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Outbreak Voices: Waiting On Unemployment, Feeling Like A ‘Loser’

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This story aired on NPR Weekend Edition Saturday on May 2.

Jennifer Riley lost her job as an occupational therapist right as the pandemic began to escalate. She’s been unable to collect unemployment because claims in Florida are so backlogged.


For the last two months, we’ve been hearing from Americans about how the coronavirus pandemic has affected them. Jennifer Riley is an occupational therapist in Ormond Beach, Fla. And she is one of millions of people whose jobs, whose livelihoods have just vanished.

JENNIFER RILEY: My savings is gone. My credit cards are maxed out. I’m behind in my car payment. I don’t know how to make it. This isn’t the way I’ve lived my life. I’ve always been a hardworking patriot.

SIMON: Jennifer Riley knows struggle. She’s been the sole provider for three children since her husband died in a car accident seven years ago. He was a retired Marine, a pilot who’d flown combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Being jobless and unable to collect state unemployment in Florida – that made Jennifer Reilly wonder if anyone really cares about her family and her late husband’s service.

RILEY: I lost my position on February 26 at a place that I’d been working for seven years. The application process for unemployment here in Florida is really lengthy. It’s 26 different pages on their very archaic website. It crashes almost in between each page. And then if you’re lucky enough to get back on, sometimes, it loses what you put in. Sometimes, you have to figure out where you left off. This was the very, very beginning of the pandemic and lockdown. So I’ve received no financial compensation at all from unemployment.


AUTOMATED VOICE #1: Thank you for calling the Florida Reemployment Assistance Program.

RILEY: Every day, I’ve tried to call them.

AUTOMATED VOICE #2: Due to COVID-19, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity is currently experiencing higher than average wait times.

RILEY: Most times, you get an 800 recording. And then it hangs up.

AUTOMATED VOICE #2: Thank you for your patience during this time.

RILEY: One time in the last nearly seven weeks, I have spoken to an actual person who said, your application looks great. It’s complete. You were, quote, “verified.” And you should see money in your bank account by the end of the week, which – I’ve not received anything. And nothing’s changed.

I feel like a loser because I can’t bring money home to take care of my children. The stimulus check was nice. But it frankly doesn’t take care of two months of living expenses for a family of four. I get a small pension from my husband’s death. So that disqualifies me for food assistance. I’ve gotten a letter from my car lender saying that repossession is an option at this point. I feel betrayed by the federal and state government right now. There’s thousands of us that aren’t making it. And we won’t be killed by the pandemic. We’ll be killed by starvation. Or we’ll be killed by suicide.

My children know that I have no income coming in. We pray as a family for the pandemic, for those that have been lost, those that are struggling. And I just keep praying that this will end somehow in a way that I can take care of my family like I always have.

SIMON: That’s Jennifer Riley of Ormond Beach, Fla. And if you were someone you know may be considering suicide, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.


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