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A closer look at being unemployed during the pandemic

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

The number of people filing new unemployment claims in the country is at the lowest point since the start of the pandemic in March of 2020. This all may sound like good news, but the real story is more complicated than what those headline numbers say. The economy feels different depending on who you are, where you live, and what kind of work you do. Nevada currently has the highest unemployment rate in the country. A recent report from the AARP found 41% of women workers experienced some type of job interruption during the pandemic. But at the same time, some small business owners, especially those in the restaurant industry, say they've been desperately trying to find workers, and they just can't find enough staff.

Here to help us make sense of the mixed messages we are seeing in the job market are three women who've been on different sides of this story. Elisa Cafferata is the director of Nevada's Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation. Mansie Miekle is a home health aide and mother of three in New York City. And Isabel Torres runs a couple of restaurants called Little Sesame in Washington, D.C. Thank you all very much for joining us.

ISABEL TORRES: Thank you for having us.

ELISA CAFFERATA: Thanks for having us.

MANSIE MIEKLE: Thank you for having us.

KHALID: So, Director Cafferata, I want to begin the conversation with you. Your state's unemployment rate has been somewhat stubbornly high. As of September, it was at 7.5%. I know the state did add more than 4,000 jobs last month, but I imagine that it's been challenging for you all to fully revert to what the economy looked like before the pandemic.

CAFFERATA: At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw unemployment of about 30%, so 7.5% is a pretty strong and quick recovery. And we do know there are about 50,000 jobs that just are not going to come back. And I think that's a lot of the story, is that, really, the workforce and the way people are engaged in work is going to be changing.

KHALID: Can you explain that? When you say that there are some 50,000 jobs that you all don't expect will come back, what kind of jobs are those?

CAFFERATA: Largely, that is hospitality jobs in Las Vegas. So if you look at the unemployment rate in Nevada as a whole, both rural Nevada and northern Nevada have pretty much recovered back to pre-pandemic employment levels. But it's Las Vegas and those jobs in the casinos and some of the supporting industries that are not coming back.

KHALID: So, Isabel, I want to turn to you. You run a couple of restaurants here in Washington, D.C. My understanding is it has been difficult for you all to find workers. And given what we just heard from Elisa in Nevada, I'm curious what the dynamic has been like for you.

TORRES: I feel, personally, that a lot of hospitality workers don't feel that hospitality is secure, given that during the pandemic, restaurants were the ones that fell the hardest. And there are still so many restaurants that haven't reopened, so people are going to security. So in our company, in Little Sesame, we try to provide security. You know, we post it when we can. We talk about it, but it's still not enough of a draw.

KHALID: And when you talk about that job security, is that the sense that people want a salary, that they want a job with benefits? You know, is it that they want higher wages?

TORRES: I think it's a little bit of everything. They want to make sure that if a child is sick, they can stay home. They want to make sure that if a family member is sick, if they get sick, that, you know, they'll have paid sick leave because in the hospitality industry, that doesn't exist, right? So people want to know that if they're sick and they have to miss two weeks of work, that they're compensated in a way, you know? And we as a business try to do that.

KHALID: Mansie, I want to turn to you. I understand that you were working, but you left your job last February to take care of your three children and that you are living in a shelter right now. Can you talk to us about what happened?

MIEKLE: I am a home health aide, so, like, I would choose my hours based on my availability. And my availability is based on when I have someone to watch my kids, right?

KHALID: Understandable, yeah.

MIEKLE: That's how it goes. And it started because we had moved. Like you said - you stated, you know, we were in a shelter, so, you know, we move around a lot. So they were in child care in Brooklyn. So I'm like, OK, this should be easy. You know, I just need to switch their child care, just go in and say, hey, you know, I want them over here. But 10 months later, and I still don't have child care. That's how wrong I was about how easy this was going to be.

KHALID: So, Mansie, I was going to say there was an expectation that perhaps the job market might turn around a bit come the fall, in part because schools were going to reopen. Are your older children now back in school? And has that changed the dynamic for you?

