longer be writing for a series of award shows, a $12,500 contract that was supposed to supply her income into June. The shows had been canceled because of social distancing restrictions.

Days later, her husband, Liberty Ellman, began to see his own bookings steadily peel away. The professional guitarist and composer was supposed to perform in Paris and typically spent July playing in venues across Europe, gigs that would have collectively paid between $11,000 and $13,000.

They understood why everything was shutting down. But the economic slump was jarring for their family, including their two daughters, ages 6 and 9, one of whom suffers from Type 1 diabetes.

They applied for unemployment – Chumley’s was approved, her husband’s was not. The state department’s website glitches and freezes. Ellman gets an email saying he’s eligible for some relief, then clicks on a link that leads to a dead end.

Kate Chumley stands outside her apartment building in New York City. Both she and her husband have lost work because of coronavirus.

Kate Chumley stands outside her apartment building in New York City. Both she and her husband have lost work because of coronavirus.
Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY

He can’t give up.

“It’s really important that unemployment come through for him,” his wife said. “We have two kids.”

They didn’t pay their $2,650 rent in April, trying to maintain everything they could in their savings account, which can hold them over for three months without income.

March 16 started like any other day for Candy Bey, a mother in Newark, New Jersey, who has run a childcare center out of her home for 29 years. Ten children ranging from infants to 4-year-olds filled her house day and night, meaning her home was never empty, never silent. 

Newark, NJ and New York, NY locator map

That week, the White House issued guidelines calling on Americans to avoid social gatherings of more than 10 people. By the next day, the mayor of Newark had ordered all nonessential businesses closed. Bey’s livelihood was gone.

Her husband, a shuttle bus driver, continued working, and their adult children chipped in. But Bey worried about how long her family could go on without her earnings. She still has four children at home including a 9-year-old, 12-year-old twins and a 17-year-old. 

The family had recently moved to a new neighborhood, the rent more than doubling to $2,500. The old neighborhood, said Bey, was rough. Five people were shot outside her home. Two died. And now she didn’t have that extra income to help cover the household costs. She had been collecting $125 per child per week.

She’s instituted a strict new budget in the house: No more new clothes for herself or her youngest children. 

“It’s been rough,’’ said Bey, 51. “But God has been good. … I just hold onto my faith.”

Candy Bey outside her Newark, New Jersey, home.

Candy Bey outside her Newark, New Jersey, home.
Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY

Bey expects when this is all over parents will bring their children back to her childcare center. They call regularly, especially when their child wants to hear her voice or see her face. That’s how she ended up on the cellphone one recent morning coaxing 2-year-old Najayla to go potty. 

“My worst fear,’’ Bey said, “is that I won’t be able to open my home back up to my children.’’  

Across the Hudson River in New York City, bar owner Joe Sweigart was struggling to get by after Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered most businesses to close. Bars were allowed to remain open for pickup and delivery.

Other bar owners turned off the lights and locked the door, but Sweigart and his partner, Mike Vacheresse, decided to make a go of it at Travel Bar in Brooklyn, where they specialize in old fashioned cocktails. They make enough to pay rent and utilities but had to lay off three workers.

Some customers hung in, buying gift certificates and placing orders via email. Sweigart said those sales have helped, but he worries a longer outbreak will be too much to overcome as customers lose their jobs and can no longer justify buying whiskey and bourbon that ranges from $6 to $55 an ounce. 

“It’s not a long walk from here to the brink for everyone,” he said.

Even when businesses can fully open, Sweigart doesn’t expect people to rush to the bars. He knows they’ll be too afraid of getting sick.  

“We’re not going to flip the switch one day and go back to normal,” he said.

Roseville, Minn. locator map

More than 1,000 miles away in Roseville, Minnesota, Nick Clark, a 26-year-old restaurant manager, started his day by telling a dozen employees of Lucky’s 13 Pub that they no longer had a job. They would become part of the 3.3 million Americans who filed unemployment claims that week. 

At first, Clark thought it would be two, maybe three weeks before his staff could return to work. 

“No restaurant wants to lay off all their staff or close the doors,” he said. “We’re family. Period.”

