Instead of busy days overseeing hotel catering and room service, Cindy Tlaiye has settled into a more solitary, frustrating routine in recent months.
Every morning, she sits down at her computer, refreshes several job boards to see new listings and shoots off an application or two. Then she braces herself to hear — nothing.
"It's been really disheartening," said Tlaiye, 34, who lost her hotel job in March. "I know that people are probably getting hundreds of applications at the same time, but it's made me feel completely desperate."
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to weigh down the economy, Tlaiye is among the swelling number of people who have been without a job for at least six months, a group that economists call the "long-term unemployed."
About 3.9 million people, or more than one-third of all unemployed Americans, are now in the category. That's up from up from 1.1 million in February.
With many industries such as hotels, travel, entertainment and restaurants devastated by the pandemic, it could be awhile before many of those jobs come back, if they don't shift elsewhere. Minnesota has regained a little over half of the jobs lost earlier this year, but a full jobs recovery isn't expected until late 2022 or early 2023, according to a recent state forecast.
The long-term unemployed face not just the immediate economic consequences of being out of work but the prospect of damage to their career trajectory and future earnings. And on the day after Christmas, extended unemployment benefits are set to expire for most of them, unless Congress, or the state, takes action.
In Minnesota alone, more than 100,000 people are expected to lose jobless payments in the next two weeks, said Steve Grove, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). Most of those workers have exhausted their 26 weeks of regular state unemployment benefits and are collecting an extended 13 weeks through a temporary federal program. But that program, as well as one that provides jobless payments for gig workers and small-business owners, lapses at the end of the year.
"We're worried that a lot of working families are going to be without the money they need to put food on the table every week," he said.
In Washington, talks for a second relief package, which could include an extension of jobless benefits, are coming down to the wire. Meanwhile, state legislators will hold a special session in St. Paul on Monday to also consider a relief package that could provide a bridge for unemployed workers. State Democrats have proposed a 13-week extension to unemployment benefits while Republicans have suggested limiting it to five weeks.
Hilary Thomas, a job counselor with the Twin Cities Urban League, said the potential end of extended jobless benefits is creating a lot of concern in the Black community, where long-term unemployment is a big problem.
"There's a lot of uncertainty right now," he said. "There are opportunities out there, but they've maxed out their credit cards and they have no support to take care of their children because of daycare costs."
Some other challenges unemployed workers are facing right now include having children at home doing distance learning, reduced public transportation schedules, and access to technology and stable internet, said Julie Brekke, executive director of Hired, a Minneapolis-based organization that provides employment coaching and training.
This fall, Sonnet Fitzgerald, who is 44, began focusing her job search on work-from-home opportunities once she saw how much her two kids were struggling with distance learning. But she can't get high-speed internet to do video calls where she lives in Hamel, which limits her options. And many of the other remote jobs she sees don't pay enough for her to support her family.
"So I'm kind of stuck," she said.
She wasn't too worried at first when she lost her job in May at a small whistleblower hotline firm. She had found jobs before and had a cushion of a few thousand dollars in savings.
"But then as more time goes by and I'm not finding anything, and my savings is going down and down, it's nerve-racking," Fitzgerald said. "What happens when I get to the bottom of my savings and there's no unemployment and I still haven't found work? What do we do? I don't know. It's coming fast."
The impact of long-term unemployment on workers and families is dramatic, said Heidi Shierholz, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. Since the additional $600 a week in federal jobless benefits expired at the end of July, unemployed workers have been getting by on regular state jobless benefits, which in Minnesota replace half of a worker's prior earnings.
"In other words, we have lots of people who have gone a very long time with serious cutbacks in their income, so that means living standards drop, poverty increases, and all of the things that go along with you just had a massive cut in your income is happening to families left and right," she said.
And with more unemployed workers than there are job openings, she said that some people will have no choice but to take jobs that weren't as good the ones they had before.
"You lose not just the time you were unemployed, but also you have this setback in that many will get a job that's for lower pay or perhaps lower rank," she said. "That has some stickiness to it. It puts you on a different trajectory."
That's what Jennifer Kusztyb, 48 of Coon Rapids, ended up doing after losing her job as a contractor for Delta in March. She'd been applying for jobs for months and even expanded her search nationwide. Sometimes, she made it to a second round of interviews, only to be told the company was putting a freeze on new hires.
"To have nothing was driving me crazy," said Kusztyb, who added that she's used to working 45 to 65 hours a week and had never gone more than a week without a job before. "About a month ago, I threw in the towel."
She decided to take on not one, but several part-time, entry-level jobs. She's picked up shifts at a Lane Bryant store, become a Shipt shopper, and is in the midst of training for roles to set greeting cards in stores and to be a customer service agent for Sun Country.
She estimates she will soon be working 40 to 45 hours a week, though for less than half of what she made before. But she's happy to be working again — and to not have to worry about losing unemployment benefits in a few weeks. And, she added, she's hopeful she can quickly move up the ranks to a full-time position at one of these companies while continuing to look for other opportunities.
To address long-term unemployment, workforce development efforts will have to not only look at training workers for different kinds of jobs, but also the mental toll that being out of work for so long can take, said Bruce Corrie, an economics professor at Concordia University.
"It's the emotional support and the kind of change in mind-set someone might need to do find a job," he said. "And employers will have to change their attitudes, too. They often ask, 'How long have you been out of a job?' If you say a long time, it's a negative."
Tlaiye was head of food and beverage at a large hotel in Chicago, a role that included hiring people. In that job, she says she was often wary of applicants with gaps in their résumé or had taken a step back in their career. That's why the thought of pursuing an entry-level job was initially hard for her to swallow. But as she's become more desperate, she's become more open to the idea.
"Is that going to be damaging to me long term?" Tlaiye said she wonders. "I hope that employers are going to adjust their mind-set when they look at applicants that this person had to do whatever they had to do to survive because of the pandemic."
While she looks for work, she and her husband have cut back on expenses. Unable to afford their rent in Chicago, they moved to Minneapolis, where he is from, at the end of the summer.
They sold their car and started paying only minimums on their credit cards, wincing as they see their debt climb. If unemployment benefits aren't extended at the end of this year, they might move in with his parents. Her mother has also offered to dip into her retirement savings to help them out.
Tlaiye also recently started selling flower arrangements and wreaths, mostly to family and friends. It helps pay for some groceries and household expenses. But it's also been a morale boost to have a new project to focus on.
"I was always such an intense worker," she said. "I enjoyed the stress and demands. That's been the hardest part for me. When you're used to be being busy, your self-worth comes into question when you're not doing something everyday."
Kavita Kumar • 612-673-4113 Twitter: @kavitakumar