What surprised me most about pandemic unemployment

I was not prepared for the emotional toll that accompanied being unemployed during a pandemic. 

At least not in the ways I expected … 

A lonely woman sitting on her vehicle with her head in her hand.
©Manit Plangklang – Dreamstime

What I had not factored in was rejection. Nor in the magnitude with which it came.

Let me back up and share how I got here. Like way back.

I spent the first eight years of my married life as a stay-at-home mom, working nights for several years to help make ends meet. When my youngest started kindergarten, I joined the staff of a small community newspaper where I stayed for over 13 years. I had some underlying health issues during that entire time that progressively got worse and I worked the last five years from home.

In 2015, my husband and I decided to turn a family property into a vacation rental business. It’s located in a very rural area in northwest Missouri and we weren’t sure how successful it would be due to its location. We worked hard to build it while both having full-time jobs and raising two very active children who were still in high school. One of the things that helped was the growing popularity of the Missouri Star Quilt Co. in nearby Hamilton (Quilt Town, USA). By the summer of 2019, we had expanded into three vacation rentals and we were very optimistic about our success.

With my health continuing to decline, and the business doing well, I made the difficult decision to leave my job in October 2019. 

You know what they say about hindsight… Well, 2020 was lurking around the corner and I had no idea what was about to happen. Looking back, I don’t know if leaving my job was the best choice, but I definitely needed a break. Not just a vacation but some real time away. Among my many duties at the newspaper, I was also the social media manager. I had built the brand’s online presence from the ground up and it had become all consuming for me. The first thing I did when I woke up and the last thing before falling asleep, constantly checking my phone while attending my kids’ activities and also while on vacation. I wanted it that way. I wanted our customers and followers to trust us and look to us for anything at any time. But after a decade of doing it that way on my own, I was exhausted. And that exhaustion contributed, in part, to my declining health.

So I was looking forward to a change of pace, something that didn’t require as much of my round-the-clock time and energy, and something that still pushed me but didn’t overwhelm me. I found that with our business. November 2019 was our strongest month ever, and December, January, and February continued to be great despite the winter weather.

And then COVID hit. We started getting cancellations in March and they continued all spring and into the summer. Missouri Star Quilt closed its numerous store fronts in Hamilton early on and then decided to keep them closed until spring 2021. 

I was prepared for the financial stress, as much as anyone can be, I suppose. I mean, I knew not having that income would be difficult. But I felt we could roll with the punches and make it through. We’ve pretty much done that our entire married lives.

What I was not prepared for was rejection. And not just once or twice, but being rejected over and over and over again. 

Let me explain.

As our upcoming bookings were being canceled in March, I had hope that things would turn around quickly. As March turned into April, and with the loss of more bookings, I began searching for jobs. 

I was not the only one. 

Millions of Americans were out of work due to the pandemic. The April unemployment rate increased over 10 percent to 14.7 percent, the highest rate and the largest over-the-month increase in history (US Bureau of Labor Statistics). 

We were getting by financially with my husband’s job, but I was concerned that if the pandemic continued throughout the summer – our best and busiest season – we might be in trouble. Congress had passed and the president had signed the CARES Act, which included Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, so after not getting any bites at job offers, I decided to file for unemployment. 

©Designer491 – Dreamstime

I knew nothing about unemployment. I’d never even really thought about it. I quickly learned, though, that like many things in Missouri, the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations was woefully unprepared for the pandemic. It was a very confusing and frustrating time for thousands of Missourians with outdated equipment and few answers for those in need. Two months after I filed, I received my first unemployment funds (for those unaware, unemployment benefits are a certain percentage of what you used to make and last a certain number of weeks depending on where you live). During that waiting period, I had continued to apply to jobs all across the country. Anything I could find. I didn’t want to be receiving unemployment. I wanted to work. I wanted to help provide for my family. I wanted to feel I was of value to something or someone.

