CHICAGO (AP) — For three decades, Kelly Flint flourished as a corporate travel agent, sending everyone from business titans to oil riggers around the planet. Then came the worst pandemic in a century, leaving her jobless and marooned in an uncertain economy.
Furloughed since March, Flint has dipped into her retirement account to pay her bills, frustrated that her $600 weekly emergency federal aid payments have expired. She yearns, too, for an end to the twin disasters that now dominate her life: recession and pandemic.
“I don’t deal well with the unknowns,” she says. “I never have.”
Across America are legions of Kelly Flints, women and men who don’t know when they’ll receive another paycheck — or if.
The coronavirus outbreak and resulting economic upheaval have thrown millions of lives into disarray. Industries have collapsed, businesses closed, jobs disappeared. Compounding the misery is a question no one can answer: When will this all be over?
In recent congressional testimony, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell repeated his earlier warning: The strength of any recovery will rely on the nation’s ability to contain the virus. The outlook for the U.S. economy, he said, is “extraordinarily uncertain.”
Uncertain. If 2020 had to be condensed into a single word — and there are many, many words to describe it — uncertainty would hover at the top of the list. Uncertainty about health. About the future. About the country itself. And uncertainty about livelihoods and jobs and economic security in a historical moment where each day seems to bring a fresh wave of unwanted developments.
America has faced economic calamity before, most recently during the recession of 2008, when the jobless rate soared to 10%. That pales in comparison to the two crises that have cost more than 160,000 American lives and ushered in spiraling unemployment — 30 million job losses, of which 17.5 million people remain unemployed.
“It’s not just the scope of the losses,” says Martha Gimbel, an economist at Schmidt Futures. “Until we have solved the public health crisis or have a timeline ... none of us is going to know what’s going on.”
Uncertainty, painted onto the landscape by the numbers. And behind each one, a human being.
Every day, he confronts the realities of too many bills, not enough money, a job that’s on hold — and no timetable for when any of it will change.
Jackson is among tens of thousands of hospitality workers who’ve been sidelined in an industry devastated by the pandemic. His employer, the Diplomat Beach resort in Hollywood, Florida, closed in March because of the outbreak. That left Jackson, an assistant to the bartender and server at a hotel restaurant, and his wife, an elementary school teacher, scrambling to provide for their three asthmatic children.
They’ve tried to shield them from money troubles. “It’s not their job to go out and make things happen,” Jackson says. “As a parent, you don’t want to give kids the perception that the ground is crumbling under your feet.”
Complicating the situation is Florida’s unemployment system, which has been marred by computer glitches and lengthy delays. Despite countless calls over the months, Jackson, 51, says he has yet to receive a single $275 weekly state unemployment check — even though his last day of work was March 21. That cap is among the stingiest in the nation.
Uncertainty ripples outward. There are so many things that, because of it, simply can’t be done.
It spreads to those who’ve permanently lost jobs as well as furloughed workers wondering if they’ll be called back. “People may tell you to retrain,” says Gimbel, the economist. “What are you supposed to retrain for? You don’t know what the economy is going to look like. Everyone is frozen because it’s so unclear how the situation is going to evolve.”
And long-term planning? Even murkier — impossible, really, says Adam Ozimek, chief economist at Upwork.
“We don’t know whether at the end of the year there are going to be 15 million people without a job or 5 million people,” he says. “From top to bottom, every single person in the economy is affected by this uncertainty in one way or another.”
Job uncertainty is new for Flint, 53, the travel agent. She’s never been unemployed, and it’s “doubly scary,” she says, because she’s single. Her furlough is up at the end of October, but there’s no guarantee she won’t be laid off before then. Every week, she sends out fresh resumes from her home in Galveston, Texas. And every day, she fends off scam artists who call with bogus job offers as they try to ferret out her private information.
“I’ve had anxiety that I’ve never had before. I’ve even had panic attacks. I’ve had crazy dreams of zombies,” she says. “It has worn on me.”