When the economy crashed in mid-March, Congress rushed in to save the day with the $2.2 trillion CARES Act. It offered bailouts for big corporations, of course, but also, on the surface, hope for the little guy.
There was nearly $350 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, which offered small businesses forgivable loans to cover two months of payroll and expenses if they kept people working, and an expansion of the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, or EIDL, which would provide businesses with up to $2 million in low-interest loans direct from the Small Business Administration.
The feds also kicked in emergency unemployment help, adding $600-a-week to typically chintzy state unemployment checks through July, making the self-employed and independent contractors eligible for federal benefits, and extending unemployment benefits for up to 39 weeks. And, of course, everyone would receive $1,200.
But—as might be expected of a massive rescue package cobbled together in days—the rollout was a mess of red tape and uncertainty. The PPP chaotically opened to applicants on April 3, with federal rules changing until the last minute and banks overwhelmed by demand. As of Monday, a little over a half-million loans have been approved, but almost no money has been dispersed—and for small, cash-strapped businesses, time is very much of the essence.
The EIDL program, meanwhile, has also been overrun. Last week, the SBA announced that the top loan amount was no longer $2 million; now, it was $15,000, and desperate applicants have waited weeks to learn if they’d been approved.
State unemployment offices have also been crushed as some 17 million people applied for benefits in the last three weeks, including more than 400,000 in North Carolina. The $600-a-week federal benefit is supposed to become available this week, but it will take longer for the system to accept independent contractors and the self-employed.
In other words: Some people can’t get help. Some people are anxiously waiting, hoping the cash arrives before their luck runs out. And some people don’t know what’s going on, or what they should do.
Here, we tell 13 of their stories: business owners, artists, photographers, bartenders, restaurant workers, undocumented immigrants, all trying to get by amid an unprecedented economic collapse and a frantic, confusing government response. —Jeffrey C. Billman
When they’re not behind the bar at Night Rider, Wicked Witch, or Ruby Deluxe, Kae Diaz is booking shows and promoting queer artists. March was supposed to be a killer month, with a beefed-up calendar promising to be one of the year’s busiest. Then the coronavirus happened, and all of Diaz’s work vanished into thin air.
And when Governor Cooper closed the state’s bars on March 17, Diaz was laid off.
They immediately tried applying for unemployment but weren’t able to log on to the government website “because it was so busy all the time.” A week later, they finally submitted their application. That was three weeks ago. They still haven’t heard if the application has been approved.
“It’s really hard to have any kind of emergency fund at all, so we’re running on fumes,” Diaz says. “It’s scary.”
While Diaz scraped together enough money to pay March’s bills with help from their former boss and donations from a fund for the venue’s staff, that won’t cover April’s rent. The four roommates with whom Diaz shares a downtown Raleigh home were also in the service industry and are in the same boat.
While their landlord said she wouldn’t kick them out “right away,” she asked for at least a partial payment for April, Diaz says. But with no unemployment benefits—and still waiting on their $1,200 check from the federal government—Diaz is worried paying rent will mean forgoing other necessities, like food.
That looming dread, however, is eclipsed by another fear: Once the pandemic passes, things will never be the same. “It feels like the day they said the bars were closed, that was the last day of that life,” Diaz says. —Leigh Tauss
Cricket Forge spent most of 2019 idling.
In late 2018, Aaron Earley and two other employees bought the two-decade-old sculpture, metalwork, and custom-furnishings company from its retiring owner and began moving it from a 90-year-old building in downtown Durham to a newer, larger space near Bennett Place Historic Site. The move itself took months; issues with the landlord, the city-permitting office, and the realtor delayed things even more. All told, they were down for eight months, and by year’s end, their cash-flow projections were a wreck. They hoped the busy spring season would get them back on track.
The coronavirus had other ideas.
They got their ducks in a row so that when PPP launched, they were ready. But the federal guidance kept changing.
“We’ve gone through three iterations since two weeks ago,” Earley said Friday. “We’ve been eligible for three different numbers. Each time there’s a new iteration on the decreasing side. It dropped $20,000, then $30,000, now less than half. It’s not even enough to cover our operating costs for eight weeks.”
Part of the problem is a rule about how much has to go to payroll. Originally, it was half. But the feds changed it to 75 percent. Spend less than that, and the loan won’t be fully forgiven. With a large building and eight employees, Cricket Forge spends equally on rent and payroll, and more still on materials. That kept them from applying for as much money as they really needed.
They sent their application off on April 6. They haven’t received an approval notice yet. They’re probably going to apply for an EIDL, too. “At this point, we’re working with our advisers finding any and all means of survival,” Earley says.
The owners furloughed their employees, some of whom have worked there for 20 years. Earley and his two partners are working without pay. Most of the retailers that sell their tables and chairs and wall hangings have closed. The company is scraping by on custom jobs: people working from home who are updating their houses.
And they’re waiting.
“Our future’s not looking too good,” Earley says. “We’re doing what we can to skate by.” —Jeffrey C. Billman
For most people, Wednesday is distinguished only by its distance from the weekend. But for comic-book collectors, it’s the pinnacle of the week: the day that the omnipotent Diamond Comic Distributors ordained long ago as new-comics day.
When the distributor halted shipping on April 1, it shut down the industry, resulting in the first weeks anyone remembers without new comics since weekly comics were born. (Not even World War II pulled that off, according to a report in The Daily Beast.)
“It’s not only that they’re not shipping, they’re not even printing,” Alan Gill says. “People are creatures of habit, and when you’re unemployed or depressed or in a breakup, you always had comics on Wednesday as a constant. Now that’s gone?”
As the owner of both Ultimate Comics—which has shops in Chapel Hill, Raleigh, and Cary—and NC Comicon, Gill is in the thick of this unprecedented publishing gap. His stores are closed, and he’s laid off all but three of his staff, gambling that they can do better through unemployment than backed-up payroll relief.
He’s been able to keep his warehouse open because, as a distributor of packing and shipping supplies, it’s an essential business. With people stuck at home with no new comics to buy, he’s doing brisk business in backstock online, and his largest expense—buying new comics—is gone. So far, Marvel and DC have suspended digital publishing, the bane of physical retailers. It’s tenable, but only if it’s temporary.
“I don’t want to paint a rainbