It is not Jamie Pratt’s first encounter with the American edge. She knows well what it feels like to teeter on it. She’s lived much of her life one paycheck away from a plunge into true poverty—the kind that can prove hard to escape in this, the richest country in the history of the world. “I was living paycheck to paycheck, trying desperately to keep on top of my bills, and I wasn't always successful,” she told me. “Any accident or any incident that came up, my entire budget was thrown into chaos, and I had to come up with a way to make ends meet. Before I got sick”—she had bronchitis, a recurring problem tied to her asthma—“I was actually driving for DoorDash on the side.” That was in addition to her day job as a contractor with a utility company in Peoria, Illinois, the one she lost when the pandemic hit in March.
For two years she’d worked as a distribution design technician, editing circuitry-grid and transformer-voltage data, but when other departments at the firm were instructed to work from home and hers wasn’t, she could smell trouble. Her senses were honed from years running the gauntlet that is life in the 21st-century American economy for so many, confirmed when her team got an unofficial few days’ heads-up. “They were supposed to send contractors home first, and they didn't,” she told me. “So I knew right then that they were most likely going to let us go.”
It’s a good thing she wasn’t caught off-guard, and not just because it gave her the chance to use her tax return to pay off bills rather than put it towards the trip to Seattle she’d been planning. “Which, you know, fortuitous,” she said. But more than that, it gave her a head start on getting her ducks in a row when it came to applying for unemployment insurance.
“The fact that I filed the same day I got let go is the only reason why I got unemployment as quickly as I did,” she said. She was referring to the many reports of state unemployment systems that are overwhelmed, even failing. “My son actually was laid off from his job at the end of March,” she said, “and we still haven't been able to get him applied for unemployment. Because when we first tried, the system would just freeze up, lock him out. Then it went to, ‘Well, you have to have your last name end with this, you have to apply on either Monday or Wednesday.’ And then, because of how overloaded it was, if you didn't apply early enough in the day, they would just shut it off. When their system got to the point where it was overburdened, it just wouldn't allow anybody else to apply for the rest of the day.”
It's one of so many stories of how swiftly these systems can morph into walls of bureaucracy. “It makes you feel like the system is set up to discourage you out of applying,” Pratt said—not an unheard-of approach in some states when it comes to other benefits. She’s become a resource for friends and family who have, like her and her son, been thrown out of work these difficult months. That includes a cousin who was furloughed from his job at a firm where Pratt says the HR department messed something up on his paperwork, which left his claim in bureaucratic limbo. He was forced to dial the state unemployment hotline. “He said he tried to call 357 times in one day and wasn't even able to get to the auto attendant,” she said.
Pratt granted no one could reasonably expect these systems to be fully prepared for the kind of cataclysm the country’s workers faced this year, but the Illinois setup was in need of an update even before the pandemic. And she would know, particularly now that she’s taken a temp job for the same Illinois Department of Employment Security, which has hired extra workers to deal with the backlog—thousands of backed up PUA claims from "people who haven't seen a dime since March,” she said. Having battled the system for herself, for her son, and for extended family and friends, she is now on the inside, trying to get others’ claims out of the gigantic pile-up and moving forward.
In a way, she’s also fighting back with, and has proven a hugely valuable asset to Unemployed Action. It’s a group of around 16,000 unemployed Americans who are trying to organize themselves to demand change—first to the unemployment system, and then to life more broadly for low-wage workers. “The biggest effort is education” on the issues, says Pratt, who volunteers with the group, a national outfit separate from her day job at the Illinois state government, as co-director of its resources committee and lead moderator for the Facebook page, the hub of the UA community. “The more people have, the more it furthers our goals. But it also gives them just a small sense of control over what goes on in their lives. It's easy to feel hopeless if all you look at is what you're perceiving through your imagination, rather than facts and data. Our first goal is to educate, so people are informed on where the problems are, so that they can go out and they can vote the right people into office, or they can pressure their congresspeople into taking the actions that they need.” Eventually, she wants to fight for universal basic income. But right now, Pratt often finds herself performing a kind of triage, trying to help newcomers through the sometimes byzantine process of filing for unemployment. She’d helped herself and family members through it all previously, but now she works in an actual state unemployment agency. She’s an expert.
