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What It’s Really Like To Be Young, COVID-Affected & Unemployed In America

Natalie Gontcharova
·14 min read

Jashui Zarate, 20, and her mom, dad, and uncle were eating dinner in their Joliet, IL, rental apartment on their weekly, joint night-off from work in mid-October when her mom started coughing. At first, everyone tried to brush it off as allergies or a cold.

“You know, it was kind of a joke, like, ‘If you cough in 2020, it could be corona!’” Zarate told Refinery29, with an edge of dark humor in her voice. “And then, we all looked each other in the eye and were like, ‘Umm. Uhh. OKAY.’”

In the following days, her mom, who is 40, became increasingly exhausted and nauseous, and developed a high fever. That’s when Zarate’s anxiety went through the roof. Her mom has respiratory problems and every minor illness hits her hard. She doesn’t have an underlying condition that she knows of, but the family is undocumented and don’t have health insurance, so it’s not like she’s had a chance to investigate. “Unless we have a dying emergency, we don’t have the privilege of getting checked up and getting our yearly physical,” Zarate said. Then, her father and uncle started to cough, too, although their symptoms were milder.

After waiting three days to get tested and two more for results, the family finally got them on the morning of October 23. “They were the first thing I saw when I woke up, and my soul left my body,” Zarate said. Her mom, dad, and uncle all tested positive. She tested negative. But she lives in a small two-bedroom apartment with her mom and dad. “Now that they’re all positive, I don’t know how long I’m going to stay negative,” she said.

Before they went into quarantine, Zarate’s mom, dad, and uncle worked as cooks at a local fast food restaurant in Joliet, while she worked at an ice cream shop. Even though her mom and dad have worked at the restaurant for 11 and 18 years, respectively, since they came to Illinois from Veracruz, Mexico (Zarate’s dad came first, and she came with her mom at age 9), the restaurant is not paying them for the time they’re quarantining. As undocumented people, they are not eligible for federal public benefits like the COVID relief stimulus checks or unemployment insurance. While undocumented people are technically eligible for paid sick and medical leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, since Zarate’s family worked at a company with fewer than 50 employees, they, like most restaurants, could seek an exemption. Zarate is in the same situation: No work, no pay. The family has had no choice but to dip into their savings to pay for rent, groceries, medicine, and equipment such as an oximeter for Zarate’s mom.

According to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute, young workers have been hit the hardest by the economic fallout of COVID-19. Unemployment for people between the ages of 16 and 24 hit a high of 26.9% in April, and as of September, it’s still higher than that of the rest of the population. For people between 20 and 24, it was 12.5% in September, compared to a national unemployment rate of 7.9%. The unemployment rate for young people is partially so high because, like Zarate, many are in industries like food service and retail which have been particularly vulnerable. It has also affected young people of color more than their white peers: In spring of this year, the unemployment rate for young Black people was 29.6%; for young Asian-Americans, 29.7%; for young Latinx people, 27.5%. Women have been affected more as well: In September, a shocking 865,000 women left the U.S. labor market, roughly four times the number of men, partially due to caregiving duties.

These unemployment rates are sky-high not only because restaurants have shuttered, retail stores have laid people off, and no one is hiring. But also, for many young people, the relentless pandemic has added an extra layer to why they are unemployed: Some have tested positive and don’t want to expose others, while some are too sick to work. Some are too scared to go to work for fear of being exposed, especially if they are immunocompromised or have preexisting conditions. Others, like Zarate, have had to leave their jobs because they have to take care of relatives sick with COVID, and they don’t want to risk infecting employees and customers at work. (The converse is also true for many: They are clinging to their jobs even though they risk exposing themselves to the virus, because it’s their only source of survival.) No matter what, the choices are tough.

Being undocumented adds yet another layer for Zarate. On top of having very few protections, she said she feels that she and other undocumented people often get treated “like little work machines.” She said her bosses didn’t even believe her when she said she could be positive, and told her to just come to work if she doesn’t have symptoms, disregarding that she could be an asymptomatic carrier. “They were like, ‘Hmm, are you sure you’re not just being lazy and you don’t want to show up for work?’”

