Coronavirus crisis pushes many newly jobless in Dallas area to the breaking point

Dallas News

Trisha Musgrave made less than $4.20 on her last day of driving for Uber six weeks ago when she stopped getting calls for rides.

Bill Kennedy was making about 80 times that much a day as a longtime cybersecurity analyst and thought he was headed to a comfortable retirement.

Maria and Carlos Sanchez, a dual-income household, always had enough to feed their family of four until both lost their jobs in March.

Now these Dallas-area residents are among the millions of newly jobless in Texas, including more than 1.9 million who have filed for unemployment compensation in the past seven weeks as the coronavirus crisis has battered the economy.

That comes to an average of 271,000 claims a week, a staggering number far exceeding claims during the Great Recession of 2008-09. During that time, the number of Texans filing unemployment claims never exceeded more than 50,000 in a week.

Since the first cases of the coronavirus were reported in the U.S. in January, state after state has enacted stay-at-home orders to stem its spread. That led to closures of businesses deemed nonessential, like many retailers, salons, gyms and restaurants that employed millions of people.

Those already living paycheck to paycheck have little to no financial cushion to survive for weeks without any money coming in.

For many, a month or more without work has left them searching for free food, as they wait in long lines of cars for a box of groceries.

But even those with savings in the bank or an unemployment check have to live with the uncertainty of how long they can hold out without the stability of a steady paycheck.

And how will lives be affected in the long term by the economic crisis?

On Friday, Texas began slowly and gradually lifting its shelter-in-place restrictions. But many companies in Dallas-Fort Worth have indicated it will be several weeks or longer before they start bringing employees back to work.

Will wage-earners who’ve lost their jobs be immediately hired back? Or will they be crushed by debt while looking for work? Will some be forced to learn new skills?

When asked how she would survive extended unemployment, Musgrave, the Uber driver, was stumped.

“I have no clue,” she said.

Making every penny count

Musgrave and her 16-year-old daughter, Kat, live in a small apartment in northeast Dallas that costs about $1,000 a month, including utilities, but electricity is extra. She has held off paying rent until her unemployment benefits come in. She’s been waiting since late March for those payments.

Most days, she and her daughter eat one meal. Something filling like a burrito, spaghetti or brisket that she tries to make last a few days.

Trisha Musgrave made less than $4.20 on her last day of driving for Uber six weeks ago when she stopped getting calls for rides. She remains a loyal patron of WhiteWater Express Car Wash in Plano, which she uses to keep her car clean as a full-time ride-sharing driver.(Jason Janik / Special Contributor)

Every expense is carefully weighed and that includes the quarters needed for the coin-operated washing machine.

“At this point, you have to decide how often to do the laundry — or if it’s worth doing,” said Musgrave.

For now, she’s living on her federal stimulus check of $1,700 she received for herself and her daughter. She went through a divorce two years ago after a 12-year-marriage in which she stayed home to raise her two children, both of whom had some health issues, she said.

After years out of the job market, Musgrave, 39, had trouble finding full-time employment before settling into the Uber job. The work fit around her home life, and she could still make about $2,000 a month, she said.

So far, she’s held off going to a food pantry because she feels it’s for the very needy.

“We’re not out of food yet,” she said.

But even those forced to accept free food sometimes come up empty-handed.

In late April, Maria and Carlos Sanchez and their two kids had been waiting nearly two hours in a long line of cars for free groceries at Holy Cross Catholic Church in South Dallas. But the Catholic Charities food truck ran out of food before their turn came.

Carlos was laid off from his job installing air conditioning insulation in March. Maria lost her part-time job when the restaurant where she worked reduced its hours. She’s not looking for work at the moment because she’s staying home to watch her children, ages 7 and 5, who are learning from home.

Only her dad, who also lives with them, still has a job, working as a sandwich maker at Subway. They’ve been trying to make do on their meager savings, which are running out fast, Maria Sanchez said.

Rent on their Oak Cliff home is $950 and they need at least another $500 a month for other expenses, including food.

“We’ve been driving around to the food banks, but the lines are so long — and sometimes they run out,” she said.

A few cars in front of the Sanchez family, Angel Garcia sat in his 1993 red Chevrolet SUV. He was laid off from his job with an air conditioning business two weeks ago. He’s responsible for his three children, ranging in age from 11 to 16.

The free groceries, which included lentils, pork patties, oranges and a carton of egg mix, were needed because all his savings went to paying the $1,300 monthly rent on his three-bedroom house in Oak Cliff and other expenses.

Asked how he was holding up, Garcia sighed and looked straight ahead. “I’m calm right now. I can’t worry,” he said. “Worrying will only make things worse.”

Cobbling together support

Like those in line for the food giveaway, most who have been without work for weeks are getting aid from a variety of sources.

Jenna Clark makes half of her living as a singer-songwriter on acoustic guitar. The other half comes from teaching yoga classes. The federal stimulus check and unemployment benefits have helped soften the financial blow for her, and she’s looking for other ways to supplement her income.

She’s experimenting live-streaming music, including one on Instagram Thursday in partnership with Stetson, the hat maker. Musicians will have to be creative from now on, she said.

