Inside an American Comeback: 'I Just Have to Keep Myself Going'

10/18/2020 | 01:15pm

By Justin Baer and Eric Morath

CINCINNATI -- In the seven months after the coronavirus and shutdown tore through this city, Crayona McBerry lost half her income, then got it back; got sick, then recovered; risked eviction, then made her rent.

Though she is still on her feet, it isn't relief she feels so much as anxiety. The 44-year-old single mother is working seven days a week as a cleaner, behind on some of her bills and ever alert to what the virus might deal next. "I worry every day," she says.

The U.S. economy has been growing since its brutal spring implosion, suggesting the recession might be over, or soon will be. But it hardly feels that way to Ms. McBerry, or to a Cincinnati entrepreneur whose coffee shop is still missing many of its customers, to a young woman who lost her dream job at General Electric Co. or to a comedian who went seven months without a paying gig.

Millions of Americans are on the downside of a recovery that is increasingly split, with some parts of the economy roaring while other sectors languish. Cincinnati mirrors the national picture: Its experience shows how economic shock waves continue to reverberate through people's lives even as the worst effects of the springtime crash recede. Of 22 million jobs lost nationwide, half have been restored.

The city's stories also reveal adaptation and resilience. Ms. McBerry has improvised on child care, the GE worker has found a new job, the entrepreneur is keeping his businesses going and the comedian is writing jokes for the pandemic era.

Cincinnati's diverse economy includes factories, universities and corporate headquarters, including Procter & Gamble Co. and Kroger Co. As in the country at large, most of the city's businesses are small. Many sprang up in the past few years as Ohio's economy surged in lockstep with the country's in the decade following the financial crisis.

The boom drove the local jobless rate to a two-decade low of 3.1%, just before the crisis struck, and buoyed groups historically disadvantaged: Black and Hispanic people and those with disabilities, limited education or criminal records.

The single mother

One beneficiary was Ms. McBerry. She had spent six months without a home, staying with a relative, before moving with her two younger daughters to an apartment in a cluster of buildings at the bottom of a hill. Her two older daughters live in another apartment in the same complex.

Ms. McBerry works as a cleaner at a child behavior and crisis center and its affiliated elementary school, employed by a firm called RaysClean LLC. She moved into the apartment of her own on March 2.

A week later, on March 9, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine declared a state of emergency. The state had recorded three cases of Covid-19. On March 13, President Trump declared a national state of emergency, and Mr. DeWine, a Republican, announced schools would close.

Besides directly costing many jobs, that move made it hard for parents with small children to go to work. Ms. McBerry was squeezed on both sides. The center's school closed, reducing her work hours.

The loss of half of her income left Ms. McBerry and her family close to losing their home again. "I don't want to be homeless," she said. "That feeling -- I will never recover from that."

She weighed which bills to pay first. She could put off the gas and electric, she thought, but not rent. "I can barbecue, I've got flashlights," she said. "But you have to have shelter."

She navigated food pantries and other services. The United Way referred her to Freestore Foodbank. Ms. McBerry worried she wasn't eligible because she was working and would feel judged for needing assistance. But when she arrived at Freestore in late April, she found its workers gracious and supportive. She came away with groceries and hygiene products.

Food insecurity in the U.S. has spread, despite the economy's partial comeback. Across the country, 10.5% of adults lived in households that didn't have enough to eat at some point in early September, up from 9.8% in early May, Census figures show. Freestore distributed 9.6 million meals from mid-March to mid-June in the tri-state region anchored by Cincinnati, up 58% from that time in 2019.

Ms. McBerry ran late on her May rent. She had the money within days but had to wait for another week so she could pay the late fee her landlord assessed.

The state shutdown closed her infant daughter's day-care center. To go to work, she had to rely on family, including her 12-year-old daughter, to watch the baby.

That is a problem nationwide. About 13% of parents stopped working or reduced their hours in June because of child-care problems, according to Alicia Sasser Modestino, an economist at Northeastern University in Boston.

Ms. McBerry started feeling run down at work. Her body ached, and she lost her senses of taste and smell. She learned from colleagues that an employee with Covid-19 had those symptoms.

