The Covid Economy

One year later: How 15 American workers are coping with the coronavirus pandemic

A medical worker poses outside NYU Langone Health hospital as people applaud to show their gratitude to medical staff and essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic on April 29, 2020 in New York City.
Noam Galai | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic. By the following week, schools went remote, businesses shuttered and states enacted stay-at-home orders across the U.S. 

Americans struggled to make sense of this new reality. Grocery store shelves stood bare as people snapped up toilet paper and pasta. The economy fell into recession as millions lost jobs and state unemployment departments scrambled to keep up with applications. Small business owners struggled to pay rent and make payroll, parents juggled work and home school, and essential workers braved exposure. Remarkably, the stock market climbed to record highs.

A year later, nearly 30 million Americans have contracted the virus and over 500,000 have died. The federal government is pushing out its third stimulus relief package. Meanwhile, more than 60 million people have received at least one dose of Covid vaccine, and the vaccine rollout is accelerating. Every month, unemployment figures shrink and more children return to the classroom. Wearing a mask while social distancing remains the norm, but more grandparents are again hugging their grandchildren.

To mark this grim anniversary, we spoke to a wide swath of American workers — including the long-term unemployed, small business owners, working parents and remote CEOs — to learn how they've coped with the coronavirus pandemic over the past year. Told in their own words, these people shared stories of struggle, survival, silver linings and lessons learned. They also shared a sense of hope and a budding optimism for what comes next.

'I had $0.68 in my bank account'

Sara, 31, long-term unemployed, San Diego, Calif.

I used to work as an admissions coordinator at an international high school in San Diego. The campus closed in March [2020], and I lost my job.

I went on dozens of interviews per week but rarely heard back. The extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits really helped, but when it ended in August, and Congress left for recess, it felt like a betrayal. 

I moved back into a one-bedroom apartment with my mom. I called every company I owed a bill to and requested Covid relief. I maxed out my $2,400 credit limit. In November, I had $0.68 in my bank account.

In February, I took an office manager job with a small engineering firm. On my first day, I walked into an empty WeWork, and my boss told me two people had just quit. As the day went on, I understood why. I quit after two days.

Soon after, I took a retail job at a local art gallery. On my third day, the artist asked how much they owed me and tried to back out of paying me. 

But last week, I was in a good position of choosing between two job offers: my dream job with a small company in the sports industry, or a part-time job with Amazon.

I took the sports job. I am overwhelmed at how good it feels right now to have actually gotten a job I wanted. It's my ticket to independence after all these months.

Jennifer Liu

Read more about Sara's story: The share of long-term unemployment is rising: 'There's $0.68 in my bank account'

'The craziest roller coaster of a year'

Chiara Trentalange, 28, Broadway performer, New York City

"When the time comes for us to come back, wherever and whenever, we're going to be ready," says Chiara Trentalange, standing near a poster for Broadway show, "Girl from the North Country."
Courtesy of Chiara Trentalange.

Since Broadway shut down in March, I've moved apartments, taken up babysitting two awesome young girls, taken acting classes and completed an online yoga teacher training via Zoom. There have also been some job opportunities that I'm incredibly grateful for.

On one hand, it feels like not much has changed; and on the other, it feels like the craziest roller coaster of a year. Through it all, I still yearn to walk up to the stage door and sign in on the call sheet. I've been so inspired by my fellow performers showing such drive and creativity throughout a year of uncertainty. But I wouldn't expect anything less from a community built on resilience. We are ready, and we are hungry for live theater.

 —Cory Steig

Read more about Chiara's story: I landed my dream job in a Broadway show, then Covid-19 shut it down

'I can't afford pride anymore'

Mark Henick, 33, mental health advocate and author of "So-Called Normal," Toronto, Canada

Mark Henick, author and mental health speaker (Toronto, Canada)
Darius Bashar

Last February, our family of five moved from a small Toronto apartment into a larger place outside of the city. Our kids could finally have a backyard. As a mental health speaker, our income was the highest it had ever been — thanks to a book deal and my modestly successful consulting business.

But just a few days after Covid was declared a pandemic, every contract I had booked for the coming year was canceled. With so many unknowns, we needed to save on rent.

Would our landlord let us back out of our newly signed lease? They, too, were suffering. I emailed him and explained our situation.

Stunningly, he agreed to help. "We are all humans, and we are all together during this unprecedented time to support each other," he wrote.

I shared part of his letter on Twitter and was shocked by all the kind responses.

We received small offers of aid, which I politely turned down. I didn't post my story to seek charity. I did it because I wanted to give others hope.