MIEKLE: My older kids are in school, but I still have a 3-year-old, right?

KHALID: Yes. Yep.

MIEKLE: And she still needs to go to school. And she can't go to pre-K because they don't have space available in the schools that are close by. So this is where we're stuck in this cycle with the system of working, getting child care, not work - you can't work unless you have child care. You can't get childcare unless you're working. It's the cycle of - it's crazy that - I don't even like to say it's a choice, but it's crazy how parents have to choose between working and their children. You don't have to ask me if I'm going to come to work because I'm not coming, OK? I'm staying with my children.

KHALID: Isabel and Elisa, I see you both nodding in agreement. It must be that you guys have been having these child care conversations, or at least you guys are aware of the dynamic that Mansie is talking about.

CAFFERATA: This is Elisa. I know we are providing subsidy for fewer than 10% of the eligible families. And our state is bad, but it's not too far off from a lot of other states. So this truly is an issue around the country. The other thing I wanted to share is, you know, for people who are a little more gray hairs like I have, when my kids left day care, the money that was freed up was enough to make a car payment. Like, that was a manageable amount of money. Just with one child in child care right now, you're looking at what's equivalent to a mortgage.

KHALID: You know, I cover in my day job - I'm a White House correspondent. I cover politics. And there's been a lot of focus from Democrats on the American Rescue Plan, which offered, you know, families assistance. There were also expanded unemployment benefits. Were these federal programs helpful either to you at the state level, Elisa, or individually even to you, or as a small business owner? Were any of these federal programs economically beneficial to you all?

TORRES: For us, no, because there was still - child care in Washington, D.C., is like tuition for a college student. And there are so few day cares that reopened and had spots for kids that a lot of our workers - it just didn't make sense for them to put their kids back into day care that was above $2,000, you know? So it's a monthly thing. And you want the best for your kids, but sometimes you just can't make that happen.

KHALID: How about you, Mansie? Are you at that point? I mean, are you still applying for jobs? Are you still putting in applications? Or...

MIEKLE: I still - I literally went to the office last week to put the thing in to try to get child care again. They denied me again because they said that the supervisor who signed the paper signed in the wrong spot. Like, literally, I make $400 - after take out their taxes and - I literally make $400 a week - right? - $400. With that $400, the HRA then decides that that is way too much money, so then they cut everything else. They cut your food stamps. They cut your cash assistance. They cut everything down. So you're literally living off that $400 that you're making. I have three kids. A metro card a week is $33, OK? That doesn't include Pampers for my daughter, doesn't include wipes. And we're just talking about in general - just in general.

KHALID: So I'm curious, Elisa, as you hear all of this - because you must be hearing similar stories, I guess, from other women in the hospitality sector in and around Vegas. I mean, what is the solution and what will it take for the economy - let's say in Nevada, but even more broadly if you have thoughts - to go back to normal? Is that possible?

CAFFERATA: We as a country have not ever invested in, you know, some of the things we've been talking about here - child care, paternity leave, sick leave. We have individual employers that do it, but we don't, as a country, require these things that pretty much every other industrialized country does require. There has been a lot of innovation and new technology and entrepreneurship in the state, which is great for the people that can participate in those jobs and those industries.

And those are the solutions we're looking at - trying to figure out, how do we make this available to the people that have these barriers like child care that are not going to be quick to solve? Getting new people trained as child care providers and getting child care centers opened is going to be a long-haul proposition. So I - we need to figure out how to go to where Mansie is and train her while she's watching her kids because she's - she shouldn't miss out. And I think there's such an urgent need to see changes that I'm hopeful that we will see a lot of the changes we've been talking about for many years.

KHALID: That was director of Nevada's Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, Elisa Cafferata. Also joining us was Mansie Miekle, a home health aide and mother of three in New York City, and Isabel Torres, who runs a couple of restaurants called Little Sesame in Washington, D.C. Thank you all for taking the time. Appreciate it.

TORRES: Thank you.

CAFFERATA: Thank you.

MIEKLE: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMBLR'S "DOTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.