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As 2020 comes to an end, thousands of Oregonians are nearing their breaking points.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced an unprecedented number of people to seek unemployment benefits this year—and Oregon was among the slowest in the country to pay those benefits out. Now, in the midst of the holiday season, Oregon continues to see record-breaking daily case counts, a trend that will likely keep the Portland metro region under strict lockdown restrictions for the rest of the year. Those restrictions include closures and lower capacity limits on businesses, and a ban on indoor restaurant dining—measures that put many people’s jobs at risk.

Those lockdown measures spell uncertainty for Portlanders who lost work this year, and saw their $600 Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) payments expire at the end of July. Some Portlanders are hopeful that President-elect Joe Biden will expand federal aid when he takes office next year, and that promising vaccines on the horizon will bring an end to the pandemic But those facing economic hardships due to COVID-19 still have to get through the next few months. Some wonder whether they’ll ever fully recover.

In May and again in August, the Mercury spoke with some of those Portlanders who lost work at the start of the pandemic. As Oregon faces what could be its worst period of the pandemic so far, we checked back in with three of them to see how they’re getting by, and what they hope—or fear—the future holds

“Things feel very precarious right now.”

Jonathan Bowen was temporarily laid off from his job as a cook at a Southeast Portland taqueria in March. It took the Oregon Employment Department (OED) three months to send him his unemployment checks. His $1,200 stimulus check from the federal government was also delayed several months.

“I didn’t know I could go that long without any money coming in,” Bowen said. “I maxed out one of my credit cards, some family members sent me a little bit of money…and I sold a bunch of stuff. I don’t know how the hell I did it, honestly. I just kind of hustled through.”

Bowen received a glut of state unemployment backpay in August, and also started getting $600 a week from FPUC payments—until Congress allowed that benefit to expire in July. The restaurant where Bowen works reopened a few weeks after that, and Bowen was one of a handful of employees to get their jobs back.

Bowen, a single parent, at first wasn’t sure whether he could go back to work, because his son’s elementary school had switched to remote learning and Bowen didn’t find affordable childcare. But a group of parents in his neighborhood chipped in to hire a tutor to watch their kids in one of their backyards during school days.

“I have no idea where I’d be now if that hadn’t happened,” Bowen said. “This [tutor] is the only thing that’s allowing eight people to work… that’s really expensive, and I don’t have any extra money coming in for that. Things feel very precarious right now.”

Bowen said he was already in a difficult financial situation before the COVID-19 pandemic—a byproduct of “being a broke single parent in the city.” Three months without income only worsened his money troubles. Though he now has his job back, he still feels like he’s constantly playing catch-up with his bills.

“Am I just regular poor now, or am I poor from catching up?” Bowen asked. “I’m going to say, yeah, I’m partially poor from catching up.”

The taqueria where Bowen works is currently takeout-only, so new restrictions barring in-person dining don’t affect its business very much. But the restaurant industry is in a constant state of uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic, and losing any shifts could put Bowen in an untenable position.

Bowen said he’s long identified as a political “leftist”—but watching Congress fail to renew the FPUC funding this summer pushed him and many of his friends to adopt more “radical” political views.

“The fact that there’s no talk of paying Americans more right now, with everything going on, is just fucking unconscionable,” he said. “[But] one of the silver linings to all this is watching communities coming together in a really dynamic way… While I’m really nervous about the immediate future, I know that the community around me is going to figure it out.”

“There’s still money coming in and there’s still something to do each day. As long as that keeps happening, I’ll be fine.”

Dylan Singleton was laid off from his beer sales job with Point Blank Distribution in March. Because he got one digit of his social security number wrong when filling out his first unemployment benefits form, he didn’t receive any unemployment pay until August.

By then, Singleton already had a job back at Point Blank—not the sales job he’d been let go from, but a lower-paying delivery truck route. When nineteen unemployment checks arrived in his mailbox one day in August, he used the money to pay back his roommate, who had covered many of his bills in the spring, and put a down payment on a car.