As the weeks wore on and rejection letter after rejection letter arrived in my inbox (or worse, I didn’t even get a response), I started getting really frustrated. Getting rejected again and again, week after week, started to take its toll on me emotionally and I slowed my process. I applied to just three jobs a week, the requirement for Missouri’s unemployment. Even still, three rejections each week for months is still a lot of rejection. 

In early July, I decided to work on a book idea I’d had shortly after leaving my job. For the first couple of weeks, I was excited. I thought it was a great idea and felt it could help a lot of people. 

But as the rejections kept rolling in, my enthusiasm for the book waned. My thoughts began to turn pretty negative.

“Nobody wants you.”

“You have no employable skills.”

“You have no talent.”

“You are not a productive member of society.”

“You are no good.”

“No one will want to read this book.”

And so before the end of July, I stopped writing altogether.

My husband would encourage me every once in a while to write something, anything. The thought of opening my laptop made me want to vomit. I tried reading articles about how to deal with the rejection (including ones like “Eight Ways to Cope and Rebound from Constant Rejection,” which, by the way, did not help whatsoever). Nothing seemed to motivate or inspire me. I felt worthless.

Months passed. Week after week, rejection email after rejection email, while also feeling the weight of the world and not being able to do anything about it (racial injustice, overwhelming COVID deaths, governmental chaos, etc), I finally gave up emotionally. I was not suicidal, but in late-November I decided there wasn’t much point in living. I didn’t feel like I was contributing to anything, in any meaningful way, and I was just tired of feeling so much. I hoped I would fall asleep and never wake up.

It wasn’t just the rejection that led to the depression. It was the isolation of the pandemic. I’ve only been in public twice since March (to vote in the primary and general elections). It was also realizing some people I trusted as friends weren’t really friends, which included name calling and a lot of tears. I think this past year has shown many of us that we didn’t really know some people like we thought we did. It was also the pandemic itself. I was more than ready to start building up our business again.

And, it was also another change to our income. In October, my husband’s company closed the depot where he worked and all employees were laid off. He worked a seasonal temp job for a while and some part-time jobs here and there after it ended to help provide for us. We did without a lot and scraped by to somehow pay our bills. And, thankfully, a few days ago, 14 weeks after being laid off, he received a job offer for full-time employment.

I know my story isn’t unique or even as tragic as the many I’ve read over the last 10 months. I haven’t gone hungry. I haven’t been evicted. I haven’t lost a loved one to the coronavirus. I haven’t had to help my children with virtual school while also working a full-time job. I haven’t had to work in a hospital or a long-term care facility, or in a school while also teaching online, or in a grocery store, or a meat-packing plant, or a morgue.

I haven’t had to deal with a lot of things others are going through. And I realize my privilege has helped with that.

But I also don’t want to just dismiss what I have gone through.

It took me longer to resurface this time from the depression. It’s not something I face regularly, but with a chronic physical health condition, I know it’s important to make sure I’m taking care of my mental health as well (knowing that you’re likely never going to get better is a constant mental battle). There’s no one specific thing I can point to that helped this time. Probably a lot of little things including baking, which I know sounds pandemic cliché, but it has really helped. It’s incredibly difficult for me to do with my chronic pain (I have to do a little and then recover for a while in bed before doing more), but it seems to be great therapy.

©Alie Cherkasova – Dreamstime

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve had a slow, growing desire to start writing again, and this is the first thing I’ve written. I know it’s rough and a bit all over the place. But I think that’s okay since I’m just doing something again.

I read a phrase right before Christmas that’s been in the back of my mind since – “a whisper of peace and a sigh of hope” (Richelle E. Goodrich).

I guess that’s how I’m facing 2021. It’s not much, but a whisper and a sigh is better than nothing and more than I had a few months ago.

No matter what 2020 was like for you, I hope you can find that, too. And maybe one day, we can look back and realize it led to something more than just whispers and sighs. Perhaps greater peace and greater hope. 

(And hopefully a lot less rejection).


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