Commentary, COVID-19

Voices from the pandemic: Unemployed and dealing with NC’s inadequate safety net

While I was going to college, my parents were losing their life’s savings. I remember coming home from the University of Oregon. Dad gave me a hug in the backyard and, near tears, said “I’ve always had a dream. I can’t see it anymore.” He was deeply depressed.

My parents had purchased a hardware store in Twin Falls, Idaho. But the franchise had given bad data. Years later, California store owners launched a class-action lawsuit and won. But my folks lived in Idaho.

I think of this as I sit unemployed in Raleigh. I moved here to be near my new granddaughter, and was confident I’d find work. Months later I took my proud self to NC Works to begin the rites and rituals of unemployment. I put a resume online. I met with a counselor who didn’t know what to do with an unemployed pastor. I’m both too educated and not educated enough.

Looking around, I observed that almost 90% of my fellow-sufferers were African American. Job opportunities were posted, but most were for minimum-wage work that barely paid the rent. With the pandemic, I’m now accompanied by 20 million unemployed. One of 10 Americans. I continue to send out resumés daily.  It is like bailing out the Titanic with a teacup.

Here’s what is infuriating. If I lived in Europe, I would be held by a safety net that included healthcare and enough money to get to the shores of this crisis. Yet, I’ve heard that people arrive at the emergency room, and their first words are “I don’t know if I can pay.” The NC Justice Center notes that 14% of North Carolinians are living in poverty, including one-in-five children. They are trying—in the best of times—to get by on less than $25,100 a year for a family of four. COVID-19 has exposed our lack of a robust safety net infrastructure.

Americans don’t mount the barricades like the French. We cough our way into emergency rooms feeling ashamed. Our “pull yourself by your bootstraps” ethic makes us think this is just our own damn fault or we must suffer in silence.

I pray that when this is over, we will emerge out of our homes and rise up like the cast of Les Miserables. I pray that the 26 million Americans without healthcare, the 40 million attempting to live on minimum wage salaries and every American without $1,000 in savings will descend upon Washington D.C. and say, “no justice, no peace.” We will no longer tolerate a country without universal health care and a living wage. We will no longer accept the inequities grown over recent decades.

My dad later told me about a vision God gave him during his darkest hour. He was driving along Route 80, and the sun was setting “and God cast an incredible wave of peace over me. I knew everything was going to be ok.”

May the unemployed find comfort, as I do, in the prophet Isaiah:

Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,
and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.
And the effect of righteousness will be peace,
and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.

              — Isaiah 32:16-17.

Rev. Rebecca Kuiken is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has pastored numerous churches around the country. She lives in Raleigh.


  1. Kenneth

    April 20, 2020 at 1:17 pm

    I am an gig worker in North Carolina, as I work for Lyft & Postmates and have been unable to work due to COVID-19. I filed on March 27 and have been certifying every Sunday since. However my claim was deemed ineligible because I’m not qualified under N.C. Unemployment. I’m confused if I will have to fill out another claim to receive the PUA assistance or if my current claim in the system will be reviewed for the PUA. I’ve called DES several times, even sent faxes but no one can answer this question. Is there any chance you may investigate this? I’m sure I’m not the only one in the Triad in this situation. Thank you for your time, and if you can’t find the information, thank you for reading me vent.

  2. Rebecca Kuiken

    April 29, 2020 at 1:35 pm

    Kenneth I wish I could help you but I can’t even help myself. I made a small error in my DES form. I have corrected it three times but it “doesn’t stick”. You could spend the next month waiting for a live person to help you. I think both you and I are in the DES twilight zone!

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