Editor's note: Americans have endured economic crises before but none quite like this. To capture the depths of the suffering, The New York Times teamed up with local news organizations across the country, including the Arizona Daily Star, to document the lives of a dozen Americans who found themselves out of work. Find the entire project here.
Before the pandemic hit, Evetta Applewhite, 39, had steadily worked her way up to a higher hourly pay as a legal assistant trainer. We first spoke with Ms. Applewhite in July.
BUFFALO — The day I got laid off, in March, I was supposed to have an 11 a.m. training. All of a sudden an 11 a.m. conference call popped up on my calendar instead. I knew a bunch of people were on this call because as I was dialing in, the line kept chiming: boop, boop, boop. And then the H.R. manager said that, due to everything that’s going on, everyone on the call was being laid off.
I just hung up the phone. I sat back and I cried. You ask the question: Why me? What am I going to do now? I was 39 years old, working as a trainer at a law firm, training legal secretaries and paralegals. I wasn’t worried about the money — money will always come. But I felt like I was finally where I wanted. I used to struggle. I struggled financially — I worked all types of different jobs, this, that and the other, and for a long time I still wasn’t making all the ends meet. My son was born in January 2006. I was 23 when I got pregnant and 24 when I gave birth. After my son was born, I worked at a recruiting firm making 10 bucks an hour.
But I went back to school and got my associate’s degree. I needed to improve myself — that was a motivation. And knowing I had to take care of a child, that was motivation enough, as well. I got a second job bartending. I drove for Uber sometimes, too. I went from $10 to $12 to $15 an hour at the recruiting firm, and then the law firm bumped me up to $18. I was in a comfortable place, you know?
It’s emotional when I think about that because there were times when I thought, you’re not going to make it. Then I did. Then I was torn right back down again. I hate to feel thrown away, and I felt the law firm threw me away this spring. Rent still needed to be paid. No one was hiring. My apartment complex sent out emails: “our rent is still due on the first of the month, the fifth at the latest.” As small as this place is, it’s expensive.
Ms. Applewhite preparing a meal for friends in her apartment in Amherst, N.Y., in August. She is considering catering as a possibility as she reinvents her career.
But who wants to go back to working two or three jobs when you have a child at home? My son is 14 and starting high school. So my path forward is to figure something else out. Before Covid-19, I did a couple catering events. I love to cook. Yesterday I did a small anniversary party for seven people, and I made Brussels sprouts and yams and Cajun salmon and summer salad, and I baked an apple peach crumble pie for dessert.
I just paid an astronomical fee for this certification I’m working on, to become a small-business consultant. Everywhere I’ve ever worked, I try to make things better and more effective. So this is a way to turn that skill into a business. I posted on Facebook yesterday, and one woman already inboxed me about it.
I’m realizing that my measure of success is not a long title or a huge salary. People make you feel like you have to have the corporate title to be relevant. I just want to be happy. I want to be at peace. And I never want to be laid off from another job. Going back to a company is not for me, period.
September: 'I started to feel like I was done'
“I’m realizing that my measure of success is not a long title or a huge salary,” Ms. Applewhite said.
My days are timed now. I have to stick to a strict schedule — 20 minutes to do this, 30 minutes to do that — because otherwise I’d go crazy. I haven’t lost my mind yet.
I’m still going to school to be a small-business consultant. I’m also taking evening classes to get my real estate license. And I started working with a real estate office for a few hours each day, but I’ve been driving for Uber, too. I just told my father, “Dad, I have so much on my plate right now.” And he said, “Ell, eat slow.” It’s good advice. I don’t have to do everything right this moment.
But I think I’m proving things to myself. Losing my job at the law firm did something to my ego. For a moment there, during Covid, it got really ugly: I started to feel like I was done. Those thoughts of helplessness — I would hear a voice, I would actually hear it, saying, “Evetta, there’s nothing else for you to do.” I don’t know if it was depression, I don’t know what it was. I think it came from being idle.
But then I imagined my child having to tell someone that his mom “was.” And I couldn’t be a past tense in his life. I realized I couldn’t have those thoughts. I found things for me to do, things to keep my mind active, and that’s where I’m at now. It’s like, instead of making money for a company and they’re saying “this is what you’re worth,” I’m finally determining my own value.
October: 'You can figure it out'
Ms. Applewhite has been helping her friend Nikki Searles as a consultant for Ms. Searles’ restaurant, Sunshine Vegan Eats, in Buffalo.
I’m not making the amount of money that I used to. Absolutely not. But I can say I’m much happier, and I’m not stressed about it. I went into the pandemic secure in a job. I came out being secure in my own business. When I look back on this time in my life, I’m going to remember how I came out of this.
I have two consulting clients now: the real estate firm and a vegan restaurant. I’m also taking the state exam Wednesday for my real estate license. I feel as ready as I’m going to be — either you know the material or you don’t. And I Uber on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays for two hours or $100, whichever comes first.
I’m not struggling to pay my bills. I saved when I was on unemployment, and there are other things I can do if I need to. Honestly, I think the economy will probably tank again at some point, but I think for now I’d be OK because my clients are essential. Now, will I feel differently two months from now? Maybe. But believe me when I tell you I have plans “B” through “Z.” I could probably go bartend, there are plenty of bars. And don’t forget I still have my catering.
Because what else are you going to do, you know? What do you do about things you absolutely cannot change? You can sit back and give in. Or you can figure it out. I made my decision. I’m determined to make this work now.
In this Series
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