A couple days later, Clark and another manager were told they were being let go, too. The restaurant located in a shopping center in the suburbs of the Twin Cities wasn’t able to do enough takeout business.

Clark said he feels lucky. He receives $500 a week for unemployment from the state and $600 a week from the federal emergency package. It’s enough to pay his bills.

“I would give all that money back to go back and feel safe working,’’ he said.

Shortly after Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced a statewide stay-at-home order on March 23, Laura Gonzalez was watching her son run around with his Boy Scout troop when she got a text. She hunched over her phone and carefully read the message from one of the three families for whom she worked as a nanny in Seattle.

Seattle, Wash. locator map

If she wanted to stay employed, the parents said, she would have to violate the state order and continue coming to their house to care for their children. 

After tossing and turning all night, Gonzalez woke up the next day and texted her answer.

“Good morning. I am so sorry but after a very bad night I have decided to follow the stay at home order,” she wrote. “I am awake since 5 giving myself justifications until I ran out of them. I am really, really sorry.”

The family wrote back that they understood her decision. Then they stopped paying her.

Her other employers cut her off, too, not even paying her for the work she had already done. One owed her pay for two weeks. Another owed her pay for six days. 

They still call her to talk to their kids, to video chat when the children are restless. But Gonzalez, 48, who is using her credit card to cover her expenses, said they’ve never once brought up money.

She has her rent to pay, the basic internet bill, the electric bill, the cellphone bill and the car insurance. She and her son are eating tuna and sardines to save on expenses. She has no savings.

“I can’t help but feel sad, ignored,” she said. “I care for the kids of my families with all my heart. We’re very close. They tell me their kids miss me. But that’s it.”

Panama City, Fla. locator map

In Panama City, Florida, Emilio Rivamar lost his job on March 27.

That same day, Trump signed a $2.2 trillion stimulus package that included $1,200 payments to laid-off workers, plus $600 a week for those who qualified for unemployment benefits. But as an undocumented immigrant from Argentina, Rivamar, 30, doesn’t qualify for assistance.

After arriving in the U.S., Rivamar got to work rebuilding houses that were damaged or destroyed when Hurricane Michael smashed into the Gulf Coast in 2018. He then took another job painting the tourist hotels that line the region as a member of Resilience Force, a group that rebuilds communities following natural disasters.

When he could, he sent money home to his mother and sisters in their small town in the foothills of the Andes. He bought his mother her first real bed. He paid for security bars for the house to protect them from the vandals that terrorize the area. 

Emilio Rivamar stands on a balcony of a hotel he was painting in Panama City Beach, Florida, before he was laid off because of a downturn in bookings from the coronavirus pandemic.

Emilio Rivamar stands on a balcony of a hotel he was painting in Panama City Beach, Florida, before he was laid off because of a downturn in bookings from the coronavirus pandemic.
Courtesy of Emilio Rivamar

But Rivamar’s job disappeared as tourism plunged in Panama City, leaving him stuck with three other workers living in a hotel room, wondering how they’ll survive the shutdown. He started working as an Instacart delivery man, frequently using the Google Translate app on his phone to communicate with his shoppers.

“This is a country of a thousand opportunities,” he said. “Something is always going to work out.”

As the calendar turned to April, the coronavirus was spreading faster than ever.

Naperville, Ill. locator map

The world topped 1 million confirmed cases. The U.S. topped 200,000. And a record 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment in the last week of March, doubling the number of claims in one week as consumers stayed home and construction, retail, trade and restaurants struggled to stay in business. By April 4, another 6.6 million people had filed new claims. 

In Naperville, Illinois, Rachel Metcalfe’s life was starting to unravel.

First came the furlough, where her hours were cut at her social media marketing job. Then she started feeling sick. Seasonal allergies, she thought, but then came the night sweats and difficulty breathing.

At the emergency room, there were a series of tests. Soon, the 22-year-old learned she had coronavirus. While testing for COVID-19 is supposed to be free, Metcalfe said she was billed $11,000 for her hospital stay.

Rachel Metcalfe, 22, poses on her balcony in Naperville, Illinois, on Friday, May 1, 2020. Metcalfe went from having a full-time job and living comfortably to applying for unemployment and wondering how she was going to pay rent as she recovered from COVID-19.

