‘I feel like I’ve been benched’
The coronavirus crisis put millions out of work. For 9 people in the Philadelphia region, this is what it means to be jobless.
It was 6 a.m. on March 12, more than an hour before sunrise, when Jasmin Carroll slipped on her black apron to begin her Thursday shift at Riverwards Produce, a trendy grocer in Fishtown, the epicenter of Philadelphia’s urban renaissance.
Her heart ached. Her mind was restless. The day before, she had memorialized her 93-year-old grandmother with a few relatives and friends inside a Queens funeral home. A church service in New York would have been too risky.
The rhythm of work used to calm her. For two years, she had worked the register and unloaded heavy boxes of nonperishables like canned tomatoes and virgin olive oil. Each day hummed along with a soothing familiarity.
Until the coronavirus.
Life was upended. Fear took hold. And Carroll sprang into action. She wiped down registers, shopping baskets, door handles, keypads for credit cards, and iPad screens. She washed her hands on the hour.
On March 17, Carroll, who suffers from asthma, called her manager to say she was too worried to come to work and asked if she could take unused sick time. Her manager agreed.
The next morning, a Wednesday, the call came: She and 20 other employees were laid off. Twelve were spared.
Carroll, 38, who has worked in retail her entire adult life, believes she’ll never be able to return to her $15-an-hour job. She has filed for unemployment benefits. But as one of more than a million people who have flooded Pennsylvania’s overwhelmed unemployment offices in the weeks since the pandemic began taking an unprecedented toll on the economy, Carroll has yet to receive a confirmation of whether or when the safety net will catch her.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. “Retail is all I know. I don’t know what’s going to happen.
“I feel like I’ve been benched.”
Job losses have been particularly steep in Pennsylvania, which was one of the earlier states to shut down most of daily life to fight the spread of the virus. About 783,000 people filed unemployment claims in the first two weeks of the shutdown, second only to California. New figures this week showed that almost 17 million Americans had filed for unemployment in the course of just three weeks, including one in six Pennsylvanians.
Last month, over a span of roughly 14 days, Philadelphia morphed into a desolate city of displaced souls. The crisis has struck everyone in some way — from middle managers to minimum wagers. But here, in the poorest big city in America, thousands of people who had jobs in retail, restaurants, and other parts of the service sector were among the first to suddenly find themselves rudderless.
The other night, Carroll shot up in bed at 4 a.m. She was in the throes of a full-blown panic attack.
“I was freaking out,” she said. “I had trouble breathing. I had racing thoughts. I couldn’t get my heart rate down. I was crying all the time.”
"I feel trapped. Like there's nowhere to go,” she said.
“Nowhere to escape.”
Taken by surprise
Tuesday, March 17 — the day before Carroll was laid off — started like every workday morning for Suzie Wilson. She left her house in Swarthmore at 5:15 to take two buses to Philadelphia International Airport, where she was a prep cook at a restaurant in Terminal F.
But when she arrived to start her 7 a.m. shift at Local Tavern, her general manager told her to hand in her security badge.
“For what?” she asked.
Layoffs because of the coronavirus, he replied, and he had no idea when work could restart.
Wilson, who has worked in the airport as a cook at different eateries since 2008, received a memo the next day: She’d also lose her health insurance.
Wilson, 55, who grew up in Clarendon, Jamaica, came to the United States in her late 30s through a work program. A single mom, she raised her son, earning a living for almost two decades as a housekeeper and cook.
Her job at Local Tavern, a restaurant run by OTG where she has worked the last three years, was a cut above the rest. She earned $14.50 an hour, had a consistent schedule, with health benefits and paid time off.
“I need my medical,” she said. “And now, I don’t know where to turn. I don’t have any savings.”
She’s been racking up credit card debt to buy food while she seeks unemployment and food stamps. If she doesn’t get called back to her job, she said, she would find work wherever she could — she’d work at Burger King or McDonald’s if she had to. “Life goes on,” she said. “We all have to live.”
“I don’t know where to turn. I don’t have any savings.”
Employees all over the region were just as stunned as Wilson by the abruptness of it all. The coronavirus had arrived at bullet-train speed. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all dine-in service at bars and restaurants closed at 12:01 a.m. March 16.
Many in the restaurant industry suspected it might be coming — just not so soon.
The Saturday night before Wolf’s order, Kristina Morgan, 34, was bartending at Cry Baby Pasta in Queen Village. The atmosphere had been eerie the last few days. Everyone was talking corona.
