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Jobless In The Age Of Coronavirus: Millions Of Stories Of Hardship And Coping

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

One out of 10 American workers is now out of work as the nation struggles to contain the coronavirus. It's a collective trauma for the country, but it's also millions of individual stories of hardship and coping. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Will Thompson (ph) hopes to collect his first unemployment benefits this weekend. Thompson, who lives in Denver, is in good company.

WILL THOMPSON: I've had family ask me if it was hard, you know, emotionally applying for unemployment, and my answer is, no. I think if this weren't such a devastating thing to everybody, it would be different.

HORSLEY: Up until a few weeks ago, Thompson was running audiovisual services for big tech industry conferences. Even when in-person meetings stopped because of the coronavirus, he thought there would be plenty of work.

THOMPSON: The day I got let go, I talked to a new client who said they had a conference that they wanted to go full virtual on. And they had a starting budget of $200,000 to do so. I got a phone call probably about an hour later saying I'd been terminated, which was a bit of a shock, obviously.

HORSLEY: Angelita Wynn's (ph) layoff was equally abrupt. She's a school bus driver in Pittsburgh and got the news while on her afternoon route.

ANGELITA WYNN: Our dispatcher came across the radio saying that school was closed, so that's how I found out. And that's the last time I've been in the bus.

HORSLEY: Wynn says the last three weeks have been filled with sleepless nights and anxious days.

WYNN: This virus has touched so many people in different ways, and it's been such an unexpected thing.

HORSLEY: In less than a month, the U.S. has gone from having one of the best job markets in history to the worst since the Great Depression. More than 17 million people have lost jobs, not because they or their employers did anything wrong but because Americans have been told to stay home to limit the spread of the pandemic.

MAXWELL KIRSNER: I was laid off on Friday the 13.

HORSLEY: Maxwell Kirsner used to build sets for a company that staged big events in New York City. His fiancee was laid off, too. The couple had been saving up to buy a house, so they have a little bit of money put aside. And because he applied early, Kirsner was able to start collecting unemployment pretty quickly. Some of his former co-workers are still waiting.

KIRSNER: They're struggling to pay rent and buy food and all that. We're all in the same boat, but we're all on different seats on that boat.

HORSLEY: Monique Cassidy (ph) has to keep reminding herself about that crowded boat whenever she gets frustrated with the slow pace of her own unemployment application. The Grand Rapids, Mich., salon where she worked as a hairstylist closed its doors almost a month ago. At the time, she expected to be back in business by now. She understands why some of her clients are getting impatient.

MONIQUE CASSIDY: You know what? We're all in the roots program together. I have about one inch of gray hair showing.

HORSLEY: Everyone is making adjustments. Will Thompson and his wife are expecting their first child this fall. And because of the coronavirus, he won't be allowed to go with her to a hospital checkup next week where they anticipated learning the baby's gender.

THOMPSON: My wife is an incredibly strong woman, and she's amazing. I just - I wish I could...

HORSLEY: Thompson and his wife will ask their doctor to write boy or girl inside an envelope so they can open it later together. The other big reveal Thompson, like many Americans, is anxious to see is what the world will look like once this pandemic is over. Presumably, school bus drivers and hairstylists will be in high demand. But when will people feel comfortable in crowds again for work or play. Maxwell Kirsner, the set builder, wonders about that.

KIRSNER: The light at the end of the tunnel is that it's New York City, and eventually, events have to come back. So part of me has faith, but part of me is worried that how long will that be?

HORSLEY: And what can the country do to support millions of unemployed workers till we get there? Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.