“At the end of the day, I imagine we’ll all still be selling T-shirts and CDs to make ends meet no matter what happens,” Clark said.

In a pre-pandemic world, Clark normally performed two shows per weekend. By now, she’s missed out on about a dozen, totaling about $2,000.

“I lost it all, like many, for the foreseeable future,” Clark said.

Musician and yoga instructor Jenna Clark plays guitar in the backyard of her Oak Cliff home. Clark lost her job as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.(Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

For Staceanne Sykes, veterans benefits and a food pantry at her child’s school are helping her make it through.

She had no choice but to quit her jobs driving for two delivery-service companies. Not only did her sons, ages 16 and 11, need supervision but she didn’t want to risk getting sick with COVID-19.

As an Iraq War veteran who drove trucks to deliver supplies, Sykes’ disability is tied to back injuries and depression from post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.

When she worked for the door-delivery services like Postmates, she made about $1,800 a month, working days when her kids were in school.

Her VA benefits cover her rent and car expenses, including insurance, leaving only about $50 extra, Sykes said.

But sometimes it’s barely been enough.

“I’m down to my last dollars by the end of the month,” Sykes said.

For her son Kaden’s 11th birthday on Thursday, though, she was determined to have a special treat.

Staceanne Sykes (right) and her son Kenneth Sykes, 16, tend to burgers on the grill as Kenneth’s friend Tyren Briggs, 16, sits in the background during a birthday celebration for her youngest son Kaden, 11, at her apartment building’s parking lot in Dallas. Sykes was driving for Postmates and Instacart but stopped because she didn’t want to take the risk of bringing home the coronavirus. As a disabled veteran, she gets a monthly stipend, but it doesn’t pay for everything. (Vernon Bryant / Staff Photographer)

She and Kenneth, her older son, put a grill out on the parking lot of their East Dallas apartment complex while cooking hot dogs and hamburgers.

“He also wanted an ice cream cake,” she said.

So she decided to drive for Postmates one more time, earning about $100 for about a 10-hour day’s work.

Plans derailed

Even those who are not as worried about making bills at the end of the month are grappling with a future where their income is uncertain.

Kennedy, the cybersecurity analyst from Plano, knows he’s in better shape than many who’ve lost their jobs recently.

After losing his job in late March, Bill Kennedy of Plano started volunteering at the food pantry in nearby Lewisville.(Lawrence Jenkins / Special Contributor)

He had enjoyed a long and successful career. But at 63 years old, Kennedy hadn’t planned on retiring for another three or four years.

Then, on March 31 he was let go from the job, where he took home about $1,600 a week. His wife used to teach pre-school but she stopped a few years ago.

Kennedy estimated that the combination of state and federal aid payments will bring his total benefits to about two-thirds of his take-home pay.

He still has to pay a $1,300 monthly mortgage along with expenses. So he’s been cutting unnecessary expenses, including cable TV and his lawn service.

To keep busy and give back, Kennedy started volunteering twice a week at Heart of the City, a nonprofit that runs a food pantry in Lewisville.

But he’s already looking for work and has been active on LinkedIn, the professional networking website.

His major worry is his retirement savings.

“We could retire right now if we had to, but it’s not the lifestyle we’d envisioned,” he said.

Uncertain future

Mervyn Sacher, the owner of Neuhaus Cafe in North Dallas, is also trying to envision a new future.

He opened his restaurant during the Great Recession of 2008, and has dealt with the one-two punch of an EF-3 tornado and the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the Oct. 20, 2019, tornadoes tore through parts of Preston Royal Village, Neuhaus Cafe was forced to close for a week. Sacher considered himself lucky because his business didn’t sustain heavy damage like others in the shopping center. Some businesses on the south side of the center were destroyed.

Still, when Neuhaus Cafe reopened, Sacher saw a decline in sales by about 50% because many roads in the area were closed or blocked off with debris still needing to be cleared.

When the Oct. 20, 2019, tornadoes tore through parts of Preston Royal Village, Neuhaus Cafe was forced to close for a week. At the time, owner Mervyn Sacher considered himself lucky because his business didn’t sustain heavy damage like others in the shopping center.(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

“We thought that was bad, and now this,” Sacher said of the coronavirus’ impact on his business.

On a normal shift, Sacher would have eight people working. Right now, there’s only enough business for two. Sales at Neuhaus have dropped 70% since restaurants in Dallas County were ordered to close and only allowed to offer carry-out or delivery service.

Between the recession, the tornado and the pandemic, Sacher said the pandemic has been the worst for his cafe.

Sacher’s landlord has been understanding about the lack of business and didn’t collect rent this past month.

“To pay rent would just wipe us out,” Sacher said.

Neuhaus Cafe’s regulars have been extra-supportive during these times, in many cases tipping 50% on to-go orders, Sacher said. He reopened to limited dine-in customers Friday after the state’s easing of restrictions.

But how long the crisis will affect business is hard to predict.

“The end is not in sight,” Sacher said.

Staff writer James Barragán contributed to this report.

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