The crowd skewed younger. They were glued to their phones — more than usual. They checked each notification, then showed their friends. Staffers had a new job, too: They locked up toilet paper to prevent patrons from stealing the rolls.
When Morgan’s shift ended, her boss opened a nice bottle of Spanish rosé and poured a glass for everyone.
The next morning the email arrived: Cry Baby Pasta’s last day. Since then, the owners have regularly checked in with her and other employees, Morgan said.
“There’s a sense that whether it’s good times or bad times, people are always going to need a hot meal and a drink,” she said. “But now it’s not so clear what that’s going to look like.”
She stays up late, wallpapering and moving furniture around her house in Pennsport, where she lives with four cats. She’s also sewed roughly 75 masks to donate to health-care workers.
It keeps her mind off money. She has a little savings and applied for unemployment, although she has no idea how much it will amount to, since most of her earnings stemmed from tips.
Sarah Kinney, 22, was shocked that the upscale restaurant where she worked as a server — Hiroki, in Fishtown, which features 20-course tasting feasts and sake pairings — was one of the first to close.
She arrived for her Saturday night shift at 3:30 p.m. March 14. But managers told her there would be no dinner service that evening. They were closing indefinitely.
She knows the owners did what they had to, and has no hard feelings against them. But no one got to finish out the weekend, and the end came in the middle of a pay period, she said.
“I only had two shifts on my last paycheck, which is not enough to pay my rent,” said Kinney, who has worked at Hiroki since it opened last May. Two roommates were also laid off. Their landlord was still expecting rent in full as April 1 neared.
“She told us to prioritize paying rent over everything else, like paying our phone bills and buying groceries because she still has a mortgage to pay,” Kinney said.
“In my situation, I’m the only one I need to provide for," she added. "But I work with plenty of people where that’s not the case, and when I heard the news, I just felt so bad for everyone else, not myself.”
Marcella Crowder, 32, who has cleaned the business tower at 1500 Market St. since she was 18, has six children to provide for.
Five nights a week, she vacuumed carpets, dusted office desks, and emptied trash cans for $18 an hour.
Even after Mayor Jim Kenney issued a stay-at-home order, Crowder kept driving to work from her Olney home. Her supervisor didn’t tell her otherwise. She got word there would be layoffs, but since they would go by seniority, she wasn’t worried.
The next day, Tuesday, March 31, when she showed up at 4:45 a.m., a supervisor handed her a piece of paper that informed her it would be her last shift. She couldn’t use her three weeks of paid time off. She would lose her health insurance.
She’s sad and frustrated it’s come to this.
“Going into work, punching in, and doing my job is what I know,” she said. “I don’t know nothin’ about collecting unemployment.”
“I guess the day has come.”
Laid off, but luckier than most
Abby Dahan was laid off as the executive pastry chef at Parc, the stylish Stephen Starr bistro on Rittenhouse Square. But she considers herself one of the luckier ones.
Her husband is a pulmonary critical care doctor at Jefferson University Hospital, which comes with a good salary — and a different kind of anxiety these days.
“He’s really in the thick of it now,” she said.
She worries for her former colleagues, some of whom she keeps in touch with through a Facebook group of Starr restaurant employees.
“You’re so certain you’re going to have a job and paycheck and a purpose and then all of a sudden, whoosh, it vanishes.”
“I know many who are worse off than me,” said Dahan, 32, who worked at Parc for 6½ years. “Some of us, we have savings and we have families we can count on. But there are people, especially those from other countries, who have been sending money back to their families.
“That’s what freaks me out the most,” she said. “I don’t know how they’re going to make it. I hope unemployment comes through for them really fast.”
In the meantime, Dahan is in a baking frenzy. From her Center City apartment, the Paris-born patissier has churned out almost 50 loaves of braided challah for friends and family since filing for unemployment. Meticulous about hygiene, she wears gloves and is in constant cleaning mode.
“I started this whole challah thing because after losing my job, I felt I didn’t have a purpose,” she said. She asks for $7 a loaf, but most everyone gives her $10.
With that extra cash, she gives challah to the elderly or friends struggling to make ends meet. She makes deliveries to those who can’t leave home. Others come to her apartment building’s front door for pickup — one at a time.
Before coronavirus, she regularly put in 11-hour days at a grueling pace at Parc. “If I only sat around, I’d get depressed,” she said. So when she’s not baking challah, she’s trying new recipes.
