Since March 14, over 6.7 million Californians have filed for unemployment, numbers unprecedented since the Great Depression. Though many small businesses have welcomed customers back in, rising COVID-19 cases and a shattered economy have kept many others at home. With the additional federal unemployment benefits created under the CARES Act set to expire at the end of July, concern is growing for many about what an uncertain future might bring.
Berkeleyside talked to nine people, who either live or worked in Berkeley, who lost work due to the pandemic. We asked them how their lives have changed. For some, unemployment benefits have been a temporary saving grace, but others haven’t received funds at all. Some hope their jobs will be waiting for them when things return to normal, whenever that may be. Others are pivoting, thinking about changing their careers. Young and old, from all walks of life — these are their stories.
Andrea Raskop, graphic designer
For almost two years, my now-husband and I had been planning our wedding. It was so close when shelter in place happened. The day I got laid off was particularly hard. That morning, we had decided we were going to push the wedding back to August. It was already kind of hard that day for that reason. And when I got laid off, it was just another blow. It was this big emotional day.
Two weeks before the date, we just decided we were going to do it because who knows how much longer we’re going to have to live like this. We didn’t want to wait. After I lost my job, I wasn’t going to have health insurance — I was given severance and one month of health insurance. I have been receiving unemployment checks, which has been very helpful, but I know that’s not going to last forever. It was almost a bit of a necessity to get married.
“We had a wedding in our backyard. It’s probably the happiest day I’ve had in a long time.”
We ended up getting married and having a wedding in our backyard with our parents and a small number of our bridal party. It was perfect. I get kind of emotional just thinking about it. We have a long driveway that my dad and I walked down. My dad carried my dog — an Italian greyhound named Luca. It’s probably the happiest day I’ve had in a long time.
Probably one of the bigger lifestyle changes for me is I’ve taken on more of the role of a housewife. It’s not something I pictured myself doing. Obviously I look for jobs every day. Even though I know I have to keep searching, I honestly feel pretty pessimistic and uncertain. I don’t know where I’m going to go from here. That’s the worst part of all of this — not really knowing. I’ve lost a sense of purpose. I’ve lost a sense of security. It’s hard to come to terms with.
Zac Kamenetz, rabbi
It was very sudden. I was not expecting to lose my job. I have to scramble to figure out what I’m doing. I can’t move my family during a pandemic. My wife is 8 months pregnant. There aren’t many jobs for a rabbi like me here.
“My wife is 8 months pregnant. There aren’t many jobs for a rabbi like me here.”
But I have some ideas that I’m hoping to create an organization around, now that I’m out of my old job. I’m working toward creating a psychedelic therapy that’s rooted in Jewish spirituality. It’s time for a spiritual renaissance. Especially with the profound suffering and mental health crisis that people are experiencing and will experience for several years, if not for a full generation after this is over.
I have unemployment coming in, which gives us a little bit of breathing room while I build this thing out and fundraise for the next year.
My wife has been incredibly supportive. Luckily our daughter has started going back to preschool three days a week at Hearts Leap North. She’s 3 years old. Before that, we saw a really sharp shift in her behavior. She had been light, bubbly, and easy-going. To completely end her social life as a 3-year-old absolutely took a toll on her. For her to cry about missing her friends was just heartbreaking. Her going back to school is just enough — for her and for us, first of all, to get anything done. We haven’t even talked about what names we’re going to give this child at the end of August. We haven’t had any time. So there’s some room, and it’s incredibly important now that I’m trying to build an organization.
Davis O’Shae, events usher, student
I was working as an usher for events on campus. Pretty much all of the concerts got canceled so they let everyone go. I left school in March, right before my birthday on March 21. Pretty much everyone left around that time. Either that or they stayed and started doing classes online. I have a house in Santa Cruz that I share with seven other people. When I left, it was stressful for the first couple of months before I figured out a subletter. It was money going towards something that I wasn’t even using. I felt like I was just wasting my savings. Aside from making sure I could pay rent, I don’t really spend a lot now. My family is buying groceries and I’m not going out or anything.
“I don’t know if I want to participate in that whole system that isn’t really invested in me.”
There’s a lot of factors happening at once that we have to think about. In general, with the social uprisings happening recently and all the protests related to Black Lives Matter, I feel like I’ve gotten more disillusioned with the idea of taking part in a system that is focused on killing people that look like me. I’m not really excited to start working again. UC Santa Cruz has made some statements that we support Black lives on campus. They did some surface-level type actions, but there’s very little direct action. It was really discouraging. I don’t know if I want to participate in that whole system that isn’t really invested in me. It has also exposed how much those schools — universities specifically — are just businesses.