Then, in April, a man, who asked to remain anonymous, wanted to send money to cover a few months of rent — to give us some breathing room to get back on our feet. Maybe worn down by the ongoing direness of the situation, I replied.

"I want to say no," I wrote back. "What's stopping me is that we have three kids now. I can't afford pride anymore." I told him about our plan and gave a breakdown of our expenses.

Early on a spring morning, I spotted the envelope in the mailbox. Inside was a check for $10,000.

We found an apartment within the budget our angel investor made possible. I was able to focus on pivoting my business and securing new contracts. I finished writing my book. I wasn't about to squander the break we'd be given.

All told, we're in the rare position of being better off than we were before the pandemic. So we've paid forward the relief we were granted to various charities. We're committed to giving back much more than we were given over the year to come.

The pandemic has shown how much grace is given, not earned. Whatever lockdowns are to come, may hearts never close.

Read more about Mark's story: I told my landlord I couldn't pay April rent — due to Covid-19. This is his incredibly emotional response

'Necessity made me go to Alaska'

Diana Martinez, 31, retail worker, San Diego

I applied for unemployment benefits on March 26 after my store temporarily closed, but my application was flagged for an error that took months to fix. 

A friend of mine goes to Alaska to work at a fishery every year and invited me to apply because we didn't know when our store would open again. I applied the day after I stopped working, got the interview and was hired a week later.

But it didn't start until June. I still hadn't received any unemployment benefits. I was desperate by the end of May because I needed money to buy a plane ticket, pay off some debt and survive in Alaska until my first paycheck.

I finally received two months of back unemployment pay on June 1.

Necessity made me go to Alaska. I had fun, though the season wasn't good and there weren't enough hours. But something is still better than nothing. The company paid for my housing.

I returned to my retail job in San Diego in September. I used to work five days, but now I don't get more than three. I understand it's due to the pandemic and it's not the company's fault. All my coworkers have the same trouble.

The taxes on my unemployment benefits didn't get withheld correctly, and now I owe around $500 to the IRS. Fortunately, I am working and able to pay my basic needs, but this really surprised me.

I'm looking forward to getting vaccinated soon because I'm going back to Alaska in late May. The money isn't that bad for a few months. Now I can leave a little calmer since my mom already received her two vaccines. 

—Jennifer Liu

Read more about Diana's story: Unemployed workers turn to each other for help getting through complex, crashed filing systems

'I'm more optimistic now than I have been'

Barb Skupien, 52, owner of Embellish jewelry boutique, Asheville, North Carolina

I'm fortunate to have weathered the year quite well, which I certainly didn't imagine would be the case [at this time last year].

I received two rounds of PPP funding, which allowed me to retain my [only] employee at her full salary without disruption. That funding, in combination with a reduction in rent (which included an extension) and a local grant, has allowed the store to remain open and well stocked.

The [e-commerce] website that I built early last year led to a big boost in business, specifically with Mother's Day sales. That's normally a very busy time in the store, and we were still closed [due to the pandemic]. Fortunately, my customers sought out the website. It was bumpy, but we shipped a lot of gifts. 

After that, I hired an outside company to build a new website. It's prettier, faster and tied into my point of sale system in the brick and mortar location. The website continues to generate decent income and has been a needed supplement to the brick and mortar, which is heavily dependent on tourism.

I'm more optimistic now than I have been. The pace of vaccinations is encouraging, as it will certainly lead to more people traveling and my local customers being comfortable in the store.

—Tom Huddleston, Jr.

Read more about Barb's story: How small business owners are coping with COVID-19 pandemic

'The pandemic has squeezed an entire decade of development into 12 months'

Hannu Rajaniemi, 43, co-founder and CEO of Helix Nanotechnologies, Point Richmond, Calif.

We moved from San Francisco to Point Richmond, California, in October to be a bit closer to nature without completely severing ties to the Bay Area, and we will probably hunker down here until things start to improve.

Similar to many start-up founders working from home, [my days include] lots of Zoom calls! However, I've also spent a lot of time reading scientific papers, poring over our own [vaccine development] experiments and trying to build mental models of SARS-CoV-2 biology with my co-founder Nikolai to inform our vaccine design strategies. 

Given that we've been working at a furious pace, it's been very important to find space to actually think and reflect and make sure our team is working on the most important problem at any given time.

It does feel quite strange that there are a few team members we hired during the pandemic whom I've never met in person. We've had to figure out good remote working practices and also set up regular Covid testing to enable the team to work in the lab safely. 

