LaJessica Joiner decided to make some major changes at the beginning of this year. She was going to go back to school and get a job, in the hopes of saving up enough money to buy a new home in the suburbs. Joiner just needed to get her credit score up.
Then the pandemic hit.
Joiner, 39, has fallen behind on her credit card and electricity bills.
“COVID-19 has made it so hard,” Joiner of Redford Township said. “I was trying to get back into work to make ends meet and whatnot, but I’m struggling.”
She reached out to United Way for financial help, and through them, is now working with Matrix Human Services, a Detroit-based social services organization that supports children, families and seniors, on financial and job counseling.
LaJessica Joiner, 39, of Redford Twp., is reentering the workforce after 10 years and is finding it hard to find a job during the Coronavirus pandemic. Joiner says she had to learn how to do everything all over again,10 years ago, after suffering from a chemical imbalance in her pituitary gland that made her depressed. (Photo: Kimberly P. Mitchell, Detroit Free Press)
They’ve helped her to set up an internet connection at home so she can apply for jobs online, and craft a resume. For the last three months, she has been applying to jobs on Indeed.com, filling out as many as 50 applications a week.
It hasn’t been easy. She has been out of the workforce for more than a decade, and isn’t eligible for state unemployment benefits.
She’s joined by others who are trying to make ends meet and find work in the pandemic. Women, minorities, low-wage workers or those out of the workforce entirely are disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
COVID-19 has not only exposed health disparities in the U.S., it has also brought to light economic inequalities, according to numerous economists and studies examining the pandemic’s impact. On a local level, those disparities become apparent in Detroit when compared with the suburbs and the rest of Michigan.
At its peak in the pandemic, the unemployment rate in Detroit nearly hit 50%, more than four times the unemployment rate in the city prior to the pandemic, according to a representative survey of Detroiters from the University of Michigan’s Detroit Metro Area Communities Study.
That’s more than double the state’s jobless rate that month, which reached 21% in May, which is still much higher compared with pre-pandemic times.
Though in the last month Detroit’s unemployment rate has fallen by 10 percentage points since late July, according to the most recent data from the University of Michigan available, suggesting signs of economic recovery, about a quarter of the labor force remains out of work.
Like Joiner, metro Detroiters who have been out of work for years are likely not eligible for unemployment benefits.
It’s also more likely that white males in higher-paying careers have kept their jobs throughout the pandemic, economists say, or if they were furloughed or laid off, their jobs are some of the first to come back as the economy reopens.
Not everyone gets relief
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act, was a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill that included a one-time payment of up to $1,200 and a $600 weekly addition to unemployment benefits that lasted through July.
Those benefits did what they were supposed to do, economists say, by keeping people at home, especially those who were vulnerable to the virus.
That was reflected in what Greg McPherson, director of adult and senior programs at Matrix Human Services, saw at the beginning of the pandemic.
“There wasn’t an outpouring of individuals who needed help,” he said, because of the stimulus package, McPherson believes.
But Pat Cooney, the assistant director of economic mobility at Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan, said there’s a group of people not being discussed, and the unemployment rate “undersold the situation in a way,” he said.
He’s referring to Detroiters out of the labor force. Many working-age Detroit residents were not in the labor force heading into the pandemic, according to a University of Michigan study from October 2019, with 35% of Detroit residents ages 18-64 out of work for at least a year.
Barriers to employment often include not completing high school, a disability or a criminal record, he said. Those 140,000 or so Detroit residents that fall into that category would likely not qualify for unemployment benefits.
“For families only marginally attached to the labor force, they missed out on relief and now are trying to get a job in a bad economy,” said Cooney.
Joiner falls into this category. In her early 20s, she had a debilitating sickness for three years. Her weeks were filled with endless doctor’s appointments and tests, and she needed full-time care.
Then, as she was finally starting to feel better, she lost her father, brother and uncle all within a few years time.
Now, Joiner is trying to enter the workforce when jobs are scarce, and a record number of Michigan residents are unemployed and looking for work.
Barriers to finding work
In Detroit, women, residents of color, those who are lower-income, and people who have lower levels of education are more likely to be unemployed, said Lydia Wileden, a doctoral candidate who does data analysis for the Detroit Metro Area Communities Study.
That’s supported by a recent report from McKinsey & Co., who said that women are more likely than men to have jobs in the leisure and hospitality industry, making them more likely to face layoffs or other forms of cuts. They are also more likely to work on a part-time basis, typically the first jobs to be cut in a downturn, McKinsey said.
More: Coronavirus pandemic could impact 40% of Michigan jobs, McKinsey says
And now, as extra federal unemployment benefits come to an end and a moratorium on evictions expires in Detroit, jobs in the leisure and hospitality industry are scarce.
Even if jobs were available, Delphia Simmons, chief impact and learning officer at COTS, a nonprofit that helps low-income families with housing, career and health needs, puts it this way: “Work is something they want to do but can’t afford.”
Simmons said limited affordable child care options, a problem compounded by the pandemic, is a major source of frustration for women wanting to go to work. Another is transportation, said Simmons, because many of the individuals they serve can’t afford a vehicle and have to rely on public transportation or ride-hailing services. Those are less reliable and safe options in the pandemic, she said.
If those barriers can be overcome, she said she often helps clients to get jobs in businesses such as restaurants. But the pandemic has made that more difficult.
“Those positions aren’t even available,” Simmons said, because of capacity restrictions, which reduces the number of staff needed, along with permanent closures and limited hours.
Matthew Roling, executive director of the Office of Business Innovation at Wayne State University, said the limited options for work for low-income individuals has been brought to light by the pandemic.
“Retail and food and beverage are places anyone can go to make a buck when they couldn’t anywhere else,” he said. “They’ve become the welfare and the job safety net of our society and people are getting crushed by this void.”
Roling said it will take years before restaurants and retail are operating at full capacity, and bringing in business like they used to.
Fewer jobs available
Mike McWilliams, an economic forecasting specialist at the University of Michigan, agrees. He puts jobs into two buckets: faster recovery industries, which offer high- and middle-wages and an average salary of $65,003, and slower recovery industries, blue-collar or lower-wage jobs that pay an average of $27,788 a year.
He said in 2021, faster recovery industries will gain back 125,000 jobs in Michigan, while slower recovery industries will recover 52,000 jobs.
“In fact, by the end of 2022, the faster recovery industries are 8,300 jobs above their pre-pandemic level, while the slower recovery industries are still over 100,000 jobs short,” he said.
Even though it is taking longer than she’d like, Joiner is determined to find a job. She’s applying to positions that can all be done remotely, mostly in customer service, that she plans to do while she attends college next year to get a degree in business administration.
“I’m just getting myself out there again and trying to get back on my feet,” she said.
Contact Adrienne Roberts: [email protected]
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