Back to Work: What Recovery Felt Like for Millions of Americans

It’s been a year since Covid-19 triggered the steepest economic collapse in modern U.S. history, with more than 22 million people thrown out of their jobs in a matter of weeks.

Many have managed to find a way back to work. By comparison with the millions who remain unemployed, they may seem like the lucky ones, though it doesn’t always feel that way.

The economy has created more than 12 million jobs during the recovery, with data due Friday forecast to show another 200,000 added in February. There’s no single trajectory that captures the experience of the millions of Americans who lost jobs and then returned to work during the pandemic.

Some traded up, and others lost ground. Some took the opportunity to start something new, others got stuck in a worse version of their old working life.

Here are five of their stories.

Michelle DeChesser supervised the food preparation team at a Pennsylvania restaurant until she was furloughed in mid-March. She was back on the job a few months later, when the state allowed limited-capacity indoor dining –- but with one key difference. Instead of working consistent overtime, like before the pandemic, she’s now scheduled for just 25 to 32 hours a week.

“Underemployment is a thing,” says DeChesser, who’s 52. “Even with work, it doesn’t mean that we’re doing OK.”

About 6 million Americans were considered involuntarily part-time in January, meaning they would have preferred full-time work — up 1.7 million from a year earlier.

Hours have been picking up across the economy, a sign of potential future hiring –- and in fact DeChesser’s restaurant added another person to the food prep team. But more workers also means that if Covid-19 keeps business from picking up, there’s less work to go around.

“We start hiring people because we think the numbers are going to stay the same,” DeChesser says. “And then business goes down again, and now we have all of these employees, so then hours go down again.” She says the uncertainty makes it hard to supplement her main income. “How do you get a second job when you don’t know what your hours from the first job are going to be?”

Amelia Sugerman already had one full-time job, handling public relations for a travel firm, when her local daycare center shut down on March 16 and effectively gave her another one: looking after her 3 1/2-year old son.

Millions of women found themselves in the same bind, trying to combine work-from-home with child care. For two months, 37-year-old Sugerman and her husband struggled to keep a balance, often squeezing their work into early-morning and late-night hours.

Then, on May 15, she was furloughed. “I remember crying on the phone,” she says. “It was completely bittersweet because I knew that we couldn’t keep going at that pace.” Sugerman, who lives in Attleboro, Massachusetts, spent the summer with her son — doing stuff she didn’t get to do when she was working full-time.

In October, her employer asked her to come back for 30 hours a week. The firm participates in the state’s WorkShare program, which pays pro-rated benefits to employees whose hours have been reduced –- helping companies to trim costs without cutting jobs.

Sugerman earns less than she did when working longer hours, but the WorkShare program covers part of the gap. It’s also given her time to reflect on how she wants to balance work and motherhood — and left her “optimistic that the traditional ways of working every day 9 to 5 are not the only answer.”

Jannai Cannon’s job as a paralegal in Charlotte, North Carolina was doable from home –- but it required a strict 8-to-5 workday. She tried to juggle that with the online learning schedules of her children, aged 7 and 11, but she could see her son was struggling.

“He needed someone to sit with him and read with him,” she says. “He needed me full-time.” So, after losing several nights of sleep and about 10 pounds in weight from the worry, Cannon quit the best-paying job she’d ever had at the end of May. Resigning made her ineligible for jobless benefits, and there was limited pandemic relief available for parents.

Cannon, who’s 46, had dropped out of the labor force –- like so many of her peers. Even in January, several months into the recovery, there were still 2.5 million fewer women in the workforce than a year before. Researchers at the San Francisco Federal Reserve found that flexible schedules were more important than the ability to work from home in helping mothers to keep their jobs.

“By the grace of God, and cashing out 401K and all, we made it through,” says Cannon. She started a new job in late August, accepting a $20,000-a-year pay cut. Then in February she accepted a post that restored her pre-pandemic title and salary. “I’m so lucky,” she says. “I know many aren’t.”

Garrett Mark Scott loved his job as director of data and analytics for an automotive marketing agency. He was upset to get laid off –- but also when he was offered the same job back, with a pay cut.

“I felt like I was taken advantage of because I had nowhere to go,” says the 27-year-old, who lives in in Slatington, Pennsylvania, with a population of less than 5,000 people. “This is not Philadelphia, this is not New York.”

Scott liked his profession. He also liked living in his small town. In past recessions, he might have had to choose between them. But now, remote work may be here to stay. One recent study estimated that even after the pandemic ends, about 25% of all full work days will be from home –- up from just 5% pre-virus.

Thanks to that option, Scott was able to get a better-paying job — at an international company -– and stay where he’s settled. “The world is open to remote workers now,” he says.

Mike Tilberry was working as many as 70 hours a week at a gym in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina when the pandemic hit. His classes moved outdoors. Then online. And then on May 7, at 9:45 a.m., he was laid off.

“By 9:47 a.m. I was walking down the stairs and no longer employed,” he says. Briefly, he was angry. “But by the time I got down the steps I felt like there was a weight lifted off my shoulders, and I knew that there was no room for anger. It wasn’t anything that I had done.” And it didn’t take long to figure out what to do next.

Tilberry let gym members know what had happened, and within a few days he had five clients. Several months later, as the owner of “All In Coaching,” he regularly trains a 40-member group in addition to one-on-one classes. He’s earning more money than before, while working about one-third as many hours.

The pandemic has been devastating for many small businesses, but it’s also spurred large numbers of Americans to try new ventures. Business applications jumped to nearly 552,000 last July, the highest in records dating back to 2004 — and the second-highest print came in January this year.

“It’s been the most liberating and freeing year I’ve had since I was a kid,” says Tilberry. “It’s on my own terms now.”

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