Local workers struggle with unemployment during pandemic

Crystal McNett, Aladdin Food Services catering manager, has been filing unemployment on and off for nine years. When unemployment rates skyrocketed in March, leaving many without jobs, she was prepared.

McNett works for Aladdin Food Services at Waynesburg University, a job that revolves around the university’s school year calendar. When the students are off for winter break, the Aladdin staff is also off. When the students are off for summer break, the Aladdin staff is terminated to be rehired again in the fall semester.

Every year, each staff member applies for unemployment to combat the loss of wage, during these winter and summer months. 

In March, these workers had to deal with a longer break than the usual three-month long summer, as the university announced they would be closing campus for the remainder of the fall semester due to COVID-19.

As other local businesses, restaurants and non-profits also closed, unemployment rates in Greene County rose from February’s 6.6% to 7.8% in the month of March and 14.3% in April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded the same rising trends throughout surrounding counties. Washington County’s unemployment rate rose from 6.6% in March to 16.9% in April, and Fayette County’s unemployment rate rose from 9.1% in March to 20% in April.

In response to the upward trend, the amount of unemployment claims flooded the Pennsylvania unemployment offices. This resulted in a backup in their system, leaving workers like McNett at the disposal of the government.

“The government said they are doing everything to get things updated, but it didn’t feel that way,” McNett said. “There was like 13, 16 weeks with no money … in the state of Pennsylvania it’s still messed up.” 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Greene County’s average unemployment rate in 2019 was 5.1%. That percentage more than doubled in 2020 through the months of April to August.

“It is frustrating because you have no money coming in and you worry about everything,” McNett said. “Here you are waiting on your money and … you are thinking they [government] don’t know what it feels like because they are still receiving their pay checks.”

Despite McNett’s frustration with the unemployment system during COVID-19, she said she is experienced with unemployment; so, unlike those filing for the first time, she was prepared.

“If I didn’t have my savings, I probably would’ve been panicking … like ‘what am I going to do?’ because I have pets and everything,” McNett said. “I was lucky that I had some saving. We have an employee that still has not received his back pay from March. They told him he would receive it in August. So, he went five months not having any money coming in.”

Unemployment rates continued on an upward trend.

In July, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, recorded the state’s unemployment rate to be 13.7% and Greene County’s to be 13.6%.  

In the month of March, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that President Donald Trump signed into law two bills that helped combat wage loss during the summer months – the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. In addition to providing unemployment insurance for both workers who are normally eligible for unemployment and those who are not ordinarily eligible, the CARES Act provided an additional $600 a week in unemployment benefits. However, this federal benefit ended on July 31.

Through an executive memo issued by Trump, the benefit was reinstated Aug. 1, according to the U.S. Department of Labor and national media reports. This memorandum extended but reduced the benefit to $300 for an additional six weeks. 

The additional benefits have ended, but a second COVID-19 stimulus bill is currently being negotiated in the House. 

These additional benefits were added to the normal unemployment benefits, which are calculated off of your yearly earnings and quarterly wage. McNett emphasized that this amount does not equate to your actual pay and is not substantial to live off of.

“You’re worrying about how you’re going to pay your bills and all that stuff. So, it probably is stressful,” McNett said. “You just learn to adjust to the situation of not having your full paycheck.”

After nine years of experience and an additional 30 years of helping her late husband file unemployment, McNett said she’s learned how to make do with the wage cut. 

“You just got to know how to balance your money … every two weeks you get that pay and you look at your bills to see what you got to pay out to keep it going. So, it’s just figuring out how to manage your money.”

McNett sympathizes for those individuals who had to apply for unemployment for their first time during the pandemic.

“Through the pandemic, it was more messed up. You couldn’t get through to them [unemployment offices],” McNett said. 

With businesses and restaurants still not at full capacity, filing for unemployment has become clockwork for numerous individuals. 

“You file on Sunday or Monday and it gets direct deposited into your account on Wednesday,” McNett said. “It’s not your pay, but at least it’s money.”