OAKLAND, CALIF. - Eliot Byron, an out-of-work stagehand in New York City, is preparing for a long period of austerity. For how long, he does not know. And the not knowing is the hardest part.

Byron is among the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs in the past seven weeks since strict social distancing measures were enacted. Byron collects unemployment benefits, as well as supplemental benefits from the federal government. He has negotiated payment delays on his mortgage and car. A treat with his son and wife is pizza takeout. 

“There are days of complete boredom and days of serious concern about what the future holds,” he said. “Should I be applying for other jobs somewhere? My entire adult life, the only thing I've ever done is put on live concerts. I don't know what else I'm qualified for or where else I would fit in.”

A man wears a mask during the coronavirus outbreak while walking under a Now Hiring sign at a CVS Pharmacy in San Francisco, May 7, 2020.

Staggering jobless rate

On Friday, the Labor Department reported a U.S. unemployment rate of 14.7% That compares with an unemployment rate of 3.5% in early March, which was the lowest jobless rate in half a century.  

The economic damage has hit some professions harder than others. Industries that directly serve people, such as the restaurant, travel, hospitality, retail and entertainment sectors, have been the hardest hit. More recently, office workers are feeling the pain with the layoffs of engineers at Uber and advertising account executives at Omnicom, the advertising giant, and others.

Behind each number is a person, like Byron, weighing decisions about expenses and income and trying to strategize without panicking about the long term. What will happen if the situation stretches beyond the summer when his unemployment is set to run out? Should he dip into retirement? Take out a home equity loan? 

“The uncertainty is what's really the most difficult part about this,” Byron said. “If I could plan for some target date, that would be very much a different situation.” 

For some, an upside

For Allison, a hospitality professional who was laid off by her technology employer in March, the sudden job loss has had a few upsides. She is using the time to take online courses and read. Unemployment benefits, plus the additional federal aid, is enough to sustain her life in Oakland, California.

“Summertime is the time to get laid off,” she said. She asked that her full name not be used because she signed an agreement with her former employer not to discuss personnel matters. 

She said it is hard to know if or when to start looking for work.

“My biggest fear is spending time looking for a job, get the job and then have the offer rescinded,” she said. “I think that's a waste of time.” 

Katie Farhat, who lost her job in March as a fundraiser for a nongovernmental organization, is looking at her period of unemployment and uncertainty as an opportunity. She is planning to move to Los Angeles, something she’s thought about doing for a while.

“My means of living can be very minimal,” she said. “I don't have a lot of responsibilities like a lot of other people. So, I'm not too worried about myself. I'm more worried about my health and being able to make sure that I'm not making anybody else sick.”  

In limbo

Back in Manhattan, Byron spends his time taking walks, playing with his son and keeping in touch with other stagehands, many of whom are out of work. When will events be scheduled again? When will people want to gather again? 

“We’re all kind of in limbo,” he said. “If they are going to tell me that my industry isn’t able to work, hopefully there is some sort of extension to the relief.”