As Congress continues to debate over another federal pandemic relief bill, unemployed workers across the country and in Georgia are feeling the pain of the ongoing loss of jobs and income. And certain parts of the workforce are truly struggling to make ends meet. In Georgia, low wage workers from hospitality, retail and service sector jobs have been hardest hit, as have Black and Latinx workers, and women with children.
Even though the unemployment rate in Georgia – now 4.5% – has steadily improved since it spiked at 12.6% last spring, the pandemic continues to take a tough economic toll. Hundreds of thousands of people have been jobless for months, and many are facing the end of amnesty from landlords and creditors at year’s end.
Count Jonathan Dixon among those unemployed Georgians growing more desperate. The 36-year-old has been out of work since April. He was laid off from his $14-an-hour-job at an IT call center for a large retailer. It closed due to COVID-19. With no luck on the job front, he had to wait three months for unemployment benefits to kick in. Dixon says he was facing mounting debt, and looming eviction.
“The hard part was my rent and the lights. It was always a fear of the lights being cut off, the hot water, would I be able to cook, do anything in my apartment,” says Dixon.
Dixon has been receiving $300 a week from the state since July. His rent alone was $1000 a month. Despite a federal moratorium on evictions, he decided to cut his living expenses. In October he moved from his bachelor pad in a quiet neighborhood in Doraville to a friend’s apartment in Chamblee. It’s on an access road just off I-85, and faces the highway.
“Even though they passed that [moratorium] where you couldn’t get evicted, the bills were still piled up, and nobody wants their bills to pile up, because at the end of the day, you’re still responsible for them,” says Dixon.
Dixon still owes more than $3000 in back rent and utilities. With no car and the MARTA bus routes he used to rely on to get to work canceled, he’s finding his work options are limited. He says a new round of federal stimulus and unemployment aid would get him through this financial crisis.
“It would mean that I would be able to pay my bills and catch up on my bills. And to feed myself. Right now I’m robbing Peter to pay Paul. It’s not fun. The minute you get your unemployment check it really has to go. You look at it and say wow, I might only have twenty dollars.”
Dixon says he would gladly trade his unemployment check for a paycheck, so that he can better support his 12-year-old son, who lives in Conyers.
“I’d love to just pick him up and take him out to eat. And just hang out with him. That’s the most important thing. I can’t wait to get back to work, so I can have him come over, spend time with Dad, spend the night with Dad. You never realize how important things are until it’s taken away from you.”
He says his efforts to find work so far have been fruitless.
“I’ve been applying for jobs. I’m not sure they’re actually hiring. It’s not like people basically don’t want to work to get free money. No, that’s not the case at all. We’re actually going through a pandemic. And I think that some people because they are working, it’s hard for them to sympathize and see what’s actually going on.”
What’s going on, according to most economists, is one of the most uneven economic recoveries in history. And recovery for low wage workers in retail and service sector jobs like Dixon’s will continue to be slow. Analysis by a team at Opportunity Insights, an economic research and policy institute based at Harvard University, shows that the top 25% of wage earners–those making more than $60,000—have largely recovered from initial pandemic job losses. The bottom 25% of wage earners – those making less than $27,000–saw a dramatic drop of 20 percent in employment since January.
And Black and Latinx workers dominate the workforce in the job sectors most affected by the pandemic, says Alex Camardelle of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
“Retail, food service prep, hospitality, these are the industries that were hit the hardest by Coronavirus this year. These are also the industries that disproportionately employ women and people of color. Whenever Covid struck and we had to shut down our state, these were not jobs that were recession proof. These are not folks who can work from home, right? They have to physically be there.”
Camardelle’s organization is advocating for state and federal safety nets to be expanded for the most vulnerable members of the workforce. While new unemployment claims have declined markedly since April, Georgia still has more than half a million people continuing to claim unemployment benefits each week. And for many, those benefits are expiring at the end of this year.
“The need is extreme,” says Camardelle. “We have just elevated numbers of folks continuing to file week after week, who’ve been laid off. And when December 31st rolls around, without continued federal action to extend enhanced unemployment benefits, those folks are rapidly approaching a huge economic cliff that is going to do incredible harm and damage to communities.”
This impending financial cliff has spurred some in Congress to compromise. A bipartisan group of lawmakers is now proposing a more than $900 billion dollar relief package. That’s less than half of the $2 Trillion Democrats wanted. It does not include another round of $1200 stimulus checks, and offers $300 in weekly unemployment payments, which is half of the $600 payments out of work Americans received previously.
As both parties furiously debate the details, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell recently warned that too little federal aid will “lead to a weak recovery” and create “unnecessary hardship for households and businesses.” He cautioned that could exacerbate existing inequities in the labor force.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Dixon is hoping Congress will act soon on a pandemic relief bill.
“A lot of people are stressed out,” he says. “It’s really taking a toll. Because I think people are losing faith in the nation. Like we really do need something and they can’t come up with an agreement.”
With no government relief to count on, Coronavirus on the rise, and a fragile economy, many jobless Georgians are bracing for a lean and stressful winter.
This story was supported by the journalism non-profit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.