New York freelancers brace themselves for expiration of pandemic unemployment benefits

Emily Kreusch, 23, never thought her post-grad life would depend on unemployment checks. (Photo/Rachel Roberts)

Before she even picked up her graduation regalia last spring, Emily Kreusch applied for unemployment. The 23-year-old planned to turn her Pratt University degree and skills in graphic design and stop-motion film making into a position at a studio. Now, her full-time job is applying for jobs from her Brooklyn apartment.

Since graduating and losing her job at a Brooklyn toy store, Kreusch is living off unemployment checks and the meager earnings from her online crochet shop, a side gig she picked up during the pandemic. This was not her post-grad plan.

In Montgomery, New York, Lisa Mistretta was a hospice nurse who worked in private homes for 15 years, when one of her patients came down with symptoms that mirrored Covid-19 back in March. Because Mistretta has a compromised immune system due to her chronic lung disease, she had to stop working.

Now, the 52-year-old mother of two is taking at-home classes to brush up on what she’d learned nearly 30 years ago in college – skills like accounting and Microsoft Excel. She hopes to land a job before her unemployment benefits end. If she doesn’t, she fears the family will be evicted.

For Amber Berry, a seasoned part-time bartender and freelance stylist and makeup artist, the first night of shutdown in March gave her the inkling to apply for unemployment, she said.

“The three things I could rely on stopped at the same time,” she said.

Berry and her husband were the earliest of their friends to receive unemployment. Though it’s not much, it has sustained them for nearly nine months. Now the East Village couple is entering the final month of their payments with uncertainty.

Berry, Mistretta and Kreusch are among the roughly 1.2 million New Yorkers who receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance payments, according to state data as of late November. Congress created the program in the CARES Act in late March to provide relief to freelancers, independent contractors, gig workers and the self-employed.

However, the program is set to expire by the end of the year and leave millions of Americans without a lifeline unless Congress can agree on an extension. Many New Yorkers are bracing themselves for Dec. 27, after which their unemployment payments will cease. For many freelancers and artists, their industries have experienced limited opportunities for reemployment due to pandemic-related regulations that have restricted restaurants and bars, banned live entertainment and require people keep their distance from one another.

While some folks are struggling to find freelance opportunities in their industries, others are depending on side projects to make some extra cash. For many, the health risk in getting back out in the field has put limitations on the already scarce number of jobs they have applied to with no response.

“You cannot force people out of jobs, lower the amount of job opportunities and not have a plan for how you’re going to provide relief to those who don’t have the ability to find any work at all,” said Rafael Espinal Jr., the president of the Freelancers Union and former New York City councilman.

Since March, both Berry’s freelance work as a makeup artist and personal business in styling and reselling clothes have been out of commission.

She can no longer meet clients face-to-face without feeling the burden of requesting that everyone involved abide by health and safety precautions, such as wearing face shields, limiting occupancy at shoots and making sure everyone has been tested for the virus and was safely quarantining. Those obstacles have left the 52-year-old with no opportunity for work in her field, which has made her dependent on unemployment aid, she says.

The upcoming expiration of unemployment benefits has Berry and her husband, who had worked in private events and hotels, fearful. There’s much at stake for the couple, but they’re trying their best to divert their attention to positive thinking, she says.

“We are just going to take it one day at a time,” she said. “I can’t imagine what people are going through right now who don’t have a daily practice of trying to balance their systems.”

While some people choose the freelance path for its independence, others are forced into it on account of the job shortage.

“When people are out of work, they’re often thinking about ways they can use their skills to produce an income without relying on the traditional job,” said Espinal, noting it’s happened in the past too.

For Kreusch, being a self-employed artist dependent on unemployment checks was not what she expected after graduation. But when her hunt for a studio job proved fruitless, she took to her needle and yarn. In August, she launched her Etsy business, Croozies – crocheted koozie sleeves.

“Two months ago, I was losing steam applying to jobs, so I really leaned in with this koozie stuff,” she said, adding that she knew she could use her eye for design to bolster the branding and product shoots. “I wanted to figure out how I’m going to do this business thing.”

Last month, her venture brought in roughly $1,000 worth of sales, but Kreusch is still looking to expand her market to other vendors and local shops in the new year. She knows that when the holiday rush is over, her unemployment checks might be too.

But she can only make so much money from this business right now. It’s only possible for her to crochet about five products per day, she says.

Kreusch was able to save enough of her unemployment benefits to get her through the end of the year, thanks in large part to a $600 federal weekly boost that lasted for four months. But since those extra payments ended in late July, her unemployment aid now provides her with only a little more than $100 a week.

If things don’t turn around soon, she will have no other option than to leave her Brooklyn residence and move back in with her parents in Warwick, New York.

Along with freelancers, gig workers and independent contractors, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance is also available to certain people who had to leave their jobs because of their compromised health.  This includes individuals like Mistretta, who became eligible due to her chronic disease that put her at risk in her field of work.

Since March, she’s been living off unemployment. Since the $600 weekly enhancement ended, she and her two teen daughters are solely reliant on the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which provides her with only $276 per week, she said.

“In November, I started using my credit cards and everything else again because I was behind on my rent,” said Mistretta. “That’s the first time in 32 years, I’ve missed a housing payment.”

She’s always had a steady job, she says, but during the pandemic, she has had no other option but to start looking for roles she could take on from her home.

“If I go outside my home and try to get a job, that’s like handing me a gun with four bullets in the chamber,” Mistretta said of her compromised immune system.

Most of the listings she’s found are in customer service or hospitality, but she hasn’t had any luck getting hired. 

Mistretta stresses the difficulty of supporting a family of three on her unemployment checks. If she still hasn’t found work by the end of the month, she doesn’t know how she will afford expenses like rent, groceries, cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment and other necessities.

Her fear is if there is no immediate action from Congress, the consequences will be long lasting for many people.  “I wish they’d wake up and put themselves in our shoes for a change. Just for one moment,” she said.

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Rachel Roberts, an Arkansas native, is a student at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. She graduated from the University of Arkansas, where she studied journalism, political science and French. She’s interested in covering politics, arts and culture. Twitter: @ratchelroberts

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