It’s been almost two months since businesses across the country started shutting down. For some, that’s meant close to two months of little to no income. While the federal government has passed legislation to help struggling Americans, it’s all too easy to fall through the cracks. If you had a job that required leaving the house, how do you make ends meet during a pandemic, especially when unemployment offices are slammed and slow to respond?
We spoke to a woman living in South Carolina who lost both of her jobs — one as a self-employed cleaner and another as a waitress — due to COVID-19. We asked her how she’s getting by on no income while also taking care of her 20-year-old son, currently at home due to a medical condition. Her experience shows how difficult it can be to get assistance even when there are systems in place intended to help people, and the reality of why many Americans are unable to pay their bills right now.
What has it been like in South Carolina?
People haven't been taking it as seriously as I think they should. There haven’t been a lot of cases compared to states like New York, of course — but I think that it started later here.
How long have you been cleaning and waitressing?
Well, my husband and I started our cleaning business in 1996. And my husband died last year. I wasn’t able to keep up with everything in our cleaning business as much, and so I had to give up a good bit of work. I needed to pick up a waitressing job to make up the income. So I just started waitressing again — I did a long time ago when I was younger — but I started again this year.
And now I’ve lost both my incomes. The residential clients that I was servicing, all of them have either put me on pause or have stopped altogether, because they lost income. I have ONE commercial account left, and the only reason I think I've been able to hold onto that is because it’s the bank, they can't close it.
When did you start losing your income?
For my cleaning business clients, it was the first week of March. I got laid off from my waitressing job on the 20th of March or so. South Carolina is in the process of reopening businesses now. I have not heard back from my waitressing job. I know that since I was one of the last to start there, I'm going to be one of the last to go back, and they're not going to start off full blast either. I mean, I know they have to start off with certain capacity limits and stuff like that.
How did you react to losing both sources of income?
The very first thing I did was apply for unemployment benefits. And being self employed, they didn't offer unemployment for that at the time — and actually, I still haven't been able to put in an application for that. Now for regular employment through my waitressing job, I was able to put in an application but I still haven't received it, I haven't been approved. They wrote me back and asked for more information; they wanted a copy of my pay stub. I applied maybe on the 10th of March. It’s been almost 2 months. I've applied for everything you can right now, like food stamps — I mean, you name it — and I haven't been approved for anything yet. I think it's both the demand and the system being complicated. The demand is just so high right now. I can check [my unemployment application] online now. The problem is that their site keeps crashing.
Did any of your clients in your cleaning business offer to pay you throughout the quarantine? Was any help or resources offered by the restaurant?
You know, I've had other people I know that work in a cleaning business say that their customers offered to pay them anyway — but I have not. The restaurant just said that they would not fight anybody who applies for unemployment.
How much did you usually make a week before the pandemic? How are you paying bills right now?
Before the pandemic started, depending on what kind of week it was — because my income was not the same every single week — I made between $700 and $800 a week. Basically my son and I were living on everything I was making. I need more than I was making, to be honest. And I haven't been able to get any assistance, so I haven't been able to pay my rent, my electric bill. I pay my phone bill because I know I'm going to need that regardless.
I've had to set up a payment plan. That and food, that's all I've spent any money on.
How did you address putting a pause on rent?
The very first sign I saw that things were starting to get hinky, I contacted my landlord. I told her I was already starting to lose income — and she's been understanding and considerate. I did give her a little bit of April rent. In exchange for part of my rent, she allowed me to do a move-out cleaning for her. We’re not talking about any great amount of money — it was $150 — but still. And I haven't gotten my stimulus check either, so that would be a huge help right now. I can't even get the status of my payment. Every time I try to find out, it still says that they don’t know.
And how is your son doing right now? You said he’s living with you currently due to a medical condition.
He’s doing okay. It’s his eyes, actually. He has posterior vitreous detachment — it's not like he can't see, but he has all these things [floating] in front of his vision. I don't know how else to explain it. So he can't drive, he can't be in regular lighting settings, he can't work. It started in October. Before then, he actually was working at a restaurant and helped me with the cleaning business. We've been a support for each other since my husband died.
Are there additional medical expenses you have now too?
Yes. I’ve applied for a supplemental social security income too, of course. And I applied for that before any of this started and I haven't gotten a decision on that yet either. The ophthalmologist that he goes to closed during the pandemic. They still haven't reopened yet and there's nothing that they can really do for him, so it's just a matter of having them check him every few months.
Other than losing income, what’s been the most difficult part of this pandemic for you and your son?
Isolation. No doubt. Well, my son socializes online a lot more. But I was already dealing with the isolation of being a widow, and the pandemic has just made it even harder. I do not have any other family in the area.
How are people in your community reacting to businesses reopening? How has the state handled it, in your view?
I would say it's a mix of both, though I think more people are glad for it than they are, you know, the other way. But I actually think it's all too soon. That's my opinion. I don’t think the state acted quick enough here. We were on a two-week business shut down. That was it. And now retail is opening back up, and restaurants have outdoor seating open.
Would you return to your restaurant job if that were an option right now?
I don't know that I would feel safe, but I would feel that I had no choice. I think social distancing is probably the best way to go, because I don't know that anybody's going to go out to eat with a mask on, because how are you going to eat anyway? You know what I mean? That’s difficult. It’s just such a catch-22. You know, you want to go back to work and start earning money. But at the same time you don't feel safe about it.
Do you think COVID-19 will change anything permanently about work?
Honestly, I don't think it will. I think it will go back to normal. I don't know that it’s the right way, the way it should be, but I think that's how it will be.
And when all businesses do reopen, do you want to continue in the restaurant industry or would you want to go in a different direction?
I would love to be a caregiver, honestly. I was when my husband was ill. He had cancer and I was his primary caregiver for a while. But I would love to do something like that. I really would. I get through every day knowing this is all God's plan. I'm not a religious person, but since my husband got sick, I had to hold onto faith.
This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.
The coronavirus pandemic, and resulting economic downturn, has disproportionately affected some professions — doctors, nurses, teachers, small business owners, cashiers, and food industry workers are just some of the folks on the front lines. Checking In is an ongoing series where we pass the microphone to workers in industries most impacted, and ask them what they want us to know about their hopes, fears, and needs right now. Click here if you want to participate.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the CDC website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.
If you’re in need of assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic, you can find some information on available resources here.