In the undifferentiated blur of the Covid-19 pandemic, March 20 stands out: It was the day “nonessential” businesses across New York State began shutting down.
For a moment workers waited, suspended in the breach, uncertain what would happen next. Then, in terse conference calls with corporate and text messages from managers, thousands heard the vocabulary of collapse: phrases like “market realities” and “impact to our business” and “difficult decisions” and “budget cuts” and “layoffs” and “unprecedented circumstances.”
Within days of the March 20 shutdown, thousands of Western New Yorkers had already lost or been furloughed from their jobs. In the coming weeks and months, tens of thousands more would face similar losses, totaling more than 142,000 people since the beginning of March.
The local labor market has since recouped more than half of those lost jobs. But the recovery has also proven fragile, incremental and bitterly uneven.
While most white-collar professionals have returned to work, an estimated 22% of low-wage and low-skill workers in Western New York remained jobless as of August. Nationally, young workers, recent graduates, people of color and working moms have all lagged well behind their older, whiter, male counterparts.
Among the Western New Yorkers who have returned to work, some have taken pay cuts, changed industries or relocated out of the area. Others have given up on the formal economy all together, disappearing into a precarious warren of gig work, self-employment and under-the-table side hustles as pandemic unemployment benefits tapered off in August and September.
Then there are those losses the official unemployment rate can’t capture: the disruption to routines, the slow fade of workplace friendships, the casual abandonment of long-held dreams and ambitions. For many workers furloughed or laid off this year, the Boston College psychologist David Blustein recently wrote, the recession has invoked a kind of “existential terror” – a challenge to the fundamental notion that we each have the power to provide for ourselves and determine our own futures.
How does a person recover from that? How does a region? To answer these questions, The Buffalo News spent the past four months following the lives of seven Western New Yorkers who lost their jobs during the pandemic. Their stories, and their outlooks, vary tremendously, much like the recovery itself. But over dozens of hours of interviews, conducted by phone and in person, the clear portrait that emerges is one not only of uncertainty, anxiety and loss – but also resolve, reinvention and resilience.
These stories appear in their subjects’ own words, with editing for clarity and structure. This project is part of a national collaboration between the New York Times and 11 local newsrooms; for more, visit nytimes.com/outofwork.
Pre-pandemic job: Former legal assistant trainer at Goldberg Segalla
The day I got laid off, in March, I was supposed to have an 11 a.m. training. All of the sudden an 11:00 conference call popped up on my calendar instead. I knew a bunch of people were on this call, because as I’m dialing in the line keeps chiming: boop, boop, boop. And then the HR manager said that, due to everything that’s going on, everyone on the call was being laid off.
I just hung up the phone. I sat back and I cried. You ask the question: Why me? What am I going to do now? That phrase, ‘what are you going to do?’ is a real and powerful thing. You can sit back and give in. Or you can figure it out.
For me, I’m realizing that my measure of success is not a long title or a huge salary. And I never want to be laid off from another job. So I’ve been taking classes at Bryant and Stratton every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. to become a small business consultant. I have two consulting clients now. I’m also taking evening classes to get my real estate license. And I Uber on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays for two hours or $100.
I’m not making the amount of money that I used to. Absolutely not. But I can say I’m much happier and I’m not stressed about it.
Read more: 'I’m finally determining my own value'
Pre-pandemic job: Placement manager at ARC Erie County
I’m a single mom with two kids, 11 and 4 years old. I had been working at ARC Erie County for the past year as a placement manager. But I was put on furlough in March, and laid off at the beginning of June. From the surface, it looks like there are all these jobs out there, but the problem I’m running into is that a lot of places are posting openings and not actually filling them. Or, if they are really hiring, so many people are unemployed right now that they’re getting crazy numbers of applications.
I have applied for some public benefits in the past month, which I never thought I’d have to do. I’m also planning to go back to school online for my master’s degree this year, and part of my motivation for doing that is knowing I could use the loan disbursement to pay my mortgage. Meanwhile, my parents are essentially paying for my health insurance.
But then you have all these other people – I see them on Facebook – saying ‘no, it’ll be fine, just work harder.’ Or ‘end the extra unemployment, you’re giving them an incentive not to work anymore.’ The sheer ignorant comments you read ... I’ve been trying to stay off social media lately, because I can’t waste my time with that. This system is not sustainable long-term. I think Covid has shown us that.
Nick De Meglio
Pre-pandemic job: Data engineer at Delaware North
I had this idea of what my life was going to be. The path I’m on now doesn’t allow me to keep anything of that envisioned future. I planned to raise my kids in Western New York and fix up my house in Williamsville, maybe move to Lewiston. Instead we’re moving to a big city: Tempe. It’s not like I had many choices.
Before all this started, I was a data engineer at Delaware North. That’s kind of like a computer programmer. I was pretty excited about my work, you know? But then the floor fell out beneath us.
Delaware North announced furloughs in March. They didn’t know for how long. So basically, as soon as things started to go south, we had to cut everything down to the bare minimum: defer the mortgage payment, shut off the student loan payments, spend as little money as possible. Then, in August, I was invited to a Webex call with Delaware North’s CIO and a manager I’d never heard of. They said we’re sorry, but things are not progressing as quickly as we hoped and we’re going to have to eliminate your position.
