Since the coronavirus pandemic began, as many as 1 million Washington workers have lost their jobs, and along with those jobs, so much more.
They’ve lost income, careers and relationships. They’ve lost savings and peace of mind. In some cases, they’ve lost dignity and they’ve lost joy.
Most people put out of work by the virus are getting by, thanks in large part to government assistance. More than two-thirds of those who have applied for unemployment benefits since the crisis began are now receiving money (about 750,000 out of 1.03 million), according to the state Employment Security Department (ESD).
Yet huge numbers of workers are in trouble. They’re waiting for unemployment claims to be resolved. They’re at-risk seniors under pressure to return to work. They’re artists with dreams on hold. They’re undocumented immigrants who can’t access benefits at all.
Hardship is what they share. Resilience, too, because they’re not surrendering to the chaos the pandemic has caused. They’re still parenting, hustling, grieving and building community. These are some of their stories.
— Daniel Beekman
After husband’s death, Burien woman struggles to reclaim life amid pandemic
Patricia Devere has spent weeks camped on the living room floor of her Burien basement apartment “trying to get through the day.’’
The living room is where Devere, 70, tended to her cancer-ravaged husband, Stephen Costly, a 62-year-old reggae musician and auto shop worker, in a hospital bed before he died March 23. Now, after that “very traumatic’’ experience, she’s ridden out the COVID-19 pandemic mostly sleeping and watching television — unable to return to their bedroom to finish boxing up his clothes.
“There are things I need to do around the house, and I start it some days but I get too saddened,” Devere said. “Then I have to sit down and I don’t get back up. And I’m not a lazy person. I’m just still grieving. So, I just stay here where he was.”
Devere left her $18-an-hour bookkeeping job with an appliance company shortly before her husband’s death; like many workers age 60 and over and deemed higher risk for COVID-19, she was worried safety protocols were too lax. She applied for “standby’’ status so she could collect unemployment insurance of $312 a week and planned to return only once Gov. Jay Inslee deemed it safe.
Devere received three payments. But in early April, two weeks after her husband’s death, an Employment Security Department (ESD) denial letter arrived, stating: “You, your employer or someone else” claimed she was ineligible to work in the U.S. It demanded she return $624.
“It has to be an error in their system because I was born in Reno, Nevada,’’ Devere said.
ESD had written her four days after her husband’s death seeking additional documents clarifying her eligibility. But then a second letter, with the same date, arrived one day later approving her standby status through May 9.
With unemployment checks initially arriving, she figured the second letter overruled the first and sent nothing.
ESD spokesman Nick Demerice said he can’t speak to individual cases, but it’s likely Devere checked a box incorrectly when filling out her application.
“That’s really the only way that letter gets generated through the system,” Demerice said. “There’s a specific question that asks ‘Are you a citizen, yes or no? Do you have documented legal authority to work in the U. S.?’ And if you click no, that’s the only way a letter like that gets generated.”
But Devere figures the glitch is the government’s.
She filed an online appeal April 14 — supplying her U.S. passport and driver’s license, which she also showed The Seattle Times — but all she’s received back is a notice last Tuesday warning she’ll be billed interest for non-repayment. Her calls to an ESD phone line never get through, she said.
So, last Monday, Devere, already besieged by credit card debt from her husband’s illness, reluctantly drove back to work. Her landlord is flexible but retired and relies on Devere’s $1,250 monthly rental payments — only partially paid for April and May. Plus she owes him two months’ water bills. She’s also two months behind on car insurance and utility payments and now relies on food stamps, though they don’t cover toiletries or cat food.
She wears a mask at work, but remains fearful of contracting something. Her husband had high fever, flu-like symptoms and severe breathing difficulties right before his death, and she had similar symptoms afterward.
“It could have been COVID, I don’t know,’’ she said. His cause of death was listed as cancer.
Now, she hopes merely for April unemployment money. She’s received monthly Social Security payments — now $651 — for five years and used UI three previous times without issue.
Her ESD file shows a $312 payment approved for the week ending March 21 and two more issued the weeks ending March 28 and April 6. But ESD only wants the last two refunded.