Her boss let her stay home for three weeks, without pay. Ms. McBerry eventually regained her strength, but the time off set her further back financially. She believes she had Covid-19 but never found out. She said she couldn't find a free test.

The Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati helped Ms. McBerry access public-assistance funds, enough to make her rent in June and July. She is back to working five full days and works several hours on Saturday and Sunday, 50 hours a week in all.

Her 12-year-old, though, is taking classes online now, and has told her mother she can't watch the baby all the time. Ms. McBerry's 20-year-old daughter, who works for the same cleaning company, took the night shift so she could babysit during the day.

"I just have to keep myself going, make sure I'm safe and my family is safe," Ms. McBerry said. "It's not even 'worries' anymore, it's part of living now. It's life."

The comedian

As a professional comedian for over 30 years, Steve Caminiti is used to lean times, but not like this.

He was booked to perform at Cincinnati's Belterra Park casino and at a private party the weekend of March 13. A state ban on large gatherings shut the casino that day, and there went $3,500. Also halted was a side gig he had, ushering at Cincinnati Reds baseball and college basketball games. Suddenly, his whole income was gone.

"I don't have a plan B," Mr. Caminiti said in his faux-shocked comedic style. "I forgot to get a plan B!"

Congress passed the $2.2 trillion Cares Act in March as a bridge to the economy's reopening, then assumed to be in just a month or two. The U.S. sent stimulus checks to many households, offered forgivable "Paycheck Protection" loans to small businesses that kept their workers, extended unemployment insurance to gig workers and added $600 a week to benefits. By May, more than 30 million Americans were receiving regular and special pandemic-related benefits.

Still, a patchwork of state rules and overwhelmed processing systems meant many claimants struggled to collect benefits. Some 44% of people who filed for unemployment between March and Aug. 15 hadn't received their benefits by Aug. 31, according to the Century Foundation, a left-leaning think tank that does labor-market research.

Mr. Caminiti applied for jobless benefits a dozen times but kept hitting roadblocks. He had worked in various states, and individual performances often didn't pay enough to generate the tax forms he needed to prove his income. Eventually, he was able to tap the self-employment benefit, but the $600 enhanced benefit expired at the end of July. In August, Mr. Caminiti received less than $100 a week.

His longtime landlord gave him a break on his rent, and he turned to family members for a loan. "It's embarrassing," the 58-year old said. "At my age, I shouldn't have to do that."

Mr. Caminiti orders off the dollar menu at fast-food restaurants. He doesn't turn down leftovers after his Italian family gathers for dinners at his parents' house.

Mr. Caminiti's daughter, who lives in Hawaii, had his first grandchild earlier this year. He visited in February but doesn't know when he can afford to return.

"I made a decent middle-class living, but this changes everything," he said. "I'm going to have to find a job that has retirement benefits, and maybe do the comedy on the side."

Mr. Caminiti worked for several weeks as a Census taker, at about $24 an hour. A friend in construction paid him for a few painting jobs.

The U.S. had 10.7 million fewer jobs in September than in February, despite the comeback from the depths of the downturn. The ranks of the laid-off who no longer expect to return to their old jobs within six months keep growing, a sign that some sectors may take years to return to their pre-pandemic employment status.

At highest risk are businesses that, like Mr. Caminiti's, depend on live customers. About 36% of the jobs deficit, versus February, is attributable to three industries: food service, accommodations and arts, entertainment and recreation.

"Comedy will survive, but some of the venues won't," said Mr. Caminiti.

Cincinnati's restaurants are allowed to open now, but seated diners were down more than 30% in mid-October from a year earlier, according to reservation app Open Table. Ohio now allows indoor venues to have the lesser of 15% of seating capacity or 300 people. The Belterra Park casino is open again for gambling but hasn't restarted entertainment events.

On Saturday, Mr. Caminiti performed his first show since March, at Bircus Brewing Co. in the suburb of Ludlow, Ky. He has lined up a few shows for later in the year, but had another gig, a company holiday party, postponed, due to the recent uptick in virus cases. He expects income from the last three months of the year to be down 40% from last year, after he earned no money from comedy from April to September.

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10-18-20 1415ET

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