Working on Covid has not left a lot of time for hobbies. Beyond the basics — a rigorous meditation/exercise/diet/sleep routine — one extremely helpful thing has been having a dog. Our Hungarian vizsla Neo doesn't care about the pandemic. He is very skilled at forcing me to stay in the present and gets me out of the door for a sunrise walk every morning.

—Catherine Clifford

Read more about Hannu's story: What it's like to invent a coronavirus vaccine in the middle of a pandemic

'I felt I should have been able to tackle whatever was ahead, but I almost couldn't'

April Schmidt, 38, freelance graphics operator for sporting events, Austin, Texas

After the world came to a standstill and sports shut down, it was a challenge not to panic. I lost over half of my income in 2020. 

The toughest part about being out of work for 10 months was not knowing if work would ever start coming back in. People working in television knew eventually sports would come back, and that production would change, but not likely to the benefit of the freelancer. Many events have downsized, or have outsourced production to other companies with their own people, or went away completely. 

Some of the first productions to come back in 2020 were played in what we called "the bubble." My husband, Joe, was asked to work [two] major basketball events. We were thrilled for the opportunity, and a big financial burden was lifted knowing he would work almost three months straight. 

But on the family front, it was a big challenge. No one could visit, and the idea of being separated for 90 days was daunting.

My hardest days of 2020 were the first weeks of remote school in the fall. Joe was in the bubble, and my tank was exceptionally low. I felt I should have been able to tackle whatever was ahead, but I almost couldn't. It was just one step in front of the other. 

The answer to the often-asked question 'How do you manage?' is that sometimes I don't…and then I adjust. When I was tired and irritated, adjust. When my all-A student got Bs and melted down, adjust. When my son had to start physical therapy, adjust. Eventually we got into a rhythm.

The work did start to come back. I had a sprinkling of shows in the fall of 2020 — a telethon, a football game. But then my inbox was mostly empty until after the new year. Over and over, I told myself to be patient and not to make any decisions about a new career move until after January. 

That patience paid off. I'm now working for a network in Austin. They have created new ways to put college sports on air, and I am lucky enough to be a part of it. I am beyond grateful to have work on the books through spring.

—Megan Leonhardt

Read more about April's story: This freelancer earned $51 per hour producing sports programs—now she's applying for work at a grocery store due to coronavirus

'I was pretty confident that they were going to bring us all back'

Jasmine, 26, flight attendant, New York City

I was furloughed pretty much from April 2020 until the end of February 2021. I stayed in New York and picked up side gigs. I went back to nannying for a short time and would do one-day catering jobs and server jobs, which wasn't much.

In the beginning, the airlines did compile two great packages: One was a severance and the other was a retirement package. They didn't have to lay anyone off because so many people took advantage of [those], so that was huge.

I was pretty confident that they were going to bring us all back. I did have a moment of doubt though, and I was like, 'Maybe I should take this opportunity to start a new venture.' But that was really brief because I knew I couldn't take advantage of the retirement package because I'm too young. That left me with the severance package, and the payout was based on how long you worked for the airline. For me, I haven't been flying for that long, so the payout wasn't going to be enough.

Courtney Connley

Read more about Jasmine's story: 6 women share what it’s like to be an “essential employee” during the coronavirus pandemic

'We still love living in the tiny house, even throughout the pandemic'

Marek and Kothney-Issa Bush, both 29, tiny house owners, Kansas City, Mo.

Marek and Kothney-Issa in January 2020 in front of their home in Lake Dallas, Texas. The couple live in a tiny home community.
CNBC Make It

We lost our jobs at the beginning of the pandemic and both qualified for unemployment insurance. Luckily, Marek was called back to work after a few months, and we were able to start saving again. We put both of the stimulus payments into savings. 

We had plans to move to California and even had plane tickets booked to go visit, but found out we are expecting a baby shortly after. We knew we wanted to move home so we could be near our families as we raise our daughter. Both of our parents and most of our siblings live in Kansas City, Missouri, so we moved back there. 

We want to start our own tiny house community in Kansas City, like the one we lived in in Lake Dallas, but we have to go through a lot of red tape to get it off the ground. We were able to build our emergency savings back up, but decided to spend it on land. We purchased four acres for $25,000. It was originally $40,000, but we were able to negotiate down the price.

Marek got a new full-time job in December with Amazon, which allows us to live comfortably on a single salary. Our YouTube income is also steadily growing. We earned a record $1,200 in December and almost immediately broke that in February, when we earned over $4,700 from YouTube. 