“I hadn’t had a car for two years—I figured it was probably time, with public transit being as scary as it was [because of COVID-19], to bite the bullet and buy a car,” he said. “It’s been nice having a vehicle, but at the same time with my car payment each month, it’s like ‘Oh, did I make the right decision, with a shutdown looming again?’”

Singleton’s delivery route comprises mostly of grocery stores, rather than bars or restaurants, so it hasn’t been very impacted by the new, strict restrictions in Portland metro area. But Point Blank is trying to spread work around to all its employees, rather than lay anyone off during the holiday season. That means Singleton, who is paid by the hour, can’t always rely on having full shifts.

But Singleton still considers himself fortunate.

“I’m making less than I was as a sales rep, but there’s still money coming in and there’s still something to do each day,” he said. “As long as that keeps happening, I’ll be fine. I’m just worried that eventually I’ll get there and only work four or five hours then go home, because that’s all the work there is.”

Singleton said he expects the Portland area to be under tight lockdown restrictions through New Year’s. He said has one plea for everyone who continues to run errands in-person this month.

“Being in the grocery industry, I see a lot of people,” he said. “Wear your masks—even as you’re getting out of your car. And use hand sanitizer. That’s my one piece of advice to everybody.”

“I think I just expected that they would do something.”

Morgan Gauss’ work as a college tutor dried up as soon as the pandemic hit in March. She managed to start receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)— a federally funded program that provides relief for people who don’t qualify for traditional unemployment, but still lost wages due to the coronavirus—in June. But the $205 Gauss currently receives from PUA is scheduled to end at the end of the year—and, like others, she stopped receiving $600 FPUC Act payments in July.

That means Gauss could stop receiving any form of financial assistance at the end of the year. Gauss said she’s “pretty shocked” to find herself in that situation.

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“Myself, and everyone I talked to—we all assumed that a stimulus would pass [after the FPUC Act expired], and extended unemployment benefits would show up in one way or another,” she said. “I think I just expected that they would do something.”

Thanks to a statewide moratorium on evictions, Gauss currently isn’t obligated to pay the full rent for her apartment. But she’s reluctant to stop paying rent entirely—both because she knows her elderly landlords rely on her rent for their own livelihoods, and because she’s worried about what will happen when the moratorium gets lifted in January. In Multnomah County, renters will have until July to repay their back rent.

“I feel like the eviction moratorium is kind of a joke,” she said. “How are people supposed to pay back six months’ of rent in a six-month repayment period when they’re not even getting income?”

Gauss has an immune disorder, meaning she has a higher risk of experiencing severe complications if she contracts COVID-19. Weighing that risk against what might happen if she doesn’t get some kind of job in the near future is “a weird decision to have to make,” she said.

“At this point, I might be more likely to face life-altering consequences staying home and not having income than I am going out and facing the virus,” Gauss said. “Because you’ve got to have a place to live, and food on the table, if you’re going to stay afloat and take care of your health.”

But with the Portland area under tight lockdown restrictions, she added, “the jobs just don’t exist. Everything’s just at a stand-still.”

Gauss is glad Biden won the presidential election, but questions how effective he will be in providing economic relief for the millions of Americans who have lost income because of the pandemic. She said she’d like to see something akin to the $600 FPUC Act payments return, but wonders if that’s “a pipe dream.”

“[Biden’s] promising us the world,” she said. “Unfortunately I don’t think he has a way to deliver in the way he hopes, because of people like Mitch McConnell.”

Her pessimism is worsened, Gauss said, when she sees optimistic headlines suggesting that everything might be solved by a vaccine in 2021.

“Every time I pull up Reddit or the news, I see ‘There’s a vaccine coming,’ or “Unemployment numbers are looking great,’” she said. “Those are the numbers that are used to deny people the stimulus that they need… There may be a vaccine coming, but it’s not coming fast. It’s not going to fix the economy and all the jobs that have been lost.”

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