There are times when it feels difficult to be with my family. It’s kind of draining in terms of trying to feel independent and figuring out how to support yourself. It’s also definitely weird to have to share space with my brother again. He’s gotten a lot older and has a girlfriend now. We share a room so it’s weird to be all confined in that space. But overall I feel very lucky because I have a very positive relationship with most of my family. My brother and I work on a lot of artistic projects together. We do a lot of music videos and graphic design. We find ways to occupy ourselves together. I’m finding new ways to grow at the same time.
Brian Walker, sound engineer
I am a professional sound engineer and have been for over 30 years. I’ve always made my living with my ears. In March, the first cancellations started to come in. One canceled show, then two, then three, then this whole avalanche. I was a part-time staff member on the payroll at the Freight & Salvage. We were all laid off, which allowed us to get unemployment, but that’s going to end at the end of this month, and then I will have no income.
All of the work I do involves being around other people. In the case of live music, the whole reason I’m hired is to be there for live events. With COVID, being in a room with others is a very bad idea. I realized that all of the work that I do is now dangerous. I was offered one week of work in a recording studio in San Francisco. It would have been 40 hours in a small room with a stranger I didn’t know. Even though I really could use the work, I realized I had to turn it down. That’s the situation I’m in now, trying to figure out what’s next.
“There are … jobs that are evaporating, and many of them have to do with the arts.”
There are some jobs that are largely unaffected, if you don’t mind being on Zoom all day. There are other jobs that are evaporating, and many of them have to do with the arts. Making music is becoming no longer viable not just for the technicians but for the artists. If you pull the rug out from them, my concern is that we’re going to lose a part of our culture. Large stadium shows are not going to have a problem because they have big corporate sponsors. I’m talking about people who play more intimate music in smaller venues. I’m concerned that all that’s going to be left are the very large stadium tours, much in the same way that small businesses are closing but the national chains are still able to continue.
Honestly I’m starting to think about what else I want to do. It’s a shame because I love music. I’m a musician myself and making music, being part of music, and supporting musicians have been a major force in my life. Now I’m looking at something that doesn’t have that. After having done something that long, it’s hard to say, “Do I start a new career? Do I go back to school?” It’s a strange time to be considering a new career. I hope I continue working with music. There is a possibility that you can do live streams of concerts without having an audience in the room, just the musicians and technicians. Unless we have permission from the city, we can’t do it.
I foresee that when finally we are able to gather again in a room together and have a musician onstage, it’s going to be a very emotional thing. Being in a room with musicians on stage can be a really magical thing. Live music heals. The problem is, I don’t know if it’s going to be economically viable anymore.
Rosa Oliva and Carolina Santos, small-business owners
Carolina Santos: We’re from Oaxaca, Mexico. Oaxaca is one of the places in Mexico where the indigenous presence is alive. That’s where our tagline comes from. We cook to keep the traditions of our ancestors alive [at La Oaxaqueña). And we serve ancestral foods: mole from scratch, tamales wrapped in banana leaf. The farmer’s market where we sell our food was just dead the first two months in Berkeley, especially on Tuesdays. People were not buying from hot food vendors. I think people were scared. I was begging my mom to prioritize her health and not go to that farmer’s market. She’s taking a big risk because elders are the most vulnerable.
Rosa Oliva: The reason I have been so persistent and continued coming to the farmers’ market was because I had no other source income. I couldn’t collect unemployment. It was very hard and demoralizing to go and not sell very much.
Carolina Santos: She doesn’t have that safety net. She hasn’t been able to pay the rent at the commercial kitchen — only half of it. We’re not able to cover bills fully. But it has always taken so much passion and courage to run a small-business, with the cost of living here in the Bay Area and with the lack of support for Black and brown folks to do this kind of work. You have to be strong-willed.
“It’s a story of resilience. Because of lack of opportunity, we create opportunity for ourselves.”
It’s a story of resilience. Because of lack of opportunity, we create opportunity for ourselves. Our business came out of the economic downturn in 2008. Our house was being foreclosed and we were both out of work. We had to get creative to sustain ourselves. We had a neighbor who tried our food. She said, “Why don’t you go sell your food. Try it out.” And it worked out. We had a storefront in West Oakland but at some point we had to let it go. It wasn’t giving back to us. We were doing catering but now with the pandemic, we rely on the farmer’s markets and home delivery.
Rosa Oliva: The economics have been incredibly challenging. The money is not flowing and I don’t think things have improved all that much since the start of the pandemic. But I still have hope that I can save enough money to pay off the land for a house back in Oaxaca. I want to move back there in two or three years. I don’t see a future myself here in the U.S. I need to get out, I need to get my peace. That’s why I want to go back to my homeland.
Carolina Santos: I’m both excited and nervous for the future. I’m excited to create a new economy. I believe the systems that are in place are not here to serve Black and brown people but I think it’s going to be very chaotic before we get our bearings for what comes next. The pandemic has exposed the injustice and corruption is ingrained in the American culture and systems that we live under. I believe that another world is possible in my heart. I guess in that sense I’m a dreamer.
