Generations of Unemployment

From young Americans just beginning their careers to those closer to retirement, millions are stuck in limbo.

(Cristiana Couceiro / for NBC News)

(Cristiana Couceiro / for NBC News)

When Daniel Martinez drives by the car dealership in Houston where he worked as a field service technician, his 3-year-old daughter will point to it and say, “Look, Daddy’s work.”

Martinez, 28, had been earning enough money to support his wife and their daughter and was beginning to look at upgrading the family’s small apartment to a house. But he was laid off in April as coronavirus cases began to soar, and he lost his employer-provided health insurance. The dream of a new home vanished. 

“Now I have to say, ‘No, I don’t work there anymore,” he said, recalling his response to his daughter. “I’m just trying to explain to her that, you know, ‘Daddy lost his job but I’m still looking.’ It’s rough.”

Martinez is one of more than 20 million Americans who have become unemployed because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced many employers to shut their doors and either furlough or fire employees. 

Martinez, after six years of Navy service and three years in his most recent job, had high hopes for the trajectory of his life and his career. He loved the work he did and the community that it came with, but now he’s not sure if he’ll ever get it back. 

“It was like a light switch,” he said. “Some days, I feel lost and hopeless because I don’t know what I can do.”

The number of people who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic is unprecedented: The biggest spike in initial unemployment claims in March, at 6.6 million, far surpassed the peak of the Great Recession. With the economic future remaining murky, unemployed workers in the United States, from young people beginning their careers to those closer to retirement, are facing a choice to weather the storm and hope their positions return or give up their chosen career altogether if they aren’t able to find something similar.

Listen to Martin Peterson's story

Listen to Martin Peterson's story

Listen to Laurie Rosener's story

Listen to Laurie Rosener's story

Listen to Nicole Anerud's story

Listen to Nicole Anerud's story

Each week, the jobs report published by the Department of Labor earns prominent headlines in newspapers and functions as a key point of discussion on cable news channels and social media. But behind the columns and the panels of pundits opining about how to resolve this labor crisis is a growing number of Americans attempting to read the economic tea leaves and figure out where they belong in the U.S. job market. 

Just last week, 1.5 million more people applied for unemployment, the 14th consecutive week in which states processed more than 1 million first-time applications. The unemployment rate was nearly 10 percent higher in May than it was a year prior, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

The U.S. is officially in a recession, as the National Bureau of Economic Research announced in May. The effects are felt deeply by all age groups, but it has deeper implications for older Americans, who even now tend to go longer between jobs, including periods of high employment.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said as much when he testified before Congress in June, suggesting that Congress and the administration need to do more to address the economic fallout of the pandemic.

“I think there are going to be a large number of people who will not be able to immediately go back to work at their old job, or even in their old industry,” Powell told lawmakers. “There will be a significant group that is left over even after we get the employment bounce.”

Until then, many continue to rely on unemployment benefits, especially those that came with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act that was enacted in March.

As the labor market continues to shrink, the legislation has become the financial backbone of many Americans’ lives. 

Without it, Greg Aplin and his wife, artists and artisan workers in Memphis, Tennessee, would struggle to put food on the table and pay their bills. The couple, both in their 60s, were able to create a lucrative business selling their art after they were both laid off from their jobs a few years ago. But they have had to essentially shut down their business because the festivals and live events they attended to sell their work have been canceled. 

“Without the unemployment help, we’d be in a serious world of hurt,” said Aplin, who said he’ll have to start drawing on his Social Security if the CARES Act isn’t extended by lawmakers and instead expires at the end of July. “It’s a little terrifying.” 

The share of Americans’ total wage and salary income made up of unemployment benefits has reached historically high levels, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute. Since the 1940s, unemployment assistance has never made up more than 2.5 percent of American income, but that benefit constituted 15 percent of wages and salaries last month. 

That’s in part due to the unemployment benefits included in the CARES Act, passed during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., which provided unemployed Americans an additional $600 a week from the federal government on top of the money provided by individual states.

That softened the blow for Lila Fung who lives in the Queens borough of New York City, but it took a great deal of fighting to get there. With the unemployment system overloaded in New York, as millions applied for the benefit at the same time, it took her more than two months to receive assistance. 

“I don’t want to be reliant on it, but it helps,” said Fung, who was laid off the first week of April after starting a new job as a commercial analyst in January. Fung has more than 15 years of professional experience under her belt.

“I’m being proactive every day trying to find work but there’s so much competition for the same job," Fung said. In the past, you probably had 10-15 people applying, but now it’s like 400 or 500 going for the same job, and it’s like, ‘How am I ever going to get noticed? How am I ever going to find a job?’”