So I ended up taking this new position at a financial management group in Arizona. There aren’t any jobs for data engineers in Buffalo. And it is bittersweet, now that it’s final. But really, I’m the lucky one. How long will it take someone to dig out who is less fortunate? Once poverty gets you, it doesn’t let up.
Read more: 'I had no idea what was going to come next'
Location: North Tonawanda
Pre-pandemic job: Mechanical engineering student at Clarkson University
I applied to 130 jobs this summer. Radio silence. It got to the point that I didn’t even look at the company anymore: If it was an entry-level engineering job, I applied to it. I had two applications out at Tesla. I applied to Siemens, Calspan, Lactalis, Roswell Park, Sumitomo, General Mills. But they’d say they already filled the job, or tell me they were sorry, the position had been eliminated.
I didn’t think it would be that tough, even with everything that was going on. I’m a very strong candidate – I graduated from Clarkson in May, and it has a really competitive engineering program. Nowadays, though, I guess you can’t assume job security in any field. Months went by and nothing happened. I was like, what the hell am I gonna do?
But if I wanted to be metaphorical, I would say this experience solidified for me how people are naturally resilient, I guess. Because I did feel awful about myself and my life – and then everything changed really fast. In July, my brother, who is also an engineer, got a job at GM. He recommended me to his former boss at Delfingen in Niagara Falls, and in August they hired me to fill his exact position.
It is a quality engineering job, which, well – it’s not something I want to make a career of. But I'm perfectly happy working as one for the time being. Any experience is good experience. And if it weren’t for that, I’d still be unemployed. No one has gotten back to me about those applications.
Location: Niagara Falls
Pre-pandemic job: General manager at The Draft Room
At The Draft Room, we had two types of volume: kind of slow, everyday volume, like business lunches, and then sporting event volume. When Sabres’ games and concerts started shutting down, we tried to react as best we could. But we ended up closing at the end of March, and I was furloughed at the beginning of April.
It’s still surreal thinking about it. You go from working that much, having a big team – and then, boom. I had peace of mind, though, because we were scheduled to come back in late summer.
But in July, my return-to-work date was delayed until September 8. Then we were delayed again in mid-August, and that time they didn’t give us a new date. The plan was to wait and see how things unfolded with the sports industry: When will the season start for hockey? Are fans going to be allowed to games?
I think a lot of people hung on as long as they could. But once you hit the six-month mark, you need to get back to work. I’m applying to roughly three jobs a day now, including some jobs that might be a “step back,” just because they’re available. I would be happy to go back to my old job. But I feel like I could also do something else; I’ve had time to study my resume and the different things I’ve done, and to think about what I’m passionate about.
As for The Draft Room, I’m not sure when it is opening again. Last I heard, hockey might come back in March. This is like no situation anyone’s been in before. All you can do is hang tough and wait it out.
Pre-pandemic job: Teacher’s aide at Public School 31
My name is Etando Omari. I'm originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Four years ago I came to the United States as a refugee with my wife and five kids, and last year I began as a teacher’s aide with Buffalo Public Schools. Of course, in February we started hearing about the issue of Covid-19. Then in March they said ‘there’s no more school.’ And in June, I got a notice that said you are not going to work for July and August. But it is maybe a possibility for you to work in September.
This situation with the virus – it is so scary for the careers of teachers. It was my dream to be a teacher, you know. Though I can say that is decreasing because of this situation. Teacher’s aides were not eligible for unemployment, according to Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo. I was very sorry about that. And while I am back at work now, I was until very recently only working three days a week. The virtual learning is horrible also – the kids are not excited about learning online. They take it for granted.
But I think getting another job could be OK for me. I’ve heard that some people in my community are doing deliveries with Amazon or FedEx. If God blesses me with some money I will open my own business and do deliveries myself. It’s funny, though, to hear of someone going from a professional job to driving a truck. It’s hard to hear that, to be honest.
Pre-pandemic job: Sales associate at Macy’s
My husband, Eric, and I were supposed to start new jobs in March. We moved here from New Jersey in the middle of a blizzard. We were looking, looking, looking for new jobs that whole time, and then we were both so excited, because we both finally had offers. Otherwise I’d just been working at Macy’s to keep myself sharp.
But then, it was that week when everything closed, and they called and said ‘oh, we have to rescind those offers.’ We were already down to almost no money. We had started to sell some things, some clothes and furniture.
I was thankful, at first, when Eric was able to get a job as a contractor for FedEx. It was not the type of work he planned to do, but we both came from nothing and we knew how to climb that mountain. Eric was working seven days a week, 12 to 15 hours a day. He got so exhausted. Then he started getting weaker and weaker, to the point he could barely climb the basement stairs. I thought he was having a heart attack, so we went to the emergency room and they kept him overnight. I will never forget, for the rest of my life, when he told me he had leukemia.
I’m sure the cancer would have come out at some point. But to get it this young? It’s the stress, the massive amount of stress. He worked to the point of falling apart.
About this series
Americans have endured economic crises before but none quite like this. To capture the depths of the suffering, The Buffalo News teamed up with the New York Times and 10 local news organizations across the country to document the lives of Americans who found themselves out of work.
For months, we followed them as they dialed unemployment hotlines, applied for hundreds of jobs and counted every dollar in their bank accounts for rent and food. All of it while trying to survive a pandemic.
Read stories from across the country in the New York Times: Out of Work in America
Read stories from Buffalo Niagara: Out of Work in Western New York