Rachel Metcalfe, 22, poses on her balcony in Naperville, Illinois, on Friday, May 1, 2020. Metcalfe went from having a full-time job and living comfortably…
Rachel Metcalfe, 22, poses on her balcony in Naperville, Illinois, on Friday, May 1, 2020. Metcalfe went from having a full-time job and living comfortably to applying for unemployment and wondering how she was going to pay rent as she recovered from COVID-19.
Camille C. Fine, for USA TODAY

“I cannot believe how quickly my life went from normal to complete pandemonium,” she said. “I didn’t care that they found pneumonia in both my lungs. All I could think about is how I would never be able to pay this bill off.”

She launched a GoFundMe effort to cover her blood work, X-rays and CT scan, joining the growing legions of Americans turning to online charity to pay for essential costs. She figured her $1,200 stimulus check would cover one month’s rent.

“I never would have imagined that a so-called ‘developed country’ would have people beg others for money in order to keep their head just above water,” she said.

Los Angeles locator map

In Los Angeles, Hilda Lopez also lost her job. She worried she would lose her brother, too. 

COVID-19 shut down his kidneys, forcing him onto a dialysis machine. Then it shut down his heart. For two minutes, before the doctors were able to revive him, he was technically dead at 46 years old. 

He was placed on a ventilator. Then he went into a medically induced coma. 

“They told us he was more dead than alive,” Lopez said. 

Lopez, 47, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala who has been working in the Los Angeles area since 1991, had been working for her brother in a garment factory when the pandemic arrived. After their shipments of cloth, sewing thread and other materials from China stopped in early January, they were forced to shut down.

Lopez cut off the cable and internet in the one-bedroom apartment she shares with her 19-year-old daughter. She stopped buying groceries and relied on whatever she could scrounge up at food banks.

She’s down to $200 in cash and $40 in her bank account. She missed her April rent payment. She missed her car insurance payment. She couldn’t afford to renew the tags on her 25-year-old truck and is considering donating it to a local charity since she knows she can’t get much for a vehicle with 168,000 miles on it.

To keep calm, she plays Christian songs on her guitar. She reads poetry and self-help books. She plays chess with her daughter or against herself.

Sometimes, she turns to a refrain that her brother would always say: “If we keep thinking like poor people, we’ll always be poor. But if we think positive, we’ll overcome anything.”

Sometimes, she turns to God: “Whenever I feel like I’ve reached the bottom, it’s the hand of God that lifts me up and tells me to keep going.”

Finally, good news arrived. After two weeks on a ventilator, doctors pulled out the breathing tube. Her brother was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital where he struggled to speak but was breathing on his own. 

“He’s such a fighter, just like all of us in our family,” she said. “I know he’s going to beat this. We all are.”

Just a few months ago, the Pauls were riding high.

Denville, N.J. locator map

Giovanni and Sharquana Paul quit their jobs in finance and social services to open my CBD Organics, their own store selling CBD wellness and beauty products in Denville, New Jersey. Even the mayor attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony in October.

Business was going so well they were thinking about opening another store. They were selling so many lotions, gummies, teas and chocolates that they ordered  $25,000 worth of product – triple the usual order. Then the pandemic tore through New Jersey. 

“As with any start-up business, the first year is crucial,” Giovanni Paul said. “To have this now, it’s unfortunate, we have to try to see how we’re going to survive.”

The Pauls laid off one employee and dipped into their savings to cover expenses and the $3,000-a-month lease on the store. While Giovanni, 41, tends to the trickle of orders that come in, Sharquana, 40, cares for their two children. 

On April 5, the couple applied for a small business loan under the federal emergency relief package. Hotel chainsrestaurant chains and even the Los Angeles Lakers were approved in the first wave of funding, but the Pauls and scores of other small businesses were left out. 

Giovanni Paul outside his Denville, New Jersey, store.

Giovanni Paul outside his Denville, New Jersey, store.
Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY

“We’re trying to come up with a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C,” Giovanni Paul said. “It’s tough. No one plans for a pandemic.”

In Wilmington, Delaware, Jewel Fennell is one mortgage payment away from losing her home. 