It’s also unclear when many can return to work because of the surge in coronavirus cases across the country — just last week, single-day case increases in the U.S. hit a new high, adding nearly 46,000 cases Friday. Josh Bivens, the research director of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington affiliated with the labor movement, said this historic level of assistance is necessary to keep the country’s economy alive, but not at the expense of forcing people to choose between their health and a paycheck.

Listen to Daniel Martinez's story

Listen to Daniel Martinez's story

Listen to Lila Fung's story

Listen to Lila Fung's story

Listen to Samantha Enterkin's story

Listen to Samantha Enterkin's story

“Unlike most recessions where the policy goal is just, as quick as possible, get people back into a job, this was different. We actually wanted to give people the economic space to not work for a while because we wanted to reduce the spread.”

That extra cushion, which has stopped the fall of consumption spending in response to the sudden shock of job losses, has kept many Americans’ lives afloat. But the country is currently poised to leap off a fiscal cliff without an extension of those benefits, Bivens said. 

That could be dire economically for the country and for individuals, especially as outbreaks of the virus are growing in Texas, Arizona and across the Southeast. 

“If we have another similarly sized shutdown and we don't have the extra $600, I mean, people will literally go hungry,” Bivens said. “We already saw the lines at food banks and things like that in the past three months, it will get exponentially worse if nothing changes.”

But it’s not just the possible loss of the assistance that worries Americans who remain out of work. Many states suspended rent and mortgage payments as the pandemic spread across the country, but those freezes are beginning to expire. 

That’s another level of relief lost for the record number of people who are now unemployed, many of whom also lost their job-provided health insurance.

But people like Marty Petersen, 57, don’t have much hope that Congress or the Trump administration will do much to help. Petersen, who worked as a stagehand at a theater in Schenectady, New York, for 31 years until he was laid off because of the pandemic, said that it appears both political parties seem more concerned about political wins than addressing the economic woes of Americans across the country.

“They’re deciding not to work together and we’re all getting caught up and neglected,” Petersen said, noting that he’s had to pull from his retirement savings to help pay for health insurance coverage for his family of four and is considering selling his car to make ends meet if he loses the CARES Act benefits. “We’re the pile of sawdust that they’re creating.” 

Democrats have proposed extending the CARES Act unemployment benefits until the end of the year, but the extension has yet to find much bipartisan support. 

Many said they feel as if they’re in limbo, already unable to make any plans for their future — financial and otherwise — because of COVID-19, and they worry about losing the one lifeline they feel they have left. 

Nevertheless, President Donald Trump has insisted that the economy will quickly bounce back once states come out of lockdowns. But as the number of unemployment claims continues to grow and with a number of states having to reverse reopening plans, it appears as if Trump’s confidence could be misguided.

It’s not convincing to Nicole Anerud, 37, who lost her job in the oil and gas industry three weeks after returning from maternity leave. Anerud, who had dreams of becoming a history professor until the Great Recession forced her to pivot into her most recent role as an oil and gas planner, said that she doesn’t have much hope for finding work again in her current field, especially as Texas faces a growing rate of infection. Now she’s forced to once again rethink her career goals. 

“It’s getting harder,” she said from her home in Katy, Texas. “I don’t know what the ramifications are going to be from COVID-19 or how bad it’s going to get, but I’ve got a double-edged worry of trying to find a job while balancing that with my son.”

While no two unemployment stories are the same, the common threads are a sense of dreams deferred and a need to take temporary work in the strange new world the United States has become amid the pandemic. 

Emily Nygard, 23, of Tacoma, Washington, thought she had found her dream job at the intersection of law and health when she took a position as a medical reports coordinator right after graduating from college. Seven months after she started, her company laid her off. Her unemployment claim allowed her to pay a mounting number of bills as she applied for dozens of jobs each day.

“I was sitting at home for six weeks just going, ‘you know, the world's been taken. I'm doing nothing, and I just so desperately want to help,’” said Nygard, who said that she cried when she had to apply for unemployment. 

She eventually found another position, as a COVID-19 screener at the hospital near her home, but the job is temporary, adding another variable to an already murky future.

“It’s been a little bit of cognitive dissonance of like, ‘what's my work worth? And what's my degree worth? And what's my health worth?’” Nygard said. “Because a lot of the money that I make right now is, ‘Thanks for putting your life on the line.’”

Design and development: Robin Muccari / NBC News

Art Director: Chelsea Stahl / NBC News