Pratt is thankful for that job, even if the pay is worse than her old gig with the utility company, since the money is better than unemployment. Once the extra $600-a-week in boosted benefits expired at the end of July, Pratt had to make do with what was left of her standard benefit before she was switched over to the extended-benefits program under PUA. But even now, with a job, she has had to make near-impossible decisions.
“I’m rationing medications,” she told me. The insurance at the new job isn’t great, her coworkers have told her, and with the future of her employment so uncertain, she hasn’t bothered with it. “My steroid inhaler is $331 a month with GoodRx coupons, and Medicaid doesn’t cover it, so I get samples from my doctor. I’m supposed to take four puffs a day—two at night and two in the morning—but I’m almost out again, so I’m only doing my morning puffs. I also couldn’t afford health insurance for myself before the pandemic, so I was using a free clinic and then only getting essential meds.” Thankfully, the management company has worked with her on rent for her apartment in a two-story complex on a quieter road tucked behind a commercial strip. Even when she had the extra $600, she wasn’t getting food stamps, “so there were weeks where it was pay my rent or get food. There's only so much that food pantries can offer you, and a lot of it I can't eat, or we shouldn't be eating, because it's so full of sodium because it has to be shelf-stable.” It’s a window into how inequities of health and nutrition perpetuate themselves.
Pratt’s also had to put her car up for sale. She and her 21-year-old son will have to share a car—arranging rides and coordinating their schedules constantly—because the cost of car insurance was devastating her income. It’s another body blow, one of many that add up to threaten the delicate balance of life on the edge. It is a constant struggle to stay above water, and there’s often little time for even the smallest comforts. Right now, Pratt is working on a Christmas adopt-a-family program for Unemployed Action, connecting potential Good Samaritans with members of UA who have no other means of providing Christmas for their children. She’s got 304 applicants so far. The stress and strain of economic insecurity is reflected in how she spends her days now, too. Before the pandemic, she was looking for a new job because the utility gig was not paying enough to really meet the cost of living in Peoria. She says she was willing to relocate anywhere in the country. But now, pushed further to the brink, she scarcely has the time or energy to begin the search again.
“I'm concentrating on the organizing and doing the temp job,” she says. “There just aren’t enough hours in the day. You become overwhelmed trying to find assistance to cover your bills in the meantime, and trying to find a job, it just doesn't feel possible. You need that financial stability, you need a stable foundation before you can turn and try to build upon that. There's no foundation at all right now. We're on gravel.”
That’s the thing about not having money in America: it’s a full-time job. There’s scarcely any time left to spend getting out of poverty. It’s a lesson many who’ve joined up with Unemployed Action are learning fast. Before they can talk about voting and policy and organizing, they’ve got to get set up with unemployment. But in addition to that, Pratt is also offering these folks what basically amounts to a set of survival strategies in low-wage America.
“I think that's like one of the hardest things for me right now, being in the Unemployed Action Facebook group, is watching people experience it for the first time,” she said. “It's something that I've been dealing with most of my adult life. So it's heartbreaking to me, but I'm able to share my experiences and what worked for me, the ways that helped me get through some of these hard times that I've had long before COVID.”
Because none of this is particularly new. In the beginning of these plague times, when the papers and the airwaves were awash with talk of Essential Workers and the inequity of the suffering, the idea began to take hold that the pandemic had often not created problems in American society so much as revealed them. It has provided an x-ray for the body politic. But that sentiment seems to be fading now, along with much of the collectivism that threatened, for the first time in decades, to become a determinative force in American life and politics. We are scattered again now, retreating to our individual worlds. But the millions of Americans who have been pushed to the edge over and over again for decades, trying to avoid slipping into outright poverty, are still here, and they’ll still be here when we’re all vaccinated and the push begins for the Return to Normal, which could soon enough become the Great Forgetting. It cannot be the same normal. God help us if it is.
In the coming months, Esquire will highlight the stories of people who have lost their livelihoods amid the economic turmoil tied to COVID-19 and who fear they’ll lose still more. Read the first in that series here.
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