On April 10, Fennell got a call. The IT contract worker had been struggling to find freelance work during the pandemic, and she had made the agonizing decision to feed her children and miss another mortgage payment on the home she purchased 12 years ago. She had missed several payments in 2019 and her dreams of catching up evaporated as soon as her gigs dried up in March. 

Wilmington, Del. locator map

She picked up the phone. It was the bank. 

“When I heard the words ‘foreclosure,’ if felt like my soul was leaving my body,” Fennell said. “I told the mortgage bank that I was impacted and they pretty much told me they don’t care. They want their payment.”

There are mortgage relief options for homeowners with federally backed mortgages under the CARES Act, the relief package passed by Congress and signed by Trump that is providing loans to businesses and cash assistance to unemployed Americans. But Fennell doesn’t qualify.

She began asking for donations on Twitter by tweeting her $Cashtag, a unique identifier for people using Cash App, a mobile payment service that allows people to send money directly to each other.

“You pretty much have to beg,” she said. “It’s like panhandling online.”

U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz, a Democrat who represents the desert communities east of Los Angeles, said calls to his office have tripled since the outbreak, with many of his constituents distressed about how they will feed their children, pay their rent, find a new job. More than 4.9 million Americans lost their jobs in the second week of April. 

Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Desert
Those hardships vary based on where you live, what your job is and your socioeconomic status. We may all be in this together, but we’re not on the same boat. Some are on a rowboat barely holding on and some are on the yacht.

“Those hardships vary based on where you live, what your job is and your socioeconomic status,” he said. “We may all be in this together, but we’re not on the same boat. Some are on a rowboat barely holding on and some are on the yacht.”

Ruiz and other members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are pushing for the next relief bill to include more protections against evictions, excessive late fees and negative reports to credit bureaus, among other things, to help lower-income Americans. So far many of his constituents, he said, still haven’t received the unemployment benefits approved by Congress in the previous relief bill.

Coming from a working class family with a deep military tradition – his father was a Marine and his grandparents met in the Air Force – Sven Williams felt the calling of “service and sacrifice.”

After spending years working for academia, he got his certified nursing assistant certificate in March and figured it was the perfect time to enter the nursing field given the COVID-19 outbreak. By April 14, a coronavirus death was reported in all 50 U.S. states for the first time, signaling widespread need for medical help. 

Orlando, Fla. locator map

But Williams, 34, soon realized his timing couldn’t have been worse. With elective surgeries and many basic procedures suspended so health care professionals can focus on coronavirus, hospitals and clinics have been laying people off, not bringing on new staff.

One by one, the rejection emails poured into his inbox. Seven of the 33 applications he sent out cited a hiring freeze because of the pandemic. 

As he watches his savings drain away and worries about making his rent in his apartment in Orlando, he’s now reconsidering his career shift. He’s reading accounts from nurses who complain of not having enough personal protective equipment, of working gruelingly long shifts, of their coworkers dying from the illness they fought to save others from.

“If that’s going to be the profession going forward, where nurses are hailed as heroes, but they have to reuse the same N95 mask while their administration is working from home, is that really the right profession for me?” he said.

Sven Williams, certified nursing assistant
If that’s going to be the profession going forward, where nurses are hailed as heroes, but they have to reuse the same N95 mask while their administration is working from home, is that really the right profession for me?

Williams was saved, for the time being, when one of his old employers reached out offering some part-time work. A university in Qatar brought him back to teach online classes as the Middle Eastern country remains under a strict stay-at-home order.

In California, as an additional 4 million people lost employment, Eleanore Fernandez directed her 12-year-old daughter to turn off the Christmas lights she typically keeps aglow in her bedroom. Fernandez, who was laid off from her job at a catering company and whose husband lost his freelance jobs doing sound production, said they’ve cut off their HBO, removed an iPad from their cellphone plan, and have been eating less meat at dinnertime.

“My daughter likes ramen, so that’s good,” Fernandez said.

When she looks for work, she downplays her experience and previous salary. 

“People are vying for the same jobs, even if it’s not what they want,’’ she said.

Back in Florida, Guerrier, the housekeeper who lost both of her jobs, is down to $300 in her bank account. She’s trying to figure out which bills to pay. 

