More than 50 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the start of the pandemic.
One of them is Nathan Conner, a single father to his 6-year-old daughter, Aubrey. He was laid off from his job at a Wisconsin manufacturing plant in March.
He says describing the 18-week-long situation as "stressful would be an understatement.” The two have been living in a run-down motel while watching his savings quickly dwindle. He hasn’t been able to access benefits since becoming unemployed, he says, and hasn’t heard much from Wisconsin’s unemployment services.
Conner, who was new to his job when the coronavirus pandemic hit, says he wasn’t brought back when his company resumed production because they slashed capacity to comply with safety protocols.
He says he explained his situation to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development — a frustrating phone call that was cut short when the woman on the other end of the line said it was time for her to clock out for the weekend, he claims. The worker told him a decision wouldn’t be rendered over the phone.
Then on the following Monday morning, Conner got a confirmation that he was denied unemployment benefits. Two days later, he says he was called and notified that he was wrongly denied those benefits — but his case would have to go under review.
“And that backlog is already months long,” he says.
In July, the secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, Caleb Frostman, told Here & Now that the state was facing an “unprecedented” number of claims filed during the pandemic, which caused extended backups. The state also hasn’t modernized its IT system for rolling out federal aid programs since the ‘70s.
Conner was able to secure a new job — but his first day isn’t until the end of August, which means he won’t see a paycheck until sometime in September.
“Between now and then, I'm not sure what we're going to do,” he admits. “I mean, I've contacted temp services. I've gone on Craigslist to look for gigs and everything else. There’s a lot of competition out there.”
He says he set aside his pride to set up a GoFundMe for the survival of his young daughter.
“I've never had to ask for anything. I will work my butt off to get it,” he says. “But I've got a 6-year-old kid looking at me and I've got to worry about how I’m going to feed her and make sure she has a roof over her head.”
As Conner continues to fight for unemployment benefits, negotiations on economic relief drag on with lawmakers in Washington. There’s still no deal to extend federal unemployment benefits to those out of work because of COVID-19.
Politicians calling the shots on the next round of benefits need to talk to the people living through this economic crisis and think about their own privileges, he advises.
“If they are not in a position where they have to ration out or think about which meals they're going to skip throughout the week so they can make sure their kid doesn't have to miss a meal — until they do that, they should not be bickering back and forth,” he says. “They need to be together helping us all.”
As the fall school semester approaches and coronavirus outbreaks rage unrelentingly across the U.S., Conner doesn’t feel comfortable yet sending his daughter Aubery back to school. He’s trying to piece together other options such as homeschooling or pod learning, where a small group of parents and kids get together for school a few times a week.
For now, Conner says he’s doing everything he can as a father to keep Aubery’s childhood alive despite the grim circumstances. They’ve been working on first-grade Spanish lessons and reading books in order to maintain an educational environment, he says.
“She's still a kid, and I'm going to make sure she has a childhood,” he says. “That's my goal.”
We want to know: What are your experiences, questions and frustrations about unemployment during the coronavirus pandemic? Share your stories with us. Your answers may be used on-air and you may be contacted by a producer.
This segment aired on August 5, 2020.