On the Edge: Living with Unemployment during a Pandemic
Editor’s note: This essay is part of our two-week blog series, featuring eight autoethnographies from students at Brooklyn College. Read the introduction to the series here, written by Professors Jeanne Theoharis, Joseph Entin, and Dominick Braswell. Follow this link to read all the essays in the series.
“I drove around all day. I just made twenty dollars,” one cabbie recalled. Another has been living on sixty-five dollars a day. The former is what my dad, a Bangladeshi immigrant, told me when I was twelve years old in 2010. The latter is about Kim Jaemin, a taxi driver who has been working during the COVID-19 pandemic, whose story reporter Melissa Chan covered for Time magazine a decade later in 2020. I have heard stories like this from my dad periodically ever since he started driving a cab in 2007. Imagine a job where you’re out the door before sunrise and home long after sunset every day, yet you could come home with no money. You lease a car, and then hope that that person on the corner of the street moving their hands is beckoning to you. You pray you can make enough money to at least cover the lease. You might make $500 one day and $30 the next. Nobody cares if you show up or not—you’ll still have to pay fees and insurance and bills. You could get into a car accident. Or be held at gunpoint. You might feel yourself nodding off at the wheel after a late night dealing with the kids or staying up studying, and now you might kill both yourself and your passenger. You’re bored and want to start a conversation with your passenger, but what if they think you’re weird? Your lower back is about to give out any moment now from the sitting all day. There are no standing desk options here. You broke your leg? Tough luck. No disability or unemployment benefits when you work constantly and lease a car from a company and have an official New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission license, but you’re an employee of nobody. As a kid, I’d often sit by my window and give myself panic attacks worrying if my dad would be okay during his night shifts, wondering what we’d do if he got injured, waiting for the day people would simply stop hailing cabs because apps were so much easier—yellow cab fares have gone down drastically since Uber became popular. I often felt guilty because I myself always opt for the convenience of Uber over a yellow cab.
When my dad came home from work on March 15, 2020 and announced there was nobody on the road because of the pandemic, I did not bat an eye. Of course. My dad’s job was always on the brink of crashing—no pun intended. There would be no virtual driving. This isn’t to say my family has always struggled financially. My dad was fortunate enough to bring in a livable income overall while being a cabbie, but the job was always so uncertain. With the job depending so heavily on my dad’s physical ability and on people actually hailing his car for a ride, it always felt like it was on the edge of being… gone.
I, a senior in college, learned about New York State pandemic unemployment benefits while scrolling through Twitter, the information hidden between quarantine memes, politics, and tweets reminding me, “If he wanted to text you, he would.” My heartbeat quickened as I wondered, “Could my dad, an independent worker, even qualify for the pandemic unemployment?” Independent workers haven’t qualified for unemployment in the past, since they do not officially work for a company. But I saw on the NYS Department of Labor’s (NYSDOL) Twitter account that things were different now—there was a new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefit for workers traditionally ineligible for unemployment, such as independent workers like my dad. It really took a pandemic for this, huh? I’m sure these workers didn’t need unemployment benefits when they got sick or injured before… The NYSDOL’s website offered vague instructions on the new PUA application, with no links to a portal. I scoured Google for any more information. I found some hidden away on a New Jersey taxi association website. Then, I dug deeper into the NYSDOL website and found some more vague info. I finally made an account and accessed the unemployment application. But then the webpage wouldn’t load. I tried on my phone, and then my laptop, switching between WiFi and LTE. There was a server overload.
One of my dad’s friends, who is also an immigrant and a cab driver, called us to help with the application, texting my dad screenshots of his own. A couple of days later, the application finally loaded. I answered the questions as best as I could, a Google web browser opened to the side for me to search up technicalities and definitions as I envisioned us being arrested if I made the slightest of errors. I finally got to the last question. As I began typing, the browser logged me out because I spent too much time. So I reloaded and filled the application out faster. It logged me out again. And again. Finally, I was able to submit. And then it was silence. People were tweeting at the labor department, complaining about how we couldn’t file for weekly claims despite filling out the application almost a month beforehand. There were no tweets in response. Nobody ever picked up the phone. I get it. This was a hard time for everyone, including the understaffed labor department representatives dealing with this new crisis. My friend T.K., who I spoke with about our experiences during the pandemic for this project, wondered where all the people who called and texted us during election season were—where were the instructions on how to apply for unemployment? Not everyone uses Twitter or has access to iPhones and laptops and different internet connections or has research experience. I wondered how many cabbies even knew they could apply for unemployment now.
It wasn’t until a week after that that the NYSDOL updated their website, uploaded some pretty infographics, and launched a system where they would call applicants themselves to complete applications. When a representative finally called us early morning several days later, my dad explained our situation. After I dragged myself out of bed, I took the phone from him to further explain, telling the rep about questions I worried I answered incorrectly. And then we were set, our application approved. I lost count of how many days it had been since we had started it. The money still wouldn’t come for another while. In the meantime, my dad had me help one of his cabbie friends apply for unemployment.
Unemployment money greatly helped us for a few months. But it just got drastically cut, Congress removing the additional $600 per week. What’s going to happen in the months to come? So many jobs aren’t coming back but rent still has to be paid. My dad wants to return to work, but he has to sacrifice his health… and he also doesn’t have much of a job left right now. My dad’s job as a cab driver is so directly dependent on other people. As many immigrants do, he works a service job. And there is no virtual driving or virtual cleaning or virtual cooking. NY State Senator from District 13 Jessica Ramos said, “many of those immigrants now unemployed work for billionaires, “raising their children, cleaning their houses, and taking care of their parents… when the stock market crashes, it is the taxes that we pay that becomes the backbone of this economy—now the shoe’s on the other foot and it’s their turn to bail us out.” Why is bailing out the ordinary people running the economy by continuing unemployment payments so radical? Councilmember Francisco Moya cites a study that found “49 percent of immigrants are part of the private workforce, and now that the pandemic hits, we make up 54 percent of the unemployed.” According to the Migration Policy Institute, “Losses have been steepest—approaching half of all workers—in several nonessential service sectors that employ large numbers of immigrant workers.” According to the report, there were similar impacts during the 2008 recession. What strikes me is that we don’t need a recession or a pandemic for so many of these jobs to lose stability because they were always unstable, disposable, replaceable, essential to helping people yet deemed nonessential and unskilled. My dad’s job loss was so normal and expected. It felt like something I had been waiting for since the day he started driving a cab. Something would happen eventually that would make it impossible for him to return to work. An injury. Ride sharing apps. A pandemic. Something.permission.
Comments on “On the Edge: Living with Unemployment during a Pandemic”
Thank you for sharing this story. It is almost crazy how much I identify with your story. I am a senior in college now as well, and my father, a Haitian immigrant, living in North Carolina, experienced the same thing during the pandemic. I, too, was wondering when the day would come for him to leave the taxi business ever since UBER and other driving platforms arrived on the scene. I also know how it feels to worry endlessly about your father when he is out at night driving. Thank you for sharing your story about your father.
Also, lovely writing, by the way.
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