A month ago, the United States was in the midst of the longest uninterrupted economic expansion on record.
Unemployment levels in the United States have been at historic lows for the last several years – February’s national unemployment rate of 3.5% was the lowest in half a century.
The coronavirus pandemic put a stop to that record.
The week of March 15, as businesses that have been forced to shut down during the pandemic began laying off workers, more than 3 million Americans who were left without jobs filed for unemployment. That’s the largest-ever number of Americans to file for unemployment in a week span, dwarfing even the worst days of the Great Recession a decade ago.
Nearly every corner of the country is affected, and the Temecula Valley is no exception.
Samantha Pulice of Temecula said she was laid off from her job at Sushi Camp March 17.
She said her employer tried to stay open as long as they could, but once Gov. Gavin Newsom issued the statewide stay-at-home order, “they told us basically we couldn’t come into work and basically we had to file for unemployment.”
That, she said, is a massive financial problem for her, as she has a 10-month-old baby to care for. She said the $1,200 stimulus checks and increased unemployment benefits approved by Congress last week will help – when they come.
“I filed for unemployment over a week ago and still haven’t heard anything,” Pulice said Friday, March 27.
Even when that money comes, Pulice said it probably won’t last long, “especially with how expensive diapers and formula and all that stuff is, and we have car payments to make, insurance payments to make.”
Pulice said her boyfriend still has his job – he installs commercial doors – but his hours were drastically cut.
“They’re trying to give him as much as they can, but he’s only getting a few hours a day,” she said.
Robin Ritner-Prober, who worked a dental practice in Temecula before she was temporarily laid off, said she was the one to ask her boss about possibly working from home last week, “when things started to go a little sideways,” as she put it.
“I was starting to feel a little uncomfortable at work,” Ritner-Prober said, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recently recommended that dental offices stop elective procedures and prioritize only urgent and emergency care. One of her worries was that the building she worked in is shared by multiple tenants.
“There’s a common bathroom for all the suites, so every agent from every single medical suite is using the common bathroom, and then there’s hundreds of people going to different suites,” she said. “I just told (my boss) that I’m not comfortable going in there, that I can try to come up with some ways to work from home.”
Ritner-Prober said she worked to try to convince her boss, but when her boss realized the financial implications of losing patients during the pandemic, Ritner-Prober was told she would temporarily be laid off.
“So I’m just kind of one of a billion other people who, you know, had to file for unemployment,” Ritner-Prober said of her situation.
But she said she wanted to acknowledge that things could always be worse.
“Am I in a better situation than other people? Yes, and I always look at the silver lining, what I have that other people don’t have,” Ritner-Prober said. “There’s a lot more unfortunate people out there than myself.”
Alex Travis of Fallbrook said she’s fortunate enough that she works in a field that’s essential – she does administrative work for Scripps Health in San Diego.
Other members of her family, though, were not so lucky, she said. Travis said she had recently warned her daughter-in-law that her job at a flower nursery could be impacted by the pandemic, which it ultimately was.
“We get daily updates from our CEO as far as COVID-19, and how many cases there are,” Travis said. “Since the beginning I have been kind of on top of it, and I warned (my daughter-in-law), ‘I have a feeling that you may not have a job next week,’ and sure enough, she was laid off. After that, my spouse works in retail, and the same thing happened to him, not even a day later.”
She said she’s suddenly found herself in a position where she will have to provide for a household of three adults and three children, all on her own.
“It has been stressful, absolutely, needless to say,” Travis said. “Through the month of April, we’re covered financially with rent and other things, but if there’s still no work for him or her, then the responsibility all falls on me for the month of May.”
Travis said she and her family are, thankfully, well-stocked on food and other supplies.
“I’ve been following this very closely since it started in China, and once I saw it left the country, I figured, you know, I’m gonna play it safe and get some extra things to have in case of a rainy day,” she said. “I think that’s what kind of saved me a little bit is that I just kind of prepared, but I don’t think anybody is really prepared for what we’re going through.”
Travis said as someone who works in the health care field, she wishes that people would take the coronavirus pandemic more seriously than perhaps they are at the moment.
“You’re seeing the numbers firsthand and the influx (of patients) is already starting to happen and we’re not already at the peak yet, and it’s frustrating because I don’t think people realize how serious this is,” she said. “It’s financially difficult, I get that. But this is about saving lives.”
She said the statewide stay-at-home order shouldn’t be seen as a mere recommendation.
“People look at it as an inconvenience,” she said. “I think people need to realize that it really is a serious situation, and at the end of the day, the simple act of staying home is literally saving lives and it’s putting less medical staff at risk because no matter how great of a hospital system we have … no hospital is prepared.”
Will Fritz can be reached by email at email@example.com.