Edmund Burke has been meticulous in keeping a running tally of the employment applications he’s filled out since April, when COVID-19 cost him his job.
In September alone, the West Valley City resident applied for 20 positions. He’s only gotten one reply, informing him he hadn’t been picked.
“I’m not even getting rejection emails,” the 42-year-old said wryly.
He and his family have been scraping by, thanks in part to an ample severance package from his former company. But Burke also has relied on state unemployment and the $600 weekly federal stipends to see him through the lean summer months as employment leads went nowhere and a job offer fell through.
This Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act support, a lifeline to an estimated 130,000 Utahns who lost work during the pandemic, was followed by an additional injection of cash from the federal government in September. Now, that’s gone, too, and Burke says the clock is running down on his state unemployment.
He knows millions of others are in his position and downplays his own experience as not as interesting or dramatic as many others; in large part, the money pinch has meant no dining out and staying home to play seemingly endless rounds of Mario Cart, he said.
Still, he explained, it stings that he couldn’t buy his teenage daughter volleyball shoes when she needed them. Instead, Burke had to ask his parents for the money, he said, his voice cracking with emotion. Because of the budgetary strain, he’s looking at refinancing his family’s home. He’s also taken a job at a call center, accepting a swing shift that will mean missing dinners with his family.
And Burke said his faith in government has been shaken. He recalls his reassurances to family and friends earlier in the pandemic — surely, he said, federal leaders wouldn’t leave Americans out in the cold during an election year.
“I’ve been so wrong,” he said. “I’m so tremendously disappointed that politics is so much more important than people’s health. And that’s not at all taking a political position on who’s right or who’s wrong. Because they’re all wrong.”
Scrolling through social media, Burke bristles when he comes across posts suggesting that those left jobless by the pandemic are lazy or content to live on public assistance.
He’s been employed his entire adult life, he said. This would’ve been his ninth year at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, where he was a facility specialist, handling work orders for car wash malfunctions and other equipment failures at locations across Utah. His job was an early casualty of COVID-19, which stalled travel and decimated car rental agencies, he said.
As time runs out on unemployment benefits for many Utahns (benefits typically last 26 weeks), state leaders have launched a $1 million public awareness campaign urging them to explore the “hot jobs” in industries that have fared better during the pandemic. Utah still has more than 44,000 people on unemployment.
“There are eligible jobs available. It may not be a job in your industry,” Nate McDonald, spokesman for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said. “But having a job is better than having no job and no benefits.”
Burke said he is trying to maintain a positive outlook about his new call center job. With later work hours, he’ll be free to drop off his 14-year-old daughter at school in the morning and take his dog to the park.
He’s aware, though, that it’ll be even more difficult now to find a job like the one he had before. And even harder to find his way back to normal life.
Christina Vidal said it was strange to return to the restaurant in September for her first serving shift since the pandemic changed everything.
She struggled to remember to keep silverware off the table until diners sat down — just one of the unfamiliar rules ushered in by COVID-19. Customers groused about wearing masks. And between stingy tipping and the sparse seating, the money wasn’t great.
Until the coronavirus upended their lives, Vidal and her husband were renting a spacious home with a yard and were saving for a down payment to buy a house of their own. After years working as a server, she’d landed in a job she loved at a full-service bakery and cafe.
But her work abruptly evaporated after Gov. Gary Herbert put a stop to indoor dining at restaurants.
What she could earn from the bare-bones schedule wouldn’t even pay for her daughter’s day care. So on the day of the indoor dining ban, she pulled her 3-year-old out of preschool and steeled herself to wait out the pandemic at home.
Like Burke, Vidal and her family leaned on the $600-per-week subsidy from the federal government to make ends meet.
Initially, Vidal, 31, wasn’t too stressed out about money, since her husband was able to keep working as a restaurant general manager, and the two had some savings.
Still, they had to downsize to a Sugar House duplex without a yard. Their new home sits across from a park, but it was initially useless to Vidal and her daughter — at the height of the COVID-19 restrictions, signs posted around the playground shooed away children and parents.
On top of everything else, her husband had to miss work for a couple of weeks when he got infected with COVID-19. It was a “mathematical certainty” that he would fall ill at some point, and Vidal said that realization made her angry.
“There are people who are financially comfortable enough to be completely away from this and feel safe,” she said. “But the people that can’t afford not to go to work every single day ... they’re not able to avoid it."
The extra $600 federal stipend did lighten some of the family’s financial load and eased the anxiety she felt watching news reports that seemed to get grimmer by the day.
As that benefit phased out, Vidal started hunting for jobs, looking for opportunities outside the beleaguered food industry. But since she doesn’t have a college degree, she couldn’t find a job with an income that matched her weekly earnings of roughly $500 or $600 at pre-pandemic restaurants or that justified the cost of child care.
Her bakery and cafe — which she did not want to name — last month restored outdoor dining service, and she picked up some shifts . But, at this point, it’s hard to say how long it will take for business to improve, she said.
“This year just kind of feels ... hopeless,” she said. “It’s a weird thing to say out loud, but yeah.”
Susan Curtis says she named her company A Mothers Clean because she and her daughter scrub people’s homes as if their parents are about to pay a visit.
Since the pandemic, she said, her business has largely dissipated. Only four clients have stuck with her.
Some of their customers said they could no longer afford housecleaning services. Others just didn’t want outsiders to come into their homes while the coronavirus was circulating.
Curtis’ husband is still working for Amazon, but his earnings can’t support the family, she said. So she’s had to borrow money from her mother and was using food stamps to buy groceries for her 10-year-old grandson, until that benefit went away.
“We’ve just been trying to scrape through,” the 49-year-old South Salt Lake resident said. “It’s been a nightmare.”
The $600-per-week federal benefit on top of state unemployment helped the family members survive, Curtis said, carrying them from April through the end of July. At that point, though, Curtis lost both the federal stipend and the unemployment aid offered to independent contractors like her and her daughter.
Curtis has watched some other cleaning businesses stay above water by advertising on Facebook or other platforms, but she can’t afford to pay for marketing. She’s not even sure she’ll have enough money for her phone and car — the bare necessities for running her business.
“We’re about done exhausted,” she said.
On top of losing the government assistance, they learned that the town home they rent had changed hands and the new ownership wanted to gut and overhaul the property.
Curtis and her husband, daughter, grandson and two cats have until the end of October to move out. She says she has no idea where they’ll go.