“I don’t understand why they approved the first payment and are letting me keep that,’’ she said. “If I’m not eligible to work, they should want it all back.’’
Now, her grief is accompanied by constant anxiety. She mostly worries about feeding the cats — Marley, Spirit and Daisey — that remain her lone companions.
Her friends can’t visit because they are high-risk and tell her she’s “nuts’’ for working. A daughter in Louisiana has long-term health issues and can’t travel.
Devere clings to memories of life with her husband, whom she met 33 years ago at a reggae concert in Los Angeles. They were “two hardworking people’’ who “never tried to live off the system,” adding she never imagined going through this at her age.
She’s tried to remain hopeful awaiting her appeal. But bills keep coming.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” she said. “Everything is just caving in.”
— Geoff Baker
Pandemic muffles musician’s mic, but tenacity, creativity help Guayaba reach for higher note
In the few months before the pandemic struck, the rapper and singer Guayaba performed about once a week throughout the Puget Sound region and boasted a full event calendar for the remainder of the year.
Guayaba’s new album, “Fantasmagoría,” released in November, met critical acclaim from regional tastemakers, snagging The Seattle Times’ Best Seattle Album of 2019. An intricate exploration of the beauty and darkness experienced within a Black nonbinary body, the album 1½ years in the making stoked a steadily growing fan base.
Performing songs off the album at Seattle’s Belltown Yacht Club in late January, the audience flailed their arms and stomped their feet to the brooding beats and vocals that oscillated between rap and operatic-like choruses. The songs wove together English and Spanish in a nod to Guayaba’s Afro-Latinx roots, touching on topics such as struggles with mental health and body image.
Now, the complexity of the lyrics suddenly seemed to reflect Guayaba’s feelings as the short-lived glory of the album’s success was replaced by a fight to survive.
“I didn’t realize how quickly it could be taken away, because none of us had prepared,” said Guayaba, who goes by one name and uses the pronouns they/them.
Signs of the coronavirus pandemic trickled into the Tacoma-based musician’s awareness slowly at first, and then abruptly and wholly like a steady leak that erupted into a flood.
A festival favorite who also sells vintage clothing on the side, Guayaba had performances postponed one after another. At first, they lost local shows in early March, followed by festival cancellations that spanned throughout the region for the remainder of the year. Scanning through cancellation emails over the past two months, Guayaba rattled off events such as Carnation’s Timber! Outdoor Music Festival, and the Bellingham Arts and Music Festival. The losses were devastating.
“I felt like everything I worked for towards my art was just being flushed down the toilet,” said Guayaba.
The canceled shows amounted to at least a $6,000 loss, the performer said. As the pandemic progressed, customers wary of exposure to the coronavirus stopped buying the vintage clothes. Moreover, a part-time job at a floral shop last year did not amount to enough hours to qualify for unemployment benefits. Guayaba’s application for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance also was rejected. Creative grants, including the Artist’s Relief Fund and COVID-19 Artist Trust Relief Fund, provided $1,500 that softened the blow of lost wages.
Seattle’s arts community has been disproportionately impacted by the cancellation of events due to the coronavirus. While the federal unemployment requirements have expanded to benefit artists for the first time, the system is overwhelmed with an unprecedented volume of applications, said Working Washington’s Sage Wilson.
Like other regional creatives, Guayaba’s music creation has come to a standstill as they conjure up other sources of income to survive. “This whole thing does not resonate with my spirit,” Guayaba said. “It’s taken a really big toll on who I am.”
Born out of necessity and a strong social media following, an unlikely source of income has sustained the performer throughout the pandemic: ornate rings that Guayaba finds in online auctions, and then sells through Instagram. Selling rings has provided the musician $1,500 a month, which is “more, or just as much as, from performing,” Guayaba said, laughing. The additional money has allowed the performer to pay utilities and groceries, while Guayaba’s partner’s consistent wages as a delivery worker has covered the rent for the couple’s housing. Still, Guayaba has cut corners by cutting down on streaming service subscriptions and not purchasing clothes.
