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Three N.H. Stories: Navigating Pandemic Unemployment, Weighing The Risks

Dan Tuohy/NHPR

Gov. Chris Sununu’s decision to end the flow of federal pandemic unemployment benefits into New Hampshire next month means around 35,000 Granite Staters will lose the $300 weekly enhanced benefits that have been in place for the past year.

Almost 10,000 more will lose access to a federal unemployment program for gig workers and the self-employed.

While the expanded federal benefits have allowed many Granite Staters to stay afloat during the pandemic, women have been hit disproportionately hard. Women are more likely to work in sectors that suffered the most over the past year, like retail and hospitality. Many women also dropped out of the workforce to care for children, and now, even as they search for work, many are struggling to find jobs that pay them enough to afford childcare.

Here are the stories of three New Hampshire women who’ve had to navigate unemployment through the pandemic.

“I love to work, but I can never do that kind of thing again”

Before the pandemic, Mindy Gibson of Rochester was self-employed, re-selling vintage items, a job she often did face-to-face.

But Gibson, who is immunosuppressed, couldn’t do that work once COVID-19 began spreading. Even now, her doctor still says she shouldn’t be working in person. Community transmission in the state is still substantial, and fewer than half of Granite Staters are fully vaccinated.  And while Gibson is fully vaccinated, she said it’s unclear how effective the vaccine will be given her health conditions.

Gibson said, for people like her, the decision to pull benefits “Is literally forcing these people to put themselves in harm's way because they won't have a choice.”

Gibson says unemployment benefits have provided some stability for her, as she hunts for a job that’s a good fit. She’s looking for a job that allows her to work remotely.

“I get fatigued; I can only do something for so long,” she said. “You never know which day is going to be great, which day is going to be horrible.  So these are all things I have to account for when I'm looking. I can't go wait tables.”

Now, she has one month to find a job before her benefits expire.

She also wants to make it clear: she’s not a complainer or lazy, a persistent stereotype of the unemployed. She wants to get back to work.

“I was a firefighter EMT, so it's not like I'm a lazy person,” she said. “I'd work up to 90 hours a week over there. I loved the job because it was very physical, so that was great. I love to work, but I can never do that kind of thing again because of this illness.”

Gibson has been collecting unemployment insurance under the federal program for gig workers and self-employed people, as well as the extra $300 a week. Right now, she says, that adds up to $468 dollars. Her rent, she says, is $1,300.

Without the benefits, Gibson is concerned about losing her housing, especially with the CDC’s eviction moratorium on shaky ground, and no state one in place.

Weighing the risks

Rosanne Charland of Merrimack works in the print industry. Business slowed when the pandemic hit, and her hours were cut.

That made Charland eligible for partial benefits, and she’s continued to collect benefits under the federal pandemic-related extension. Charland is confident business will pick back up, but with her benefits expiring next month, she's also on edge.

“I'll end up cashing in my 401k,” she said, “if it gets really bad.”

She’s hopeful though, that things won't’ get that bad. With years of experience in the print industry, and many contacts, she thinks she’ll be able to do some freelancing work to tide her over.

For Charland, the expanded benefits have helped her stay with her employer and wait out the months of slow business. She said taking a low-paying job in another field carries its own risks -- both for her and a prospective employer.

“I am also older, so would you want to spend time training me to work in a position that, first of all, as soon as something comes along in my field, I will quit on the spot?” she said. “Or that if I don't, is now the time when I'm six years away from retirement?”

Ultimately, Charland said, she wants to keep her job. She’s also grateful to her employer, who has continued providing her health insurance even while she works reduced hours.

“I found ways to kind of make ends meet”

This is Gabrielle Shuler’s last week collecting unemployment benefits, so when she heard the news about the early end to the federal expansion, her first thought was: “This doesn’t apply to me.”

Her next thought was one of empathy for the people it did affect.

“I understand: I have lived where my next meal is coming from, where is my next check coming from?” she said

She left her position as a district manager for a cell phone company earlier in the pandemic, to be home with her kids during remote school. Since then, Shuler has tried to find a new career for herself.

But her experience as a divorced mother underscores some of the persistent challenges facing women juggling childcare needs.

Working in her old job, made more money but didn’t have much flexibility, she said. In the pandemic, she’s had to penny pinch in big and small ways. She’s adjusted her phone plan, eliminated childcare costs, cans her own food.

She’s also become an entrepreneur.

“I found ways to kind of make ends meet,” she said. “I started making muffins and going to farmer's markets and selling them. I was selling my art and then I ultimately started my own business.”

Between substitute teaching and selling her jewelry and other crafts, Shuler has forged a new pathway for herself.

“I'm actually really happy in this transition. It's a really good one, even though I'm broke,” she said.

As she applies for jobs, Shuler said, much of what’s available either doesn’t offer flexibility for women with childcare needs, or doesn’t pay enough to cover childcare costs.

She said she pursued one job opening where that challenge was front and center.

“I went to my second interview, and all the woman was concerned about was that I had children and what my backup plan was going to be, because I was not going to be able to call out,” Shuler said.

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