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Fired over text, 800 calls to unemployment: What it's like losing your job in the coronavirus pandemic

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The U.S. is currently grappling with unprecedented levels of unemployment and is predicted to experience a coronavirus-induced recession at least through 2021.

As of April 17, over 22 million American workers had lost their jobs due to coronavirus. 

Alexander Colvin, a labor and employment researcher and dean of the ILR School at Cornell University tells CNBC Make It that the scale of the issue has been "dramatic."

"We went from where we typically see three to four hundred thousand job losses a week through unemployment insurance filings to 3 million and then 6 million and then 6.5 million," Colvin tells CNBC Make It. "We've never had that scale of job loss over such a short period of time. This is a really unprecedented shift in the labor market."

For those millions who have lost their jobs, new concerns about filing for unemployment; paying off bills and debt; and managing their mental health are now top of mind in addition to concerns about staying healthy amid the coronavirus pandemic.

CNBC Make It spoke with some of these Americans to learn how they have been impacted professionally, financially and mentally. 

Fired over text

Many workers have learned that they have been laid off in unorthodox ways. 

Evan Karadimos is a senior at Rutgers University who had worked 20 hours per week at a law firm in Highland Park, New Jersey for 10 months, hoping to line up a position for when he graduated. 

In late March, Karadimos reached out to his employer asking if the firm planned to work from home, given that law firms are considered essential businesses in the state of New Jersey. He didn't get a response for over a week; his boss finally texted him back saying he had been laid off. 

"The communication is what sucked the most honestly. And I did rely on that job," says Karadimos, adding that he does not expect a stimulus check (any person between the ages of 17 and 24 who was claimed as a dependent won't be eligible for the $1,200 payment) and that he is nervous about having to soon start paying off his student loans.

He is not sure what he will do after graduation but in the meantime, he is taking six courses online and making the most of time with his family. 

Unexpected requests

Andrea Glazer was almost done with a six-month contract as an executive assistant at an advertising agency in Cincinnati, Ohio. She was excited to become a full-time project manager in May when she got an unusual call from her boss. 

"He said, 'if you want extra hours and I suggest you do this, you can come into the office right now and you can sanitize the entire office,'" says Glazer, describing a week of sanitizing over 100 desks and several meeting places in late March. "I have so much Clorox in my lungs… I gained a new respect for janitors and cleaners around the world. It is hard work."

Glazer says she took the new job responsibility head-on. "I thought, 'I am so lucky to still have a job' because a lot of other people in the company were being furloughed. And I was like, 'You should just take full advantage of it and clean thoroughly and do the best job you can just to prove that you'll do anything to stay with the company." 

Her boss recognized her hard work, sending a company-wide email thanking her. 

One week after that email, she was "suspended for the unforeseeable future." Her former boss has expressed interest in hiring her full-time when the company is able, but in the meantime, she is looking at other jobs and has been attempting to apply for unemployment insurance. 

Despite several efforts, Glazer has been unable to enroll for unemployment insurance. "Since I haven't gotten on unemployment yet, I'm just dipping into my savings," she says. "Having no income is definitely very stressful."

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Unemployment nightmares

Indeed, many of the people CNBC Make It spoke with expressed frustration with the unemployment filing process and many say they have called hundreds of times. 

"I tried to apply for unemployment insurance, and that's been a debacle or a nightmare. I've called actually over 800 times," says David Cheung, a Brooklyn-based bartender and art handler. "I still haven't gotten through."

"Luckily, I did have some money saved up, so I'm kind of slowly going through that right now. I have estimated that I probably have maybe a month or two, and then after that, it's out. It's in the back of my mind constantly."

"I've been dialing unemployment every single day, several times a day, up to 100 dials per day since March 15th," Marla Frezza, a New York City-based bartender, tells CNBC Make It. "I'm in tears some days when I'm at 100 dials to unemployment and on hold for six hours and then they hang up on you."

Frezza says she won't be able to pay the $2,400-per-month rent on her studio apartment and that she is earning extra money posting sponsored content on Instagram to help cover a small portion of her costs. "Every $10 adds up," she says. "The money from unemployment, it's not a luxury. It's not me resting on my laurels, sitting on my butt and just waiting for a check."

Coping mechanisms

Stress is a common theme among those CNBC Make It spoke with. 

"There is a lot of research showing really negative effects from layoffs in terms of stress on workers. [The] health impacts are really significant," explains Colvin. "And it could have lasting effects beyond when we get past the immediate health threats. The economic impact will have health consequences that are going to last, too." 

Clinical psychologists tell CNBC Make It that the stress related to the coronavirus pandemic could cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other severe mental health symptoms such as anxiety. 

In response, workers are finding new and creative ways to stay healthy and to find community and purpose. 

Glazer says she keeps a journal of things she is grateful for, doesn't watch Netflix before dinner and is volunteering delivering groceries to the elderly and making reassurance calls to high-risk people in her community to help keep her morale high. 

Cheung says he is hosting virtual happy hours with his community from the bar he works at to stay positive and connected. 

Fitness trainer Raquel "Rocky" O'Connor, has been hosting donation-based workout sessions over Zoom since being let go as a regional manager of four Orange Theory Fitness locations near San Carlos, California. But for her, the best way to stay mentally healthy has been to de-prioritize productivity. 

"It's nice to have some money coming in," she says. "But my approach to this time was, I'm gonna let myself focus on me. As a coach or the trainer, it's always about someone else."

She continues, "I found that it's actually been a real struggle to let myself relax because every hour of the day is scheduled. I'm really using this time to read the books I want to read and not be productive… I'm really putting myself in the mindset of the money's not important. I'm never going to have this time off again." 

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