‘All night, my eyes are open’: After mass job losses, Americans forced to choose: Pay bills or buy food?

MIAMI – Roselande Guerrier lies in bed each night, waiting for her cellphone to display 7:30 a.m. – when the Florida unemployment office opens and when she calls, aching for answers, searching for help.

“All night, my eyes are open,” she said. “Five o’clock, my eyes are open. I call at 6 o’clock and the office is closed. I call at 7:30 and boom, ‘All lines are busy.’ Every number they give me, I try, but they’re always busy.”

Guerrier, 36, has spent 13 years changing sheets, picking up dirty towels and scrubbing bathrooms as a housekeeper at the Fontainebleau hotel, the iconic Miami Beach resort. At night, she would do the same at the Cadillac Hotel & Beach Club, an art deco resort a few blocks away.

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Both those jobs vanished on March 23 when the hotels were forced to close because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With three children to care for, she hasn’t seen a nickel of unemployment benefits or federal relief money.

Guerrier is one of the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs during the pandemic. Millions more have been furloughed, seen their hours reduced, their salaries cut and their economic futures cast into doubt as stay-at-home orders and a growing death toll have produced the greatest economic contraction in more than a decade.

The financial crisis comes at a precarious moment for households already teetering on the brink of ruin. Even before the pandemic struck, nearly a third of Americans didn’t have a savings account. Average credit card debt per household topped $7,000 and personal loans were the fastest-growing type of consumer debt in 2019. More than 20% of all children lived in families with incomes below the federal poverty level. 

The pandemic shutdown has piled on the economic agony, with 52% of lower-income adults saying they or someone in their household have lost a job or taken a pay cut during the outbreak, according to the Pew Research Center.

In the final week in March, 6.6 million Americans filed new unemployment claims. The next week, 6.6 million were hit. In the one after that, 4.9 million filed claims, and so on, each week bringing a new scramble of panic, anxiety and fear as 30 million people filed for unemployment benefits during seven chaotic weeks.

USA TODAY spoke with Americans from California and New York – two of the states hit hardest by the economic fallout – and a dozen cities in between to document what the explosion of unemployment has meant for the nation’s workers and their families.  

Desperate to hold on, Americans are selling off assets, tapping into their savings, taking out loans or finding work delivering food and groceries, which puts them at risk of catching the virus that has killed 70,847  Americans in less than three months. 

In Washington state, a mother fed her son tuna and sardines for weeks as she waited for her employers to deliver her final paycheck. 

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