Out of Work

I got laid off on Friday the 13th—and had to move back home. My new side hustle is writing obituaries for $200

Pictured: Angely Mercado (far right) with her three nephews in 2019.
(via Angely Mercado)

On Friday the 13th this past March, I was laid off from my full-time associate editor job at a Manhattan-based trade publication. I wasn't surprised, but I was scared.

"It happened," I sheepishly told my mom over the phone later that day. We both knew I had to move back home. Luckily, I wasn't tied to an apartment lease; I'd just been renting a room for $825 per month in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. And my parents' house in Ridgewood, Queens was just a short drive away.

The transition was complete by the end of March. I always applauded myself for being an independent 20-something who'd been living on her own for the past few years, so it felt strange to be back under my parents' roof.

Side hustles, stress and sleepless nights

I spent most of April figuring out how to apply for unemployment and juggling freelance jobs — mostly writing obituaries, along with some research and fact-checking projects.

Finding freelance work is challenging, even for experienced writers. It involves a lot of researching and pitching on my end. But it gets easier over time as you build relationships with assignment editors.

Aside from quarantining amid the pandemic in Queens (which currently has the most confirmed Covid-19 cases of New York's five boroughs), I had a medical condition affecting my lower back that made things even more stressful. Even though it happened before I lost my job, I was still in great physical pain and could hardly sleep, sit up or walk.

During my first three weeks of living at home, I had to work on my laptop while laying on my stomach. A nurse would come every day to take my vitals and change wound dressings. I'm now further along in the recovery process, but I recently learned I might need to go back for another surgery. If that happens anytime soon, I probably won't have health insurance to cover medical fees.

These days, I'm mostly sitting at a tiny desk in one of my brother's old room, where I work on assignments and apply for jobs. Several times a week, I work past 1 a.m., nap for a few hours and wake up before 5 a.m. to keep up with deadlines.

Last month, I wrote an obituary for a New York police officer who passed away from Covid-19. It's depressing stuff, but I can't afford to turn down the money. Each obituary pays around $200 ($0.50 per word).

The other day, I had to call a man who lost his father to the virus. After we hung up, I felt like I couldn't breathe. I kept thinking about my cousin, who also recently passed away from Covid-19. I resented the fact that we couldn't attend her funeral, that she was alone in his room when he died. I imagined his gravestone in the cemetery, alongside workers in hazmat suits.

An unemployed household

Luckily, my older brother, who lives two blocks away from us with his wife and kids, has been able to collect unemployment benefits. And my younger brother, who lives in New Hampshire, is still working.

But my 29-year-old sister lost her job as a hair and makeup artist and moved back home a few weeks after I did. She's been stressed about the $10,000 in student loans she still has to pay off. I'm trying to help by giving her stuff I don't need so she can sell them online.

The pandemic has also been tough on my parents, both in their 60s. My mom had to close the daycare center she ran from home, and it's still unclear when she'll be able to reopen. My dad retired five years ago after breaking a leg on his carpenter job. His physical condition has gotten worse, so going back to work isn't an option.

My parents are mostly worried about paying the mortgage and bills. At least for now, they have a few months' worth of emergency savings. They also make a few hundred dollars per month off a rental property in the Caribbean, where my dad's family is from.

I'm still getting adjusted to living and working at home. I was embarrassed when I first told my parents about losing my job. I didn't want to be a burden, but my mom assured me that everything was going to be fine. Still, I can't help but check my bank account between assignments. We're barely getting by, and the stimulus checks have yet to arrive.

They also worry about how much time I spend at my desk. "You're not getting enough rest," my mom will say. "All this anxiety and depressing work will only make you sicker." No parent wants to see their kid overworked — even if there is a pandemic and we're all stretched for money. They feel it's their responsibility to provide for and protect their children. To ease their concerns, I've had to lie about how much work I take on.

Planning for the future

I've had little luck securing job interviews, especially since there aren't a lot of full-time opportunities in journalism. So for the first time in my life, because of this pandemic, I've had to consider jobs that are more stable and less likely to leave me without income and benefits in the future (e.g., fintech, communications, marketing) — even though I might not enjoy them.

I've never felt more uncertain about my finances than I do now, and I never want to feel this way again. If I miss writing, I figure I can always do it as a side hustle.

Hopefully, as the economy reopens, I'll land a full-time job. When that happens, I still plan to live at home — at least for a few months. It wouldn't feel right to move out and waste money on rent. My goal is to save on living expenses so I can support my family as much as possible, even if it's just covering a few months of groceries or bills.

I wouldn't be able to handle any of this without my sister. We get through the days by sharing laughs over dark humor coronavirus memes.

On May 1, 2020, I turned 28. I didn't want to spend money on a celebration, but my sister insisted on party streamers, ordering Thai food and making cupcakes that read "Happy Quarantine" in Spanish.

I'm glad it happened. I took a picture of the cupcakes as a reminder of this incredibly difficult time — a time that has taught me so much about resilience, togetherness and the importance of financial preparedness. 

Angely Mercado is a freelance writer and researcher based in New York. She has written for The New York Times, Vice, and The Nation, among many more.  Follow her on Twitter @AngelyMercado.

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What it's like being unemployed because of coronavirus
What it's like being unemployed because of coronavirus