Editor's note: Americans have endured economic crises before but none quite like this. To capture the depths of the suffering, The New York Times teamed up with local news organizations across the country, including the Leader-Telegram, to document the lives of a dozen Americans who found themselves out of work.
For months, we followed them as they dialed unemployment hotlines, applied for hundreds of jobs and counted every dollar in their bank accounts for rent and food. All of it while trying to survive a pandemic.
A conference call in which everyone on the line was told they were laid off. An email declaring that a restaurant had served its last meal.
A phone call from the boss before work one morning saying to come in — and pack up all your things. In March and April, as the coronavirus began tearing through the country, Americans lost as many jobs as they did during the Great Depression and the Great Recession combined — 22 million jobs that were there one minute and gone the next.
A job is a paycheck, an identity, a civic stabilizer, a future builder. During a pandemic, a job loss erases all that, when it is needed the most.
In Kentucky, Kalyn Fiorella Burns, 35, told The Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer about spending nine hours a day on hold, just to get her first unemployment check. The Arizona Daily Star spoke with Oscar Elijo Saenz, a 26-year-old sommelier in Tucson, who by week seven of unemployment was considering working at a funeral parlor out of desperation.
For months, journalists at The Times and 11 other news outlets catalogued how the dual blows of joblessness and the pandemic were changing the lives of a dozen Americans.
We give economic downturns names and dates to tame and box in their upheaval. And so the namelessness of this crisis both heightens its chaos and masks the scale of its devastation.
The effects of the Great Depression were plain to see as it unfolded 90 years ago: Soup lines formed beneath storefront signs advertising free meals for the unemployed. The impact of millions of lost jobs today is less visible when so many are staying home. Social distancing has helped financial suffering hide.
Stephanie Fitzgerald, 36, was laid off in June. She was a software engineer with two master’s degrees making roughly $100,000 a year and raising three children in rural Frenchtown, Mont. By early October, she was still without a full-time job, and the waiting was taking a deep toll.
Fitzgerald was scraping by on unemployment benefits and the $220 a week she made delivering groceries. The bundles she delivered to strangers were more substantial than the bundles she brought home to her children.
“I’m probably the most educated grocery-delivery person, and I always thought, ‘What would they say if they knew an engineer is delivering their groceries?’ ” Fitzgerald said.
In recent days, Fitzgerald and her family were on the verge of homelessness. It had been four months since she was laid off. She broke down in tears at one point.
And then the next day, she got the call.
She ran up the stairs to shout the news.
Out of work in America: Personal experiences from across the nation
Marina Moya, 24, was a team lead at Caterpillar, a construction machinery and equipment company in South Texas. With production declining, Moy…
Allen Walker, 38, joined the Army immediately after high school and spent 12 years in various roles, including as an ammunition specialist. He…
After years of hardship, this layoff really hurt. Ronda Garmon, 50, has struggled with addiction and incarceration. She is married, with six c…
Until the pandemic, Oscar Elijo Saenz, 26, was a master sommelier and server at a downtown Tucson restaurant and an account manager for an alc…