The $192 car insurance payment that’s coming due? The cellphone and home internet bills? Forget about the $1,450 rent payment that was due on May 1 – she’s been trying to get a hold of her landlord to talk about options for an extension on her rent, but she can’t get him on the phone. 

“I don’t know what I should do,” she said.

With each week of job losses, lawmakers across the nation, from the White House to rural city halls, confronted a dark debate: allow more economic suffering, or lift quarantine orders and risk more Americans getting sick. 

Silver Spring, Md. locator map

On April 20, governors of several Republican-led states announced plans to begin reopening their economies. They were going to put Americans back to work, they said.

But some expressed reservations. In Maryland, GOP Gov. Larry Hogan said he needs to see several things happen before he reopens the state, including two full weeks of decreased hospitalizations.

For Emma Whelan, the uncertainty has made it impossible to plan for what might come next for her one-year-old brewery, Astro Lab Brewing, in Silver Spring, Maryland. 

Will she be able to reopen in May? In June? In July? Can she hire back her workers?

She doesn’t know.

On April 20, she received a lifeline when her small business loan was approved. But the $85,000 she received will only cover eight weeks of payroll. The program stipulates that the loan will only be forgiven if all 13 of her employees are back to work by June 30.

Emma Whelan has had to adjust her business to survive. Astro Lab Brewing in Silver Spring, Maryland, went from filling glasses and pouring pints to offering cans of beer to go.

Emma Whelan has had to adjust her business to survive. Astro Lab Brewing in Silver Spring, Maryland, went from filling glasses and pouring pints to offering cans of beer to go.
Handout photo from Emma Whelan.

“There are some huge flaws,” in the program, Whelan said. “When the funds run out, we may still not be open, and our employees will likely have to go on unemployment.”

A couple days after Whelan received her loan approval, Peaches Watson, 64, dashed around her small Caribbean restaurant taking beef patties out of a glass case and spooning cabbage into a plastic to-go container.

She stopped to take an order by phone. Yes, she had whiting. No, she said, only oxtails and jerk chicken were ready.

Watson has been working “triple time’’ as head chef, cashier and dishwasher at Peaches’ Kitchen since March 17. That’s when she had to lay off four employees. 

“I’m afraid that if I close my doors I will never be able to open,’’ she said. 

She makes sure safety measures are in place to protect her, her staff and other customers. A sign on the door urges “Face covering please, Peaches.”

Peaches Watson stands outside Peaches Kitchen Restaurant & Catering Service in Washington, D.C. She said she is struggling to keep her business open amid the coronavirus shutdowns.

Peaches Watson stands outside Peaches Kitchen Restaurant & Catering Service in Washington, D.C. She said she is struggling to keep her business open amid the coronavirus shutdowns.
Jasper Colt, USA TODAY

“I just know I get up every day and I just pray and I just ask God for strength,’’ said Watson, who now starts working at 5 a.m. and ends around 1 a.m. 

Watson, a single mother, took her savings and opened the restaurant on Feb. 18, 2007. She got popular, taking large catering orders from local churches and the Council of the District of Columbia. Even former President Barack Obama once made a purchase – a yellow layer cake.  

She said she won’t let COVID-19 be the end of Peaches’ Kitchen. She’s tried to apply for aid from the federal emergency relief package for small businesses, but the line was so jammed she couldn’t get through.

“Some of us that need it more are the ones that are getting left behind,” she said.

In Athens, Georgia, Labria Chandler has been waiting for her relief check to arrive.

Athens, Ga. locator map

The 24-year-old mother of three was homeless when she landed a new two-bedroom apartment and a job as a line cook making $9 an hour in December. By March, she was unemployed again, a COVID-19 economic casualty.

Her landlord knocked on her door requesting rent on April 21, but Chandler can’t afford to pay.

Chandler said the stimulus check from the government should provide some relief once it arrives in the mail. She plans to use it to feed her three daughters, aged 2, 6 and 9 months. 

“I was already barely keeping my head above water before, but I was making it,” said Chandler. “It’s very scary. I have nowhere to go.

“The homeless shelters are full. I already checked.”

Maps created by Karl Gelles, USA TODAY;;


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