“You’re so certain you’re going to have a job and paycheck and a purpose and then all of a sudden, whoosh, it vanishes,” Dahan said. “That’s why I keep baking. I try to make people a little happier during these weird times.”
“I may be out of work,” she said, “but I’m fortunate.”
Craig Pearlman, 47, shares that sentiment.
He was laid off from his job as a software developer for a media monitoring company on March 27 by way of a short Zoom meeting.
His wife works for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and has been putting in “an insane number of hours.”
Losing more than half their household income hurts, he said, but he feels for those who have lost all of it.
Raised by a single mom in Northeast Philadelphia, Pearlman was a latchkey kid from the age of 8 and didn’t have much growing up. Now living in Center City, he had gotten to a place in his career where he didn’t have to worry as much about money.
“It took me a while to get there, where I can buy anything I need, and some things I don’t need,” he said.
He’s been laid off once before, but this time is different — because how do you approach a job search now? “No one knows what’s going on,” he said. "Or what’s going to happen.”
Pete Mohan, the head carpenter at the Merriam Theater on Avenue of the Arts, fears he and others like him may be among the last to return to work.
“It’s hard to know how to function with so much uncertainty hanging over our head.”
His last day was March 12, and he suspects the Merriam lights won’t turn on anytime soon.
“I just don’t know how our industry is going to bounce back so quickly,” said Mohan, who lives with his wife and three children in Oaklyn, Camden County.
“Everybody is going to be hurt economically. Who is going to want to come and spend a hundred bucks at the Merriam?” asked Mohan, who works on movie sets in the summer, during the theater offseason.
Having no clear end in sight is particularly hard on the newly unemployed.
“It’s so hard to budget right now," he said. "How much do we need to ration?
“It’s hard to know how to function with so much uncertainty hanging over our head. I’m a very organized person. It’s really disorienting not knowing.”
‘It’s just such a scary time’
The casinos will still be closed when Bianca Figueroa, 25, gives birth to her daughter. Her due date is April 29.
The last two years, Figueroa has worked at Harrah’s lavish indoor tropical pool in Atlantic City. She scheduled cabana rentals, took care of customers’ needs, and made sure the atrium was clean, the towel bin full.
She was laid off March 16, the day before the NCAA tournament was set to begin. Harrah’s was prepared for frenetic crowds in a spending fever. Reservations disappeared faster than chips at a roulette table.
Figueroa figures she lost between $1,000 to $2,000. “It’s hard right now because I don’t know when we’re going to get back to normal," she said. “That’s the scariest part.
“Going through this last trimester of my pregnancy has been really hard,” Figueroa said. She just hopes her two daughters, ages 1 and 5, remain healthy.
Rent for their low-income apartment is $700. Her weekly paycheck of about $650 included tips. She has applied for unemployment and has asked to delay payments on other bills. Her fiance is also out of work. With the money she has left, she’s buying food.
“I just hope we can open back up and I can have my job,” she said. “Looking at the way things are right now, everything is financially so messed up. I just pray that once this is all over, we can get back to normal business, but I don’t know.
“It’s not looking good.”
Jasmin Carroll, the former Riverwards Produce worker, said that after she depletes her tiny savings, she will have to depend on family. She lives in Fishtown with two roommates who, for now, are working remotely but fear their jobs could disappear soon.
Carroll also has medical bills because she couldn’t afford health insurance even before being laid off. “The marketplace is just so expensive," she said. “I was taking my chances. I know that’s ill advised, but I didn’t know what to do.”
“I was taking my chances. I know that’s ill advised, but I didn’t know what to do.”
In February, when she had an excruciating, stabbing pain in her stomach, she went to the emergency room. She knew she had been suffering from benign fibroid tumors for some time, but doctors found that they had grown so large they were closing in on her chest. They recommended that they be surgically removed.
"I don't know if I'll be able to do it anytime soon," she said. She's already on a payment plan for the $1,700 ER bill.
“It’s just such a scary time,” she said. “I worry about money, how I’ll afford to live and my health. It’s just a lot.”
She understands why people are comparing the coronavirus crisis to wartime.
"It’s one thing when your life is falling apart and you look around and everyone else is doing OK. Then you think you’ll get through it,” she said.
“But now there’s nowhere to look. Nowhere to get comfort."
Staff writers Ed Barkowitz, Sam Wood, and Gabby Houck contributed to this article.