Although the side hustle has helped keep the musician afloat, Guayaba expressed concern for peers in the Seattle arts community who face homelessness. The pandemic will have a devastating impact on the local music scene, the performer said, fearing venues will permanently close and projects will dissolve. “The entire musical climate is going to change,” Guayaba said. Some of their peers have made ends meet by making face masks, selling accessories and teaching remote music lessons.
Artist Trust Program Director Brian McGuigan, said the region will suffer if artists are unable to financially survive the pandemic. “Seattle has a deep art community with a history leading back to jazz and grunge, and in order to continue that history, we’ll need to make a space for artists to maintain the identity of the city,” he said.
While still practicing music, Guayaba believes the residual shock from canceled opportunities has posed a creative block that prevents the performer from creating new songs. It’s taken an emotional toll, surfacing feelings of failure and inadequacy as Guayaba grapples with their identity as a musician.
Hunting for vintage rings has helped take Guayaba’s mind off the grief. The musician recently expanded their services to offer $10 to $15 sliding-scale consultations to help people find their dream rings.
Guayaba hopes the second career born from the coronavirus pandemic will continue after the state’s stay-at-home order is lifted. “There’s a lot of power in rings,” Guayaba said.
— Melissa Hellmann
Unable to access unemployment support, cook focuses on his other job: being a dad
Jonathan Locke thought his life was on an upswing in early March.
The 32-year-old single father had started a job as the lead cook at a high-end brewpub. He, his son and his ex-partner’s daughter had moved out of his mother’s one-bedroom apartment into a place of their own. The new job was in Seattle and the new home was in Everett, but the bus commute gave Locke a chance to zone out and recharge.
“I got to sit and relax. Take a cat nap or play on my phone,” the longtime restaurant-industry worker said. “I was in a place where I could kick my career into high gear.”
Then the coronavirus surged through the Puget Sound region. When Gov. Jay Inslee ordered all nonessential businesses to close, Locke lost his job. He now spends his days trying to entertain his 3-year-old son, helping his 6-year-old with her online homework, cooking pancakes for the kids and calling ESD.
Though he applied for unemployment benefits weeks ago, Locke’s claims have been denied and he doesn’t know why. Suddenly, his life is swinging the wrong way. “I don’t have savings. I don’t have credit cards,” he said. “I don’t have anything.”
Locke grew up in Snohomish County with his mother, a single parent who worked. He was drawn to cooking right away. “The day care lady always had the Food Network on the TV,” Locke said. “The shows were pretty boring. I don’t know why, but I was fascinated.”
In his early 20s, he decided to try to work his way up in the restaurant industry, starting as a dishwasher. That was tough.
“You’re carrying tubs of dishes that can weigh 75 pounds,” he said. Locke was promoted to prep cook, then pantry cook, then assistant cook at a gastropub, cranking out burgers in a kitchen so cramped he could barely swivel around.
Stints at Seattle restaurants came later. Though kids complicated his schedule, the industry was booming. Locke didn’t worry when he was laid off in February by a catering company where business was slow. He was sure he could land another job quickly, and he did. “I was going to learn how to smoke meat,” Locke said. “We were talking about soup specials.”
The pandemic canceled those plans. Locke’s last day at the brewpub was March 15. He waited until early April to apply for unemployment benefits because he heard ESD was overwhelmed.
Weeks went by, and the money never arrived. His girlfriend helped him check his status online. Each weekly claim says “disqualified,” with no details and no way to appeal. Locke’s application for special Pandemic Unemployment Assistance also has been denied.
When he calls ESD, he usually gets a busy signal. Sometimes, he waits on hold until his calls are dropped. Not once has he been able to speak to a human, he said.
Many claims have been rejected due to minor errors, said ESD’s Demerice, who isn’t cleared to speak about individual cases. “Once you go through our application and hit submit … you don’t have the option to go back in and try it again,” he said.
During normal times, workers can reach someone at ESD. These days, the agency’s in-person help centers are closed and the phone lines are clogged. “We’re getting up to 100 phone calls per second,” Demerice said.
