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Out of Work in America: Watching your pennies

Out of Work in America: Watching your pennies

From the Out of Work in America: Following Americans who found themselves out of work series
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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.

With a few sources of income, Barbara Eckes, 61, thought she was doing pretty well financially when 2020 started. She worked part time at a Michaels craft store, and she worked as a contractor at nursing homes giving massages. But once the pandemic started, she was down to her $327 monthly pension from service in the U.S. Army. We first spoke with Ms. Eckes in July.

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — It’s been a struggle. It’s just frustrating when you don't know where your next dollar is going to come from.

In May, I got called back to work a few hours a week at Michaels. The paychecks were welcome but not enough to cover all my bills.

I missed my June rent payment. Luckily I didn’t get evicted because my landlord knew I was applying for emergency rental assistance from a local nonprofit agency. But that process hit a snag, and I missed my July rent payment as well and faced a $25-a-month late payment penalty on top of my back rent.

I’m just really watching what I’m buying. I’m staying home a whole lot more because going out would mean spending money. Before, I would sometimes go out for dinner or grab an ice cream cone, but you can’t do that if you don’t have any money.

Even when I go to Walmart, I can’t buy what I know I need because I just can’t afford it. I’ve got three shirts I can wear to work, and that’s what I wear.

I have one gentleman I worked with for almost three years who calls me nearly once a week and says, “Barb, you still can’t get in? I hurt so bad. I really need a massage.”

September: 'Slow getting back in'

“You’ve really got to watch your pennies because you just never know,” Ms. Eckes said.

I’m still working at Michaels. Sometimes I get 20 to 24 hours; this week I got 10. It’s not back to what I’d like to be working, but it’s something.

We’re getting Christmas trees in already, and I assume I’ll get more hours as we get closer to the holidays, but we just never know because we’re all part time.

I started doing a couple massages again at nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the last few weeks. That’s going OK, but it could be better. I have to wear a mask and wipe everything down when I’m done, but at least I can get into a couple more places.

It’s very slow getting back in. I know there’s Covid going around, so I understand the situation. But it’s frustrating. You’re hoping it will get more back to normal, but it looks like it’s sliding back the other way.

My financial situation is getting better, but you still know you’ve got bills to pay and you can’t just go out to eat or buy stuff because you want it. You’ve really got to watch your pennies because you just never know. Next week I might only get 10 hours again. I’d rather be safe than sorry.

I found out about the Wisconsin Rental Assistance Program, so I signed up for that to help me pay my rent. And three months later I still hadn’t heard if I was approved. They told me I didn’t put any of my tax information down, but there wasn’t even a question about how much I made last year. I got furloughed because of Covid, and I had nothing coming in.

So once my money finally came in from unemployment, then I had to put it toward my three months of late rent.

Now if I could just get back into my hobbies. I love making greeting cards. I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos on it, but I haven’t really done anything since June. I just have no ambition to do it.

October: 'If you need anybody to work, call me'

I worked at Michaels today, and now I don’t work till Friday. I get about four and a half hours a day when I work. Once the holidays start coming around we’ll get more hours, but then in January it will drop back off to eight or nine hours a week. I tell them every day before I leave, “If you need anybody to work tomorrow, call me.”

I wish people would quit complaining and just wear their masks, and then maybe we wouldn’t have half the problem we have. It’s just something you have to live with. It is what it is. But I’ll be happy when things are kind of back to normal.

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