Stephanie, museum greeter
I don’t have any kind of art degree, even though I’m very interested in art. Years and years ago, when I was in my 20s, I would go to SFMOMA and search through the book for job openings. Every single job required an art history degree, which I was in no position to acquire. So I stopped looking.
“The joke was that … they’d have to pull me out kicking and screaming. And then lo and behold I was out of a job.”
Fast forward to the end of 2017. I was unemployed and I was looking for work. I found this job available. I was frontline staff, meaning I greeted visitors and helped with any of the things a guest would need to get into the museum — purchase tickets, scan tickets and coat check. Real simple stuff but it was the best job I’d ever had in my life. Everyone was so friendly. The staff was amazing. The museum itself is so vibrant. I was working with a lot of gay people, people of color, a lot of people my age. And I just love art so much.
The joke was that I would never leave my job there — they’d have to pull me out kicking and screaming. And then lo and behold I was out of a job. SFMOMA was a really important part of my community. Not having that is just a little bit crushing. I’m pretty confident I would get hired back when things get back to normal. I don’t know, though.
I have become more depressed. It’s weird staying at home so much. I’ve become more introverted. But I’ve been doing a lot of painting for a portrait series I’m doing. I’ve had a lot of time to dive into the projects I’m working on. It’s kind of nice, having so much time to paint. I call it the punk rock origin stories project. In my experience, people that have gotten into punk rock always love to have the story of how they got into it. There was a lot of stuff involved in empowering people and not caring what society thought of you. It was this huge community that felt angry about the system and people who wanted to part of something exciting and big. I’ve been collecting stories and painting them.
Karen Switzer, small business owner and substitute teacher
I’m a single mom, so I’m used to living a frugal lifestyle. Before the pandemic, pretty much by myself, I was able to construct an income that supported me and my son. Since the shelter in place, I’m not up to that capacity. I own a letterpress printing business and I’m a part-time substitute teacher in the Berkeley schools. Most of what I do is whole-sale greeting cards. I’ve saved enough to take a hit for a summer. But my longer term concern if school doesn’t open in the fall, that’s income I’m not going to get. And I imagine that some of the stores won’t open at all. Right now, I’m designing a Christmas card line. Is there going to be Christmas? Are people going to want to order Christmas cards?
“Right now, I’m designing a Christmas card line. Is there going to be Christmas?”
I applied for unemployment a couple times and I still haven’t gotten any money. I’ve gotten a debit card, but I’ve been approved for zero dollars. Every time I check in, it still seems like I have zero dollars. It’s been a lot of uncertainty. If I were to get unemployment, that would be the difference. I would feel like I could just build Legos with my kid this summer and not worry.
But being with my son, that’s been one of the best parts of it. Luckily, both my son and I like to play Legos. I like to build vehicles and he outfits them with all the weapons. He’ll bedazzle all the cars or rocket ships that I make. I build the house and his people end up having these adventures in it. But having him not have many other social outlets besides me, means that he has wanted to spend every minute with me. That’s been kind of hard to go from a lot of time to myself at work, versus intensive time with him all day. He is going to one of the City of Berkeley summer camps, even though there is an increased risk. That helps.
Nat McBride, ceramic tile specialist
When the shelter-in-place mandate came, we basically had to stop operations. I work at Heath Ceramics in the San Francisco showroom. There was clay and mixers sitting out and we just had to walk away from it. I couldn’t go into work anymore, so I started working remotely. A lot of what I did was talk to residential clients homeowners remodeling a bathroom or a kitchen or sometimes a fireplace. The in-person part was very important. You’re almost a therapist for them while they’re picking out tiles for their backsplash. I missed that part of it. They cut my hours down to 10 hours a week. Two weeks later, I got the news they were putting a lot of us on furlough.
“You just watch the number in your bank account keep dropping.”
My first attempt at getting my own unemployment claim started around April 10. I still have yet to get any confirmation that I’ve even been approved. I never got any rejection letter. It was almost as if nothing had happened, as if I had never applied. You just watch the number in your bank account keep dropping. I’ve had friends just Venmo me a couple hundred dollars here and there. I shouldn’t have to rely on the kindness of my friends though. I should be able to get the unemployment that I’m entitled to.
I was unemployed from April 1 to July 8. That was my first day back. And that three months I’ve had off is the longest I’ve been unemployed since I was 15. Now that I’m working again, I’m optimistic. Any day now, I’m going to get that unemployment check.
I have two step-kids. That’s been a real focus for me, that these kids do not feel like they’re missing out. Just the other day, we had a water gun fight or we’ll climb trees. They’re kind of loving this. We used to be really strict about screen time, but nowadays they get to play so much video games. I try to find ways to have this be a happy summer for them.