Commentary: What that $600 a week meant to me

An unemployed hospitality worker reflects on what the bonus meant for her budget and her sanity.

By Desirée Mullins / Special To The Washington Post

The federal unemployment bonus – that extra $600 a week, on top of state benefits, that expired July 31 — didn’t just sustain me after I got furloughed from my job. It also gave me a glimpse of what it might look like to not have to worry constantly about basic needs, like food and shelter. When you don’t have to fret about whether you can make your rent or where your next meal is coming from, you experience life differently. That was true for me, and it’s even more true for people who make less than I did.

I worked for several years as a bartender and server at a membership-based club in New York City. As a server, I was working from eight to 16 hours a day, making as much as $80,000, with tips. Decent, but not great, for New York. And you can do well on tips one night but come up with scraps the next night. Right before the pandemic, I got promoted to be a manager, which meant more regular hours, but the loss of tips cut my income by $20,000.

The club sent us home in mid-April. First, they asked us to use our paid leave, thinking the crisis would be temporary, then they furloughed us. With the government bonus, I was earning about as much as I had before the pandemic.

Now my payment has dropped from about $980 to $480 a week.

I can still get by; if nothing changes for the roommate I live with in a two-bedroom Bed-Sty apartment. Partly that’s because my employer is still subsidizing my health insurance, thanks to my furlough status. But if I have to go on one of the Affordable Care Act plans, things will get a lot tighter. It could come down to choosing between rent and food.

When I was a server, I worked so hard that I was rarely home. I didn’t even have the time to furnish my apartment. And what did it matter, since I wasn’t there? But everyone needs a place of peace, a place of refuge from everything else that’s going on in the world. The unemployment bonus helped provide that: It gave people a little cushion. It helped people feel safe in their homes.

In the hospitality industry, even before the virus crippled our economy, so many people missed out on so much life because they were focused on keeping their families sheltered and fed. In the back of the house, dishwashers, line cooks, maintenance staff and food runners might be making $10 an hour. You can’t live off that, and it’s hard to come by things like vacation pay, insurance benefits or paid time off. Some people work in the food industry just to get the “family meal” once per shift.

The bonus kept my life on track. I could afford rent and food, and I was even able to keep paying down my college debt, as well as some credit card debt (nothing too crazy, but I do have some). I was grateful that I was able to support small businesses in my neighborhood that were able to stay open, especially local restaurants. I sometimes ordered takeout lunch. I bought a few plants. They don’t cost a lot, $10 or $15; and they keep my mind off stressful things while tending to them. I bought a few small drawings from local artists selling their work from their stoops. I’m not talking about buying a Banksy: Some of these artists don’t qualify for unemployment insurance. There’s a soup kitchen two blocks from me, where I’ve been helping since before the pandemic.

The bonus allowed me to sleep a little easier, to not be in a constant state of anxiety, to not be depressed. I worry that without it, we will see a rise in suicides and suicide attempts. If the eviction moratorium expires — as it may for at least some people this month — we’ll see more New Yorkers on the streets.

It makes no sense to say that the bonus discouraged people from working. There are no jobs. Tourism is the main source for the hospitality industry here, but no one is traveling, so who are we serving? Even the restaurants that are open are not working at full capacity. They might be working eight hours a day, down from 12 or 16. (My employer has no space for outdoor seating, so it’s staying closed.) If you wanted to try a new field, there are few options.

The bonus let me do some self-care that I didn’t have time for before. I go for walks in different parks, or I meditate. Through virtual learning, I’ve gotten some certifications in my field; even if I am not sure that my field is going to exist in the future. I learned more about balancing a profit-and-loss sheet.

I think the unemployment bonus helps strengthen the case for some kind of universal-basic-income policy. I have worked in real estate, so I know the formula that says: If you want to rent a $2,000 apartment, you should be making 40 times that. There are so few people who earn that amount! Minimum wage hasn’t come close to keeping up with inflation. A universal basic income should be tied to the actual cost of living.

I love to work. It gives me something to do. But work should also be an extension of how we want to make an impact on the world. So many of us would be happier at work if we were making enough to actually live. We aren’t doing that. We’re making barely enough to pay rent, and the pandemic has exposed our vulnerability. The unemployment bonus let us feel like normal, not-frantic humans. It was a taste of how a wealthy society should behave.

Desirée Mullins is a hospitality professional, and a Chicago native. This op-ed is as told to Post editor Christopher Shea.

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