Belabored Stories: What It’s Like to File for Unemployment

Belabored Stories: What It’s Like to File for Unemployment

The unemployment system is more confusing than it needs to be.

Read more of our coverage of the coronavirus crisis here.

Belabored is a labor podcast hosted by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen. Belabored Stories, a new feature, will present short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send us your stories at


The unemployment numbers associated with the coronavirus crisis continue to be staggering—something like 10 million people in the last few weeks have filed for unemployment, and those numbers are almost certainly an undercount from the actual number of laid-off workers, not to mention gig workers who were not counted as employees to begin with.

David was working as a restaurant server in Richmond, Virginia, and he wrote in to tell us what’s happening. “The restaurant is closed and I’ve filed for unemployment, but haven’t yet received any word about what I will be receiving,” he said. “Hopefully I filled out everything right, because I’m afraid that if I answered a single question incorrectly, I won’t get anything. The website was so confusing, definitely not made to be navigated easily.”

David lives with two friends, all of them in their late twenties. He said, “I have privilege for now shielding me from the worst shocks of this.” The house is owned by the parents of one of his roommates; the parents have offered to allow them to pay partial rent “until this is over (will it ever be over), provided we pay back the ‘missing’ money sometime in the future.” Legally, he noted, “that’s her right. Still it doesn’t help that much, though.”

For now he has enough money to pay rent for the next couple of months; his parents have offered to help, which he said, “is an enormous privilege that I recognize. It’s still not an offer I want to accept if I can make it another way. They are heavy into Trump and it feels like accepting their cash will mean I’ll have to censor my political thoughts around them even more.”

But what’s making this all more interesting for him is that not that long ago he was living in France, teaching English, and the situation there was very different. “As a young person, I qualified for rent assistance, and it was so easy to sign up for and receive. It was all done on one or two forms, then the money arrived without a problem,” he said. “This experience showed me that all of these bureaucratic hoops in [the] U.S. between humans and assistance are unnecessary. Receiving support can be easier. In many places, it is. I wish we learned from other countries, or had more exposure to the policies that countries like Germany or France enact. Are they perfect? No. Are they a massive improvement over the U.S. system? Yes.”

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, the author of Necessary Trouble: American in Revolt, and the co-host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast.