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‘I don’t have a job now’: Laid off workers are still struggling

Researchers say long-term unemployment can have a ‘scarring effect’ on workers’ financial and emotional well-being that can last long after paychecks resume

Luceanne Taufa poses at the still closed Fiesta Henderson Hotel & Casino on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Henderson, Nev. Taufa was laid off after the casino was forced to shut down when the governor issued a statewide mandate in March due to the coronavirus pandemic and has yet to reopen for business.
Luceanne Taufa poses at the still closed Fiesta Henderson Hotel & Casino on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Henderson, Nev. Taufa was laid off after the casino was forced to shut down when the governor issued a statewide mandate in March due to the coronavirus pandemic and has yet to reopen for business.
David Becker, for the Deseret News

In March, 61-year-old Luceanne Taufa was laid off from the job she’d held for 17 years as a cashier at Fiesta Henderson, a hotel and casino just outside Las Vegas that shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Taufa supports her two daughters in college, and her health insurance helped pay for medication to manage her husband’s heart disease, which keeps him from working. Now, nine months later, her benefits are coming to an end and she is still unemployed.

“I don’t have a job now. What can I do? That’s how I live, how I pay my bills. I work to pay my bills,” Taufa said. She is constantly thinking about how she will scrape together money each month.

Taufa is just one of 30 million people who lost their jobs in the early months of the pandemic. And while employment has rebounded to 6.7% nationally as businesses reopened in the summer months, millions like Taufa remain unemployed.

The already stressful situation has been made worse by the uncertainty over unemployment benefits. The CARES Act that passed Congress in March added 13 weeks of unemployment benefits to the usual amount and included benefits for workers who don’t usually qualify, such as gig and contract workers.

On Dec. 26, both of these programs will expire, and roughly 10 million people will lose their benefits immediately. As of Monday, Congress had yet to pass a new round of aid, although a new $908 billion proposal was introduced, Politico reported.

The financial setbacks aren’t the only consequences of long-term unemployment. The stress and emotional impact of being uncertain how and when a job, a paycheck, a sense of place will come again also don’t quickly fade, once the immediate crisis is past.

“There is a scarring effect of unemployment” that lasts long after the income returns, says Stephan Meier, a Columbia University Business School professor who has researched the sense of purpose that work gives people, outside of a paycheck.

Nevada hit hard

Thriving casino, hospitality and entertainment industries made southern Nevada a hub for tourism and jobs. But as the pandemic and resulting public health guidelines shut down casinos and hotels like Fiesta Henderson where Taufa worked, the jobs seemingly disappeared overnight.

While some casinos have since reopened with limited capacity, the jobs haven’t really come back. Traveling remains a fraught endeavor, and even those who venture out of town may not be in the mood for gambling as the pandemic heightens widespread uncertainty.

Nevada has been one of the states hit hardest by unemployment, and its tourist reliant economy — like Hawaii’s — has struggled to rebound. In October, Nevada had the second highest unemployment rate in the country of 12%, an improvement from April, when the unemployment rate rose to an astounding 28.2%.

In this March 21, 2020, file photo, a man walks along a usually busy Fremont Street after casinos were ordered to shut down due to the coronavirus outbreak in Las Vegas.
John Locher, Associated Press

Business has not returned to normal, and neither have the lives of the people who worked in the hospitality industry.

When the $600 monthly unemployment benefits expired at the end of July, Nevada was one of the states hurt most, the Reno Gazette Journal reported.

In the Las Vegas Metropolitan area, the hardest hit in Nevada, the unemployment rate is 13.8%.

Over half the members of Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which represents many of those who work in casinos and resorts in Las Vegas and Reno, still haven’t gone back to work, according to Geoconda Argüello-Kline, the secretary-treasurer of the union.

“Being in that situation is very difficult”,” Argüello-Kline said. “It’s affecting their health because people are experiencing very high levels of stress right now.”

Emotional well-being impacted

Two days after Taufa was laid off, she got a call. Her father, who lived in Hawaii, was on his deathbed. She flew there straight away to be with him.