We still love living in the tiny house, even throughout the pandemic. We probably like spending time together more than most people. We can't wait for Marek to go on paternity leave when the baby comes so that we can spend time together as a family. We've been so blessed throughout this pandemic and are grateful for God looking out for us. 

Emmie Martin

Read more about the Bushes' story: This couple was making $56,000 and had paid off $125,000 in debt—then they both lost their jobs in the coronavirus pandemic 

'It's been an incredible change of insecurity to stability'

Nicole Brewer, 38, anti-racist theater advocate, Washington D.C.

In March 2020, I was down to my last dollars. It took a few months for Washington D.C. to stop denying my unemployment benefits and send gig workers unemployment. I'm so grateful for that change, and the additional funds that were sent by the federal government. That made all the difference for us in paying rent, paying bills and keeping food on the table.

Then George Floyd was killed. The work I do is anti-racist theater, and I became inundated with work requests. It was like a waterfall. I created an anti-racist workshop on Eventbrite. I didn't know how much to charge, so I aimed big and charged $400 per person. That first event sold out in a few hours. I kept offering those courses between July and December. I offered those pretty frequently and almost all of those sold out. Then I got recruited to work at the Yale School of Drama, and accepted a full-time remote position to teach anti-racism.

Financially, the past year has been going from having no money and no savings to being able to buy a home last fall. All of that really manifested itself in the last six months of the year. It's been an incredible change of insecurity to stability — and stability in a way I've never known in my adult life.

—Alicia Adamczyk

Read more about Nicole's story: How to cope with financial stress and anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic

'We didn't try to time the market'

Steve Adcock, 39, millionaire investor, Arizona

It's been eerie how well the market has done, even with the pandemic and things being closed down. It's almost too good to be true. We took a $200,000 dip [at the beginning], but at this point we've made all that money back, plus another $50,000 or $75,000. [My wife and I are] both index fund investors, which means when the market does great, we do great. 

A couple of folks on Twitter were begging me to sell in April because they were expecting a crash. But if I had sold at that point, I'd be down $200,000. The main reason why we're sitting in our position now is because we didn't try to time the market. We look at our index funds as long-term investments. Over the years, over the decades, you tend to make more money than you lose. We're certainly glad that we stuck to our guns last year. 

We are very self-contained in the Arizona desert. Our expenses are incredibly low, and we have zero monthly utilities. We call it the 'off-grid, recession-proof house.'

When you're an index fund investor, and you don't have a full-time income, that's kind of the understanding you proceed through life with: You spend less when the market is down, you spend more when it's up. We installed a sandstone patio outside of our house for a few thousand dollars. We also made the decision to put in a well on our property for water. That will cost around $30,000 and should be done in April. 

One of the nice things about living so minimally is that when things are bad, you don't have to make many adjustments because your lifestyle doesn't cost that much.

Nick Vega 

Read more about Steve's story: Early retiree's net worth dropped $200,000 due to the pandemic—here's how he's changing his budget

'I'm surprised I don't have an ulcer'

Catherine Lieberman, 44, director and co-owner of Bell's School for People Under Six, North Carolina

Catherine Lieberman with two of her students.
Source: Catherine Lieberman

Last June, I honestly did not see a light at the end of the tunnel. It was a really, really scary time. I had laid off all but two of my staff and had just over a dozen children enrolled. I took myself off the payroll in March and was living off savings. And since I was still working, I couldn't take unemployment. But most of my worry focused on whether I was going to lose the school. I'm surprised I don't have an ulcer.

Luckily, our governor and our state division of child development stepped in to help out a little bit with operational grants. They gave us $5,000, which doesn't sound like much, but it makes a significant difference when you're looking at not being able to have enough money to keep the lights on. The reality is that without those grants, I don't think we would have made it.

With that money, we were able to carry through and by the end of June, our enrollment started to pick up. But even now, we're not back to full capacity. Some of that is by design, in order to give our teachers some down time in a time of such high stress. 

I'm just not quite ready to take us back to full capacity until our teachers have been vaccinated. And while our governor opened up vaccine registration for child-care workers about three weeks ago, our county health department has still not allowed us to register. It's just another example of how early childhood is not a respected field yet — we just kind of get shuffled to the side.

Thankfully, we're breaking even financially now. We're not making any money right now, which is fine. Especially considering that costs for supplies have tripled. Before the pandemic, I would buy a case of 1,000 gloves for $23. The price now is $297. Things like that have been a burden. 

Yet we've been really lucky. That's not the case for a lot of child-care programs. And it is better now than it was. But it's certainly not where we want to be this time next year.

—Megan Leonhardt 

Read more about Catherine's story: Day care director: 'I'm struggling—and it's not because I'm not a good business person'

'I feel as if I have more of a future' 

Gabrielle Alias, 23, 2020 college graduate and SEO analyst, San Francisco

Gabrielle Alias delivers food part-time for Caviar.
Courtesy of Gabrielle Alias

Things are going really, really well. Compared to last March, things have definitely taken a bit of a 180.

Last March, I withdrew from my classes at Babson College because I was a senior and had already completed my requirements. I moved home to San Francisco and started delivering for Caviar. When I did officially graduate, it was absolutely anti-climactic. To this day, I still have never worn a cap and gown.

Before the pandemic, I had an internship lined up to go to London in June to work at a music publishing company, which was literally my dream job in my dream city. First, it was postponed, and ultimately it didn't work out. But with that opportunity closing, it allowed me to open up a ton of more opportunities.

I got a full-time job as an SEO analyst for Reprise Digital, which is part of IPG Mediabrands. I stopped working for Caviar — even though my account is still open and sometimes I'll randomly go out for a drive and do some deliveries. I work East Coast hours, so I'm done by like 2 p.m., and I still enjoy driving around the city. Most exciting is the fact that I'll be moving to New York City in April!

Today, I am definitely mentally, physically, emotionally doing a lot better. I feel as if I have more of a future.

—Abigail Johnson Hess

Read more about Gabrielle's story: From Facebook to the State Department, how coronavirus has changed summer internships

'Covid has prompted us to look at the injustices and not look away'

Melody Li, 35, founder of Inclusive Therapists, Austin, Texas

This year, I've been observing the strength and resilience of communities coming together for mutual aid — all the ways Covid has prompted us to tend to our communities when the systems in place fail us, whether we're talking about health care, politics or capitalist systems.

My clients are having more intersectional conversations about social privilege and oppression, like how gender, race and abilities play into their everyday decisions. For some couples I work with, this might be the first time they're having to confront gender dynamics in their own lives, like the gendered role of women being caregivers in the home.

People are tuned into videos of police brutality against Black and Brown bodies like never before, but these stories have always been told. Are we really listening? Covid has prompted us to look at the injustices and not look away.

As an Asian woman, I anticipated early on that anti-Asian violence would increase. I offered training on it in May. It's taken a year to come to this point of being heard.

We used to have a lot of distractions when we felt discomfort. These distractions have been paused. Covid is a reckoning for us as a culture to do some serious soul searching.

I'm so grateful to be in community with other therapists committed to collective care and who tend to one another. Without those communities, I don't think I could do this. To experience collective trauma and also hold space for folks experiencing collective trauma at the same time — it's trying.

Jennifer Liu

Read more about Melody's story: How to cope with the emotional toll of losing your job

'We have now rehired 37 of 69 staff members'

Agatha Kulaga, co-founder and CEO of Ovenly bakery, New York City

Agatha Kulaga, co-founder and CEO of Ovenly
Photo: Erica Schroeder

It finally feels like we're coming out of survival mode. Which feels good.

The most difficult decision I had to make in the history of this company was obviously laying off all of my employees when the pandemic first started. We have now rehired 37 of 69 staff members, and our team is stronger than ever.

Every month, I've been sending out my financials [to our investors], and I'm just so pleasantly surprised at how well we're doing. 

Six months ago, eight months ago, I wouldn't have thought that we'd be in this position. I was very hopeful, but I didn't think that we'd be in a positive position in overall sales month-over-month, which we have been since May. I feel really grateful, and I feel grateful for my team for getting us to this place as well. Because, without them, we would not be here.

I think we are living in the new normal. I'm not sure that there will ever be a return to full normalcy, as we saw it before. We have pivoted and adjusted and adapted in a lot of ways. And our business doesn't look the same as it did before. I don't believe that it will return to what it was before, in terms of how we operate and how the business is structured.

There are many silver linings with that and positive points related to that. But we have really worked to be leaner. In the past year, what became very clear to me was so many small but significant areas where we just had expenses that were completely unnecessary. So we're learning from that.

I feel very hopeful for this coming year. We're looking at new retail locations. That speaks to our resilience, and our ability to have weathered the storm.

Tom Huddleston, Jr.

Read more about Kulaga's story: As small business loan money runs out, many approved businesses still await checks or clarity on strict guidelines

Check out: One year into Covid: A comprehensive guide to vaccinations, mask-wearing, self-care, productivity and more