I Became Financially Stable on Unemployment
For the first time in my adult life, I have a few months of rent in my savings account.
Before COVID, I was working three different part-time jobs. Scheduling was a mess. I was making enough money to live and to finance the occasional splurge, but still not saving anything. I felt internal pressure to get a fourth job while also feeling spread thin at the same time.
In March, both of the jobs where I primarily earned my living had drastically changed. The women’s clinic was expecting reduced hours. The restaurant was also expecting reduced hours and was transitioning to a takeout model only. The atmosphere of both workplaces had shifted. No one knew what the pandemic would bring. No one knew how long our doors would stay open. The panicky feeling of uncertainty overwhelmed us all.
I applied for unemployment right away. I didn’t know when I would need it but I wanted it ready just in case. My benefit amount was based on the last quarter, where I was only a part-time waitress and a full-time student. I received an underwhelming $108/week which wouldn’t even cover rent let alone groceries, car payments, and student loans. My heart sank. The last thing I needed was to rely on unemployment.
My hours had been heavily reduced by April, to the point that I was making less than $108/week and qualified for my unemployment benefits. Word spread that the $600 bonus was approved and would start being paid out in April. It honestly felt too good to be true. I anxiously watched my bank account, certain that I wouldn’t see the pay bump. But I did. An extra $600. It was more money than I was making while employed.
For the first time in a long time, I took a breath. Bills were being paid and I wasn’t killing myself to do it.
Not only was I making $708/week, but my stimulus check came. My car insurance reduced monthly payments. My student loans paused. Money was finally going into savings. It became a situation that I could have never anticipated.
With that came a small wave of guilt. Just a month before, I felt with certainty that my total monthly income would stay well below $1000 with quarantine. Instead, I was making more than I had ever made in my life. For the least amount of work. In the middle of a pandemic.
It’s something people feel conflicted about.
Social media is littered with posts about how essential workers shouldn’t be making less money than those unemployed. And I agree. But the $600 bonus is not the issue. The issue is that essential workers aren’t paid enough — not that unemployed folks are overpaid.
Essential workers entered a hostage situation. Employees couldn’t quit their high-risk jobs because they would be ineligible for unemployment. And jobs at the local grocery store or gas station can’t be worked from home. People who once felt lucky they were still working suddenly felt like they had the short end of the stick.
And I completely understand why.
I feel strange advancing at all during a pandemic. I don’t want to fail. I also don’t want to thrive while others suffer from a disease we don’t understand.
But I am grateful for unemployment.
The fact is, more money in my account meant I was spending more than I would have otherwise. The sudden short hours in March should have crippled me. Instead, I had a little extra spending money. I supported local businesses and takeout. I bought things I had been needing for a while. I invested in outdoor activities and camping so I’d have a way to spend the quarantine time. I put money back into the economy and life didn’t suck for me as much as it should have.
The difference in pay between employed and unemployed people speaks more to current wages than it does to excessive unemployment benefits.
Am I demotivated to work? Honestly, yes.
But that feeling existed before. I would be happy to make $708 a week working instead of sitting at home. Not working gets extremely boring, especially when the world is shut down. But I don’t think I should work 40 hours a week and just barely cover living expenses. The cost of living is too high for what most Americans are making. It’s not that I don’t want to work or that I want to live on the government’s dime. I just want reasonable pay, a fair standard of living, and healthcare that isn’t tied to employment.
I went back to work in June before the $600 bonus ended. It feels good to be productive. But already I feel the difference in pay. It’s disheartening. Especially when the virus and the pandemic are still very much real. I’m both afraid of things shutting down again and afraid of them not. I work at two places that are exposed to the public. I worry I’ll get the virus at work or bring it to work. It feels inevitable.
We can wear our masks and disinfect, but it will be a while before we get a grip on the coronavirus. Just because the unemployment benefits stopped, doesn’t mean COVID did. We can’t wish it away. Things might shut down again. More people will die. Americans will continue to lose their jobs.
$600 isn’t too much to pay people who have lost their income. It is equivalent to 40 hours of work at $15/hour. That’s not a crazy amount. What’s crazy is expecting people to live on less than that.
It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to make me financially stable.