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‘I fear it’s going to be a battle to find a job’: The strain and uncertainty of being unemployed in a pandemic

Michael Geoghegan, an unemployed stagehand.
Michael Geoghegan, an unemployed stagehand.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Across the Commonwealth, upwards of 800,000 people are still collecting unemployment as the pandemic stretches on. Many are seeing their place in the workforce grow more precarious — and their bank accounts dwindle — as prospects for further stimulus payments or jobless benefits are increasingly unclear. Here are a few of their stories.

| Mike Geoghegan, stagehand |

Hyde Park • Age  :  43

I do electrical and carpentry work at entertainment venues around Greater Boston — the Opera House, Colonial, Wang, Gillette Stadium, TD Garden, Fenway. We can’t go back to work fully until Phase 4, when there’s a treatment or vaccine. It’s the tale of two recoveries: Those who can work distantly are doing fine and those who have to report to a job site, especially one that depends on the public, are not.


There are millions worse off than me. My wife still works for a nonprofit, which she can do from our home on the first floor of a triple-decker in Hyde Park. We don’t have kids. I’m on the 13-week unemployment insurance extension, making $725 a week, which is good but half what I normally make. And I have health insurance through my union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 11, through the end of the year.

But come the new year, I don’t know what’s going to happen. It seems unlikely live entertainment will be back by then, and there aren’t a lot of opportunities in construction. I volunteer for food pantries and a food delivery charity, and I wound up delivering to a co-worker’s house. You buy into this American dream thing, but the American dream is really built on credit. You set up your life based on what you’re able to pay.

I’m very adrift emotionally. Ivanka Trump started the “Find Something New” campaign to help unemployed people get into a different line of work. I find that tremendously insulting because this is my career. I’ve put every waking moment since I’ve been an adult into entertainment. It’s hard to have that identity taken away for something that’s not my fault.


| Celia Pires, medical assistant |

Dorchester • Age  :  29

Celia Pires is an unemployed medical assistant.
Celia Pires is an unemployed medical assistant. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

When the pandemic hit, we had a patient come in who had just been to Italy, but nobody told me anything. So I went in the back and started taking her vitals. I put the blood pressure cuff on. I put the thermometer under her tongue. I was face to face with her, with no protective gear. Then my manager knocked on the door to tell me. I was super upset. I was crying. I have asthma, and my daughter has asthma. The doctor was wearing an N-95 mask, a gown, and gloves, and she told me, ‘You shouldn’t be worried, I don’t think she has anything.’ But they failed to protect me. Literally they just showed me they don’t care.

I live with a friend and a cousin who has a 1-year-old. I didn’t want to bring something home. So I got approved to go on leave for two months and then filed for unemployment because I had to be home with my daughter to finish kindergarten online. I was trying to get paperwork from our doctors to show I needed to stay out of work, but then I got a letter from the hospital saying, you no longer have a job here. They said I didn’t qualify for unemployment. I haven’t gotten anything since June, and I have to pay back $1,000.


Thank God I applied for food stamps and they approved me. Thank God for family that’s been helping me out. I have my resume everywhere, but my daughter does online classes from 8 to 2, so how do I get a job? When is the pandemic going to calm down and so I can figure out how I’m going to make it, if I’m going to make it.

| Tim Blevins, innkeeper |

Salem • Age  :  44

Tim Blevins is an unemployed innkeeper.
Tim Blevins is an unemployed innkeeper. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

I started looking for work in June, when I realized my job helping guests at two Victorian inns in Brookline wasn’t coming back anytime soon. I don’t have a car, and I used to commute from Salem on the train, but I don’t want to take public transportation now. So I’m applying at hotels and coffee shops within walking distance. My skill set is customer service, dealing with people, being in public, which are exactly the jobs you want to stay away from.

My partner still has her job at a coffee roaster, but there’s shame in knowing we’re not contributing equally. There is also guilt about getting unemployment. When I was getting the extra $600 a week I realized I was actually making a living wage. It was kind of a wake-up call.

My partner doesn’t have health insurance through her job, and I lost mine at the end of May. Aside from our credit cards, our bills are paid up. But there is this ticking clock. With all the different phases of benefits, it’s these weird plateaus. It gets a little thinner each time.


I’m anxious about having to give up the two podcasts that I host about pop culture. It only costs $50-$60 a month, but that could go toward a bill. The podcasts have been a creative outlet for me. That’s been my way of connecting with people. Maybe there’s a way to translate that into a freelance writing career. I keep thinking, ‘What can I do and how can I do that from home?’

| Ming Liao, housekeeper |

Quincy • Age  :  44

Ming Liao at her home in Quincy.
Ming Liao at her home in Quincy. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The Westin Boston Waterfront reopened in September, but I haven’t been called back. It makes me worried that others are working again but I’m not. The hotel has been open for 14 years and I’ve been there for 13, so I’ve accrued significant benefits.

As time drags on, I’ve become increasingly worried. My husband and I are both on unemployment. He’s a self-employed driving instructor and his industry has suffered. We tried to save when we were getting the extra $600 a week, but we have a mortgage and car payments, and we have to take care of our 15-year-old daughter and our elderly mothers, who live with us in Quincy.

We came here from China 15 years ago and have owned a home for seven years. Our bank has notified us to get in touch with them if we need help with payments. We haven’t been able to take advantage of the low interest rates to refinance because you can’t refinance when you’re unemployed.


Our union contract gives us the right to be recalled to our jobs for a year, and our union — Unite Here Local 26 — is trying to extend that to two years. It’s really been my job that’s allowed my family to buy our house and provide a better future for my daughter and take care of our parents. I really don’t know where else I could find the kind of job that could give me the same opportunities.

| Gina Tempesta, video producer |

Melrose • Age  :  59

Video producer Gina Tempesta was laid off April 1 from her content marketing agency.
Video producer Gina Tempesta was laid off April 1 from her content marketing agency.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

My job was to fly around the country to produce videos for the Boston content marketing agency Brafton. Needless to say, once we went into lockdown, the jobs came to a screeching halt. At first I thought, OK, this is a sign I should slow down. I figured by the end of summer I could start freelancing. But then it became clear that wasn’t happening. Around Memorial Day, I got serious about looking for jobs. I want to work remotely at this point, because three out of my five immediate family members are immunocompromised. I’m not as technically or analytically savvy as younger people, and I fear it’s going to be a battle to find a job, even when things start to pick up. I got an update about one job I applied for — there were 445 other applicants. Someone with no college degree, someone who’s 59, I’m going up against 445 other people — my resume’s not necessarily going to rise to the top. I’m kind of feeling like I’m at a crossroads.

My husband is in the medical device field, and his work has accelerated. But in our 36 years of marriage, he’s been laid off four times, so we’ve always been on a roller coaster ride regarding financial security. The last recession, he was out of work for a full year and we basically burned through our savings. With both of us at our most recent jobs for 10 years, this had been the first time we were feeling like we had dug ourselves out of a hole and could see the retirement road ahead of us. This layoff has been yet another setback. Only this time, the future feels extremely uncertain.

| Myra Ortiz, special education administrator |

Lawrence • Age  :  45

Myra Ortiz
Myra Ortiz

I worked at a public school in Wilmington. There were three of us and they only kept one because everything is digital now. I’m definitely what the CDC would consider in a vulnerable class because of underlying health issues. I check all the boxes. So I’m specifically looking for remote opportunities.

In September, I worked for the Census, which was a good stopgap. I went door to door but stayed outside and was double-masked. I didn’t enter into it lightly.

Now that that’s over, I’ll start delivering for Instacart and DoorDash again. It’s definitely not ideal, but I strategize. I only shop at Shaw’s in Newburyport or Ipswich, which are super clean and have less foot traffic. For DoorDash, I pick up the food at tables outside and leave deliveries at people’s doors.

There’s no envisioning the long term. I work in September to pay bills in October. There’s a thought of ‘nothing better happen.’ Every window should work, every faucet. I wouldn’t say that we’re drowning, but we’re treading water. If I had to visualize what the future would be, it’s just black.

I’m a mom of two: a 19-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter. Their father passed away. We’ve been spending a lot of time at home. Anywhere there was dirt, I put a seed in. I’ve never gardened like this. I put in 100 red onions, 100 yellow onions, eggplant, yellow squash, cherry tomatoes around the flagpole. If I save on produce, then that’s gas in the car.

This summer there were no vacations. No beach, no fried dough. No Canobie Lake. No trip to the Cape. But something lost is also found. My children are home learning new things: two city kids who now know how to grow tomatoes.

| Tim Stanulonis, restaurant server |

Lowell • Age  :  38

Restaurant server/bartender Tim Stanulonis was laid off in March from Stazione de Federal.  Later brought back, he was laid off again in August after a kitchen fire.
Restaurant server/bartender Tim Stanulonis was laid off in March from Stazione de Federal. Later brought back, he was laid off again in August after a kitchen fire. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

We opened Stazione di Federal in Waltham on March 12, and we weren’t even able to get a full week under us before we found out we had to close because of the pandemic. We reopened July 7, but had a kitchen fire Aug. 5 and have been shut down ever since.

My girl, Megan, is a bartender at the Bancroft in Burlington, and she was also out of work until late July. Our mortgage company and car lender have been helpful, allowing us to delay payments for several months without fees. Our No. 1 priority when we got our jobs back was to pay back what we owed, which we did, but there’s more penny-pinching now that I’m out of work again. We’ve been budgeting down to the last dollar. No more takeout Chinese food. We started buying in bulk. Everything was just focused on the bills. It’s been tough, mentally, watching Megan as she goes off to work: “I’ll be here, my love.” There’s some dark and stormy days.

I’ve been in the restaurant industry for 20 years, starting as a bus boy. I’m also a welder and have worked as a general contractor, but my passion is restaurants. Megan and I realize the industry may never be the same, but I would absolutely love with all my heart to stay in it. I’m willing to ride it out with the realization that if we go through this winter and things don’t seem to be gearing back up, I’ll have to make changes. I want a job that gives me emotional fulfillment, but if the opportunity isn’t there and the money isn’t coming in, you make sacrifices.

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.