A few days after arriving in Hawaii, Taufa’s father died. And her grief was compounded by worry as the state announced a lockdown.

She was stranded, far away from Nevada and her husband, who had remained at home as the pandemic set in. “It was the hardest time in my life,” Taufa said.

She’d call her husband more than 10 times a day, to make sure he’d taken his medications and had something to eat. “I prayed to God to help me get home because he’s very sick,” Taufa said.

A month later, she was finally able to fly home — getting routed first through Los Angeles, then Dallas, and finally to Las Vegas. Still reeling from the grief of her father’s death, Taufa came home to a pile of unpaid bills. She had to file for unemployment benefits, but it took her a week or two to get organized — her heart ached but the bills wouldn’t wait.

In this Aug. 18, 2020, file photo, Alex Santana, left, Jim Soldate and Donna Blair, right, rally outside of the Clark County Commission Building in Las Vegas. The two largest Las Vegas casino companies have agreed with unions to let tens of thousands of employees keep family health benefits until next March 1, 2021. The powerful culinary and bartenders unions announced Monday, Aug. 31, 2020, the pact affects about 36,000 union workers at 22 Las Vegas Strip properties.
Bizuayehu Tesfaye, Las Vegas Review-Journal via Associated Press

Unemployment not only impacts job market outcomes going forward, but emotional well-being, said Meier.

“Short unemployment spells are terrible, but long-term unemployment spells are really devastating,” he said. The same can be said of uncertainty, he explained. Short-term uncertainty is difficult to cope with, but not knowing for a longer period of time what’s going to happen next week creates an environment that’s impossible to adapt to.

In the wake of the 2008 recession, Pew Research found that long-term unemployment not only took a serious toll on an individual’s finances, but on their mental health. Of those unemployed for six months or longer, 46% said they had “strained family relations,” and 38% said they had lost self-respect.

Plus, 29% of respondents who experienced long-term unemployment during the Great Recession ultimately settled for lower paying jobs, affecting their personal finances for years to come.

“Prolonged unemployment harms not only workers’ job prospects and lifetime earnings but also the health and well-being of them and their families,” the authors of a report recently issued by the Center for Budget and Policy wrote. A key to effective fiscal stimulus, according to the center, is extending unemployment benefits and increasing weekly payments.

In early October, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell testified before Congress, warning that without another stimulus bill the country would fall into a downward spiral, and the millions that still remained out of work would struggle.

“The right thing to do and the smart thing to do is to continue to support those people as they return to their old jobs or find new jobs in different sectors of the economy,” Powell said. “The longer it goes on, the more likely there is some lasting damage.”

Uncertainty remains

By the end of the year, over 100,000 people in Nevada will lose federal unemployment benefits, unless Congress takes action.

Taufa received her first unemployment check in June. She has partially relied on savings, although she’s now close to running out of the money she’d saved.

Each month Taufa makes a series of difficult calculations: What bills can she pay and which ones come first? Her husband’s medications take first priority, then her mortgage, and then she tries to make sure utilities are paid for. Taufa has relied on the Culinary Union’s pantry for food and when she can’t pay her mortgage, her brothers and sisters have pitched in.

Taufa has managed, somehow, but with her benefits coming to an end, she’s not sure what she’ll do next. “I think about it every day, every night, turning my head every second,” Taufa said. “But what can I do? I’m trying my best.”

She hopes Congress can reach an agreement that will extend her benefits.

She’s also holding out hope that once the vaccine is distributed, she’ll be called back to her job at Fiesta Henderson, which has remained closed. Taufa is nearing retirement, and she worries about the prospect of getting a job anywhere else.

For all the difficulties of the past year — from the loss of her father, job, and now uncertainty over her unemployment benefits, Taufa keeps her eye on the future, on better days when she can go back to work.

“There’s a day of raining and there’s a day of sunshine and we have to be there for both.”

People walk along the Las Vegas Strip devoid of the usual crowds after casinos were ordered to shut down due to the coronavirus outbreak, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Las Vegas.
John Locher, Associated Press