Stephanie Freed and Grant McDonald never thought they'd be running a grassroots campaign pushing for extended unemployment coverage.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Both New York City residents lost work in March when Covid-19 decimated the live events industry, in which both had established careers as freelancers. Freed, 32, was able to get state unemployment insurance, and McDonald, 31, got benefits through Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the program established by the CARES Act that extended payments to those not previously eligible.
Both received the additional $600 per week in federal aid and said it kept them afloat until it expired in July with no extension in sight. At that point, Freed and McDonald saw how much their industry was struggling and wanted to help.
"I was upset about the $600 expiring, and I was like, 'I'm going to write a letter, and I'm going get a bunch of people to send a letter,'" said Freed, adding that at that point, McDonald made a website called ExtendPUA.org to go along with her own letter.
From there, they realized there was even more work to be done. "Every time we did a task, we realized there's this other thing that we didn't know and realized we were not alone in our ignorance on that," said Freed.
They've since organized a letter writing campaign, found phone numbers for senators and representatives from all states and developed a script for people to make phone calls. Eventually, they started scheduling Zoom meetings with different offices and have engaged with constituents across the entire country.
"It just grew and grew and grew until it was just a giant beast of a program," said McDonald.
The coronavirus pandemic has led to massive unemployment in the U.S. There are currently more than 21.5 million people collecting unemployment insurance benefits through all programs, according to the latest figures from the Labor Department.
Certain industries have been hit harder than others. The unemployment rate overall has declined from its peak of nearly 15% in April, but remains at 16.3% in leisure and hospitality, 18.3% in arts, entertainment and recreation and nearly 16% in accommodation and food services according to the October jobs report from the Labor Department.
Some of those unemployed workers have sprung into action in the meantime, organizing activist groups, starting nonprofits and volunteering for causes they believe in to help their communities and stay busy.
Many unemployed workers have put their efforts into solving problems in their communities. Kristin Guerin, a 30-year-old performer in Miami, was laid off in March when her long-running show closed due to Covid-19.
She and two colleagues, Eric Trope and Jessica Gutierrez, who also became unemployed due to the pandemic, joined together to launch Buddy System, a nonprofit that helps people gain access to food and support in the Miami area.
Today, they have more than 800 volunteers and are serving thousands in Miami, according to Guerin. The organization currently stocks six community fridges throughout the city and has a goal of expanding to 20 by the end of the year.
"Day to day, I work 40-plus hours a week on this nonprofit," she said. "Everyone that works for the organization is a volunteer — staying alive through unemployment."
Others have reacted to need they see within their own fields, especially theater and the arts. Bridget McCarthy, 27, was an actor, teaching artist, writer and director before Covid-19 decimated her industry. Now, she's the executive director of the Atlanta Artist Relief Fund, which provides food, unemployment assistance, access to mental health counseling and more in the greater Atlanta area.
To date, the organization has helped more than 400 people navigate the unemployment system and has a volunteer roster of about 250 people, she said.
Carson Elrod, a New York-based actor, leaned on previous advocacy work to address the crisis that the arts now face due to the pandemic. In 2014, Elrod, 46, helped organize #FairWageonStage, which led to significant pay increases for equity actors. In June, he saw how much the theater industry was hurting and launched the Be An #ArtsHero campaign with two colleagues to bring awareness to the problem, in the hopes of getting further federal relief.
So far, the group has met with 63 federal lawmakers, said Elrod. They've also written a bill summary, called the Defend Arts Workers Now (DAWN) Act, advocating for further support for the arts.
"The people that are in freefall are going to try to create a response for themselves," said Elrod. "It feels like trying to build a rocket ship in the air as you're falling."
Even though starting a nonprofit, activist group or volunteering isn't bringing in a paycheck for unemployed Americans, it can add valuable experience that could help them land their next job, according to Caroline Ceniza-Levine, a career coach and founder of Dream Career Club.
"If you're volunteering or doing pro bono consulting, you are updating your skills, your network and your expertise," said Ceniza-Levine. "You are meeting people, so that actually is related to job search activity."
Job seekers who are doing volunteer work should make sure that they include that experience on their resume going forward, especially if the role they've performed is a substantial one.
"How you get paid, whether you get paid, whether it's remote or part-time — that doesn't take away from the actual results and impact of what you're doing," she said.
Volunteer experience can also help job seekers home in on what they'd like to do next, said Ariel Lopez, founder and CEO of Knac, a hiring platform.
"It gives you a chance to really get clear on what your values are, what you care about," she said. "And then hopefully it gives you an opportunity to figure out how to align your work with that."
All the unemployed workers who spoke to CNBC about their experience with activism, volunteering and nonprofits said that they hope to continue their work in the future alongside their day jobs when the economy fully reopens.
For some, nonprofits may even eventually provide a paycheck: Both Guerin at Buddy System and McCarthy at the Atlanta Artist Relief Fund said they hope their organizations become established enough to pay workers.
"I don't want to not do it anymore," said McCarthy. "It fulfills me in a different way."
Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.