For a couple of years leading up to the pandemic, Leah Carlos was cobbling together a living with random jobs she got through temp agencies. She had been a server, a cashier and a registration agent at conventions around town.
“Every form of income was gig-related,” said Carlos, 53.
When COVID-19 hit last March, all those opportunities dried up. Carlos said she filed for unemployment last April but soon got a letter saying she was ineligible to collect benefits because she had made too little in her previous gigs.
“For me, it was enough to not even try to go that route anymore,” Carlos said. “Once I saw the letter, I said, ‘Oh well, that’s OK.’”
Carlos lives in the Gage Park neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. She doesn’t have a car, and most of the jobs she wants to apply for are in the suburbs. She saw some open positions at a nearby bank, but those require Spanish-language skills.
She has been looking for customer service jobs that she can do virtually.
Recently, Carlos got a temporary gig helping with the vaccination effort at the United Center. She is helping people there to register for their second shot after they’ve received their first. While she is thankful to have work, she hopes to find something more permanent.
“I still have some life in me — I’m not helpless or hopeless,” Carlos said. “I hope for the opportunity to have steady income above minimum wage so I can save up and buy my own form of transportation and never have to be at a loss of employment again.”
Carlos is Black and lives in the 60636 ZIP code, an area with one of the state’s highest rates of unemployment claims among working-age residents last year.
According to a WBEZ demographic analysis of Illinois unemployment claims data, in Chicago, the top five ZIP codes for those claims are in majority-Black communities. And the fallout from elevated unemployment in those areas has meant more struggles for the residents living there.
A safety net with big holes in it
The unemployment claims totals — the number of people who apply for unemployment checks after losing their jobs — don’t represent a full picture of the loss of work for many Chicagoans.
Jake Robbins, an economist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says that’s especially true for Black residents, many of whom were working in industries that were hit particularly hard by the pandemic: service jobs, hospitality and government.
“The unemployment claims are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the economic impact of COVID-19 and how many people are really unemployed,” he said.
WBEZ analyzed unemployment claims data from the Illinois Department of Employment Security between March 1, 2020, and Nov. 30, 2020. A demographic analysis using numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent American Community Survey data set shows that in the early days of the pandemic, there were more applicants from the North and Northwest sides of Chicago, in neighborhoods like West Ridge, Rogers Park and Logan Square.
However, from June to November, the highest rate of unemployment claims per 1,000 working-age people in Chicago came from majority-Black ZIP codes on the city’s South and West sides.
“One thing that we actually know about access to the [unemployment insurance] system is that it’s not equal,” Robbins said. “Disadvantaged groups actually have a harder time getting access to benefits.”
Robbins says many Black workers likely had trouble accessing the unemployment insurance system or providing all the documents necessary to process their claims. Some, like Carlos, were initially ineligible to get benefits because they were previously doing gig or contract work. The state eventually made those workers eligible, but some residents have reported still not getting paid.
Robbins also said there was a technological barrier to the unemployment insurance system for many residents, since applying for benefits requires phones, computers and internet access.
“[Unemployment insurance] is a safety net, but there’s pretty big holes in the net,” Robbins said.
How pandemic unemployment shows itself
On the ground, the fallout of pandemic unemployment is quite clear for some community groups.
Nathan Bedell oversees the employment program at Breakthrough Urban Ministries in East Garfield Park. Much of that West Side neighborhood is in the 60624 ZIP code, which has the second highest rate of unemployment insurance claims in Chicago.
He says “the biggest way that unemployment is showing itself is the violence that we have in our neighborhood.”
He adds that at Breakthrough’s staff meetings, the organization’s violent prevention team has reported that crime is up in the neighborhood due to a lack of jobs.
“They report back that people that they meet on the streets say there’s not enough jobs, or there’s jobs out here, and they actually don’t qualify due to their educational status,” Bedell said.The 60628 ZIP code on the far South Side is another area of the city hit hard by joblessness during the pandemic. It includes the Roseland neighborhood, where Cleopatra Draper works as a community organizer. Draper says she’s seen another impact of unemployment: more street walkers in broad daylight than she’s seen before.
“Roseland is the No. 1 community for sex trafficking,” she said. “I’ve seen more of that than any damn thing — I’m talking about one, two o’clock, you can see johns dropping them off.”
Draper, who is the founder of a nonprofit organization called Roses in Roseland, also said she’s seen lines grow at food pantries. She has been coordinating food donations and delivering them to several pantries in the area, including the New Tabernacle Baptist Church in Roseland.
Barbara Young, an 81-year-old volunteer at the church’s food pantry, said residents from the neighborhood have been lining up every Friday since the pandemic started.
“They tell us when they come in that they lost their job, and they’re just looking for food to carry them over,” Young said. “And mostly [it’s] men … middle-aged men.”Outside, just 10 minutes after the food pantry opened for the day, Louis Jones rearranged the items he’d collected there in his folding shopping cart. Jones, 57, was laid off last March when the radiation protection gear factory he worked at shut down. Jones has not been able to file for unemployment.
“Well, they want you to go online,” he said. “I don’t have a computer, I don’t have online, and the library only gives you one hour. You need a little more time for filling out the application, you need a little bit more time to get the information.”
Jones also does not have a phone or a car to help with his job search.
“You’re talking old-school way,” he said. “Any place [with a sign] that says ‘hiring’ — that’s how I’m doing it.”
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.