The system is set up to guard against fraud, which has increased. But honest people are getting stuck, so the advocacy organization Working Washington is lobbying ESD to move quicker. “The state needs to cut these checks,” said Wilson, the spokesman.
Locke used his federal stimulus check to pay rent this month, and he made some cash doing yard work for a friend. He’s mostly relying on groceries from a food bank and help from his sister, who receives supplemental security income and food stamps.
Like any good cook, he can scrape together meals. “My kids are spoiled,” he said. “They get pancakes for breakfast, or waffles and eggs. Sometimes bacon, if I can get it from the food bank … For dinner, I work with what we have in the kitchen.”
Locke can’t call ESD constantly — the kids need his attention. They get rambunctious and parks are closed. When he jokes about the pandemic turning him into the ultimate stay-at-home dad, you can hear his grin through the phone. The crisis has brought him closer to the kids. “I’m an optimistic person,” he said. “I’m not going to dwell on the darkness.”
Still, he needs cash. “If Jay Inslee wants me to stay home with my kids, I’ll stay home with my kids,” he said. “Just send me the money for my bills.”
— Daniel Beekman
Unemployed, undocumented and undeterred, ex-restaurant worker keeps on cooking
Victoria has to work.
Because she’s an undocumented immigrant barred from federal assistance, she can’t get unemployment benefits. She won’t receive a stimulus check. She can’t get food stamps.
The Seattle-area resident was balancing two jobs before the coronavirus pandemic swept through. She worked in one restaurant kitchen from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and a second from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. or later.
That meant 14-hour days for Victoria, who asked that her middle name be used. The grind also meant she could send hundreds of dollars each month to her parents in Mexico. The camaraderie at work was a bonus. “South American, African American, white people,” said Victoria, who is in her 40s and who identifies as Native first, rather than as a Mexican immigrant. “I used to cook lunch for everybody.”
When both restaurants shut down in mid-March, she initially hoped the crisis would pass quickly, so she spent about three weeks at home. “Then I realized this was not normal,” she said. “More people started dying.”
Her bills started to pile up. Rent. Food. Phone. Her service was disconnected until she negotiated a payment plan. “I lost communication,” Victoria said. “I couldn’t receive calls. I couldn’t make calls.”
She was desperate by the time she came across a part-time job at a grocery store, making minimum wage. Victoria wanted a spot in the kitchen, rather than the cash register. But she had no leverage. “What should I do, say no?”
Now Victoria is working again, in a role that puts her health at risk. The good news is that she can continue sending money to her parents. They don’t have access to food banks where they live, and their small shop remains closed due to the pandemic. “My mother has diabetes and bad circulation,” Victoria said. “I have to support her.”
The bad news is that the cashier job brings in about $1,000 a month, and her rent is $1,400. She paid $1,000 in March, then nothing in April and May.
“The rent is a problem. We understand the governor made some announcement to owners. ‘Don’t put notice on the door, blah blah,'” she said, referring to Inslee’s emergency moratorium on evictions. “But the rent is not free. It’s just wait until June and get ready to pay.”
That’s why Victoria last week decided to start making and selling tamales. Many people in her community are cooking dishes at home to earn cash, she said. They’re making tamales, posole, enchiladas, birria. When Victoria heard about an acquaintance without any work, she invited the woman to join her venture. “We’re selling to people we know, helping each other,” she said. “I have to do something.”
Victoria made tamales Monday and Tuesday, driving to a restaurant-supply store to purchase the ingredients. She’s still working at her cashier job.
The coronavirus crisis has hit undocumented immigrants harder, because they can’t access federal aid. Victoria is particularly worried about her friends whose children have disabilities. Her own son is grown up.
But in another sense, less has changed for undocumented immigrants — their lives were already precarious before the pandemic. Victoria was beating the odds. Though her income has plunged, she now has space to become her own boss, her son said.
The crisis has demonstrated why immigration policies must be remade, Victoria said. People like her are essential workers, and they deserve better treatment, she said, noting her ancestors were in the Americas long before the U.S.-Mexico border was drawn.
“I would love for people to change their minds,” Victoria said. “No person is illegal … That’s what we need to figure out.”
— Daniel Beekman