Accusations of laziness couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, Zarate said she’ll likely go back to the ice cream shop after everyone tests negative because she needs the money, but she hopes to eventually become a doctor and work with undocumented people who are dealing with mental health issues, like herself. After attending Loyola University of Chicago for a year, she had to drop out because she couldn’t get financial aid due to her immigration status. “It was super-detrimental to my mental health. My number-one goal is to go back to school and continue my neuroscience degree,” she said.

For now, Zarate is the caregiver in her home, in charge of getting medicine, running errands, and food preparation. She only leaves the apartment when necessary and tries to keep her trips short and get as much as possible done within one trip. She wears a mask inside the apartment unless she’s in her bedroom and sanitizes everything all the time. While it’s stressful and intense, it’s also the type of role she’s played in her family for a long time. She remembers advocating for her parents in the ER in her early teens when her mom had a miscarriage and her dad had a heart attack scare, translating for them and making sure they get the medical care they need. Zarate’s dad fled Veracruz out of poverty; Zarate and her mom followed him a few years later because they feared being killed. Veracruz has the highest number of femicides in Mexico. “There were women being killed in my town every single day. At nine years old, I was so anxious that either me or my mom were going to be next,” she said.

Years of anxiety and uncertainty have taken a toll on Zarate’s mental health, as she fears for her family’s health, future, and livelihood, in addition to the constant and heightened threat of being deported under the Trump administration. You could also say they have radicalized her. One of the things that has helped her cope the most has been finding a community of other young undocumented people on Twitter with whom she shares political views, resources, and memes. If there were any silver linings to this entire situation, she said, they are both her strengthened Twitter community and that she now gets to sit in her room and read a lot of books, like Freedom Is a Constant Struggle by Angela Davis, which she just finished. In May, she tweeted asking for book recommendations on immigration, Black Lives Matter, abolishing prisons, and imperialism, and started a lively discussion.

Twitter has been a source not only of support, but also of much-needed funds for Zarate. On October 23, the day she learned her family tested positive, she posted an ask for help:

“Hi guys undocumented person here. My mom, uncle and dad have all tested positive for COVID-19. All of us are under quarantine so we’re unable to go to work which is our only way of income. All expenses are also coming out of pocket since we are uninsured.”

Zarate linked her Venmo. It went viral, and while she also received a lot of “go back to your country”-type troll comments she said that the responses have been largely positive and supportive. People, many of them strangers, Venmo’ed her a total of around $4,000 in the couple of days after she posted her tweet, with encouraging comments like “<3,” “feel better,” “wishing your family well,” and “cuidate” — “take care of yourself.” Her mom, on the other hand, was not quite as positive: “When I told her I was raising money, she literally tells me, ‘Ooh, maybe they can pay for my funeral.’ I was like, ‘MOM! Don’t have this mentality around me, otherwise I’m gonna break down!’”

The fact that Zarate has had to use crowdfunding in order to eat and buy necessities like medicine at all is representative of the ways in which many unemployed young people are struggling to survive through the pandemic. With their incomes suddenly taken away and without a reliable social safety net, they have had to rely on each other to make ends meet, and to avoid completely eroding any savings they might have. While it’s heartening that both friends and strangers are sharing resources, it’s not how a society should function. Rather than having social safety nets, though, young people in America are forced to confront the fact that there’s no organized help out there. They have been left to fend for themselves.

***

Alley Cabral, 23, and her best friend Nikki Elise, 24, both lost their jobs in New York City at the beginning of the pandemic and neither of them can imagine surviving these past months without the other — essentially, they are each other’s safety net.

Processed with VSCO with g9 preset
Processed with VSCO with g9 preset

Cabral worked as a personal assistant to a successful author whose work aims to empower women and girls, and was laid off because the author lost a huge source of income in the form of traveling speaking gigs. Nikki worked bottle service at one of the major nightclubs in Chelsea; she lost her job along with many nightlife workers when clubs closed. Both collect unemployment, and both say that the initial extra $600 in unemployment insurance provided through the CARES Act, which expired in July, played a pivotal part in keeping them afloat. After that, though, both started majorly dipping into their savings. “I had to give up my apartment and rebudget my entire life,” Cabral said. Nikki is trying to figure out whether she should get a roommate, and has been finding some side gigs modeling and acting here and there, but isn’t making anywhere near her former income. People who are underemployed like Nikki make up a huge part of Generation Z — 35%.

“I think it’s probably the one thing that keeps me sane, and we spend a lot of time together,” Nikki said of their friendship. “We just have each other’s back. If she’s short on money, I’ll buy lunch or vice versa… Also both of us suffer from bad anxiety and a lot of it ties into our finances; we don’t want to lose our money because we’ve worked so hard to have it.” They occasionally still go out to dinner to feel a little bit of their old way of life, but mostly they stay at home with takeout pizza.

They also help each other navigate the stresses of the pandemic. “Nikki is like my match made in heaven,” Cabral said. “I don’t know what I would do without her. She truly understands me on my worst days. We have both hit severe lows during the pandemic, and every day we have been there for each other.” After losing her apartment, Cabral moved in with her boyfriend and his family, which has been an unplanned but giant source of stress. “The idea of him being with someone of color was definitely tough on them, and they weren’t fond of the fact that I had to rely on them,” said Cabral, who is half Dominican. “He’s done his best to keep the peace, but they’re not fans of me. It took a toll on my emotional state and then I had to go back to therapy because of it and deal with being able to cope with a situation that I have no control over anymore.”

Amid dealing with racism and unemployment, Cabral also found out that several members of her family tested positive for COVID. Her paternal grandmother almost died, and Cabral was constantly updating her father about it on the phone because he was in the Dominican Republic and couldn’t travel back. “[The doctors] didn’t want to put her in the hospital,” Cabral said. “That’s defeating when you know she’s not eating, she’s not moving, she couldn’t get out of bed, she couldn’t speak, couldn’t even drink water without feeling like she was gonna throw up. [It] was traumatizing, to say the least. I spent a lot of my days crying and slept so much.”

Like Zarate, Cabral has found a community online to help battle her severe anxiety: For her, it’s a group of people who previously didn’t know each other who meet once a day for a 6:30 a.m. Zoom workout. It especially helped at the beginning of the pandemic, when New Yorkers were largely quarantining inside and everything was closed. “That’s one of the things I’m thankful for, because I surrounded myself with a new group and with positivity,” she said. Because of the group, she’s started a fitness business and is working on her certificate to become a fitness instructor.

***

While many young people are staying afloat with the help of friends, family, and crowdfunding, it’s not exactly sustainable — let alone desirable — in the long term. Research shows that unemployment and underemployment can have severe long-term effects on young people even after they find a job; people who enter the labor market during an economic downturn (or in this case, a full-blown economic catastrophe) are likely to experience lower earnings, more instability, and more periods of unemployment in their lives. No wonder so many young people are anxious about their future.

With Election Day tomorrow, many young people hope their vote will help the U.S. get out of these crises, even with the knowledge that the long-term effects of the last eight months — and the last four years — have already scarred the nation in countless ways. And while a president can’t snap their fingers and turn around the economy, many are hoping that if Joe Biden wins he will at least take sensible measures to curb the pandemic, which would prevent more people from dying and help businesses bounce back. “It’s scary,” Cabral said. “Last election, I was so sure that Clinton was gonna win, and pray to whatever is above that Biden wins this time… I’m so terrified that more people will die. I’m so terrified that people of color will be targeted even more. I am voting in person just to make absolutely sure it counts.”

Nikki, however, said she is not voting, partially because her registration is in Pennsylvania and she didn’t have time to change it. “I don’t understand politics, and I feel like, I’m gonna be honest, I think Trump is gonna win. I’m disappointed in myself in admitting this, though. I’m also disappointed that our government is not taking care of us,” she said, referring to when Republicans in Congress, like Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, criticized the $600 unemployment supplement for being too generous and said it would discourage people from finding work.

Zarate won’t be voting either, but, in her case, it’s because she’s undocumented. However, though she says “having this fool in office has affected my mental health,” she also doesn’t believe that a new president is the answer. “Electoral politics ain’t shit and the undocumented community has made its voice heard in so many other ways, with or without the help of citizens. You’re not my savior. And you’re not my voice,” she tweeted.

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