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How My Family Is Facing Its First Unemployment Crisis

It became clear to social workers at crisis assistance organizations around the country early on in the pandemic that, as the country dove headfirst into an unemployment crisis, they would be seeing families that had never needed assistance before — families who never thought they’d need a hand.

As Hannah Guerrier, supervising attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s (LANC) housing unit, told Queen City Nerve for a recent story I reported on with Ryan Pitkin about the unemployment crisis and the resumption of eviction hearings during the pandemic, “We have a lot of tenants currently facing eviction or who will be facing eviction who this is a brand-new experience for them because this has thrown the economy into a tailspin and limited people’s incomes across socioeconomic levels.”

My family is one of them. 

We moved to Charlotte from Los Angeles a year ago to be closer to family. It was a bonus that the cost of living for one single mother and her two college-aged, postgraduate daughters was significantly lower than it was in L.A. She found a job, which she worked from the moment we arrived until mid-March, when the ramifications of COVID-19 began taking a toll on businesses and my mom’s employer put her on furlough.

unemployment crisis
Kayla Berenson (far right) and her family have found themselves embroiled in the unemployment crisis affecting the country.

My mom filed a combined wage unemployment claim because of her previous employment in California and more recent employment in North Carolina. She received her first check a few weeks later. She was then told she needed to withdraw her North Carolina claim and file an interstate claim with California instead. So she did. 

After nearly four months of daily phone calls to California’s Employment Development Department to check the status of her claim, she still has not received her check and has not qualified for benefits.

The pandemic allowed for moratoriums on evictions and pauses on student loan interest, as well as the prohibition of shutting off gas, water and electricity in Charlotte. It hasn’t stopped grocery bills, phone bills, insurance bills, college tuition or car payments. What were once routine expenses have become heavy, monthly burdens on our family of three. 

My mom spends her days looking for work, calling the Employment Development Department, checking her bank account balance, and communicating with her friends and family. She tries to keep her and our spirits up; the three of us spend our nights cooking together, watching movies and playing Rummikub, Scrabble and Scattergories.

Relying on one other is not a new concept for my family. Growing up with a single mother, my sister and I have always appreciated our mom’s affection and support where our father couldn’t provide it. The two of us are fortunate to have jobs right now, and we help our mom financially where we can, but it isn’t enough.

My mom packed her bags and left her immediate family in South Africa to move to the United States 26 years ago. She went through a messy divorce with my father, then raised two daughters on her own finances for years while my father couldn’t pay child support. She’s no stranger to hardships and challenges. Bravery always came naturally. 

Now, I watch her put on a brave façade every day as the leader of our family. I watch her get torn down daily by hours-long wait times, dead phone lines and different, often contradictory reasons for why she hasn’t received relief. I watch the strongest woman I’ll ever know get beaten down by a force over which she has no control. 

As we discussed in that latest cover story, my mom’s not the only one in Charlotte who has yet to receive assistance after months of painfully waiting and making the most of what is left in her savings account during this unemployment crisis. 

From March 15 to Aug. 17, 1,236,777 people in North Carolina applied for unemployment benefits, according to the state’s Department of Employment Security. Of those, 74% are eligible for benefits. My mom is not one of them because the majority of her employment took place in California. 

Now that she is on a first-name basis with the employees at California’s unemployment office, she has been told several times that interstate claims require a longer process of communication between states, and her wages from North Carolina had to be processed in California. Like the hundreds of other Carolinians waiting to receive their unemployment benefits, my mother has struggled to stay afloat throughout the whole process. 

When my mom called the Matthews HELP Center in need of assistance in July, she assumed it would be a one-time thing, clinging to the hope of finally receiving the treasured envelope from California by the end of the month and taking a big sigh of relief. She didn’t receive that envelope by the time rent was due, but eventually received an email from California’s Employment Development department that she would be able to certify for benefits soon. Still, it will take time for her to receive the money she is owed. 

She called Matthews HELP Center again, and they were able to provide assistance, but they solemnly informed her they wouldn’t be able to help in September. They’d done all that could and our family had reached the center’s cap on assistance. Even still, my mom is braver and more resilient than I could ever imagine. And as we enter into another month of uncertainty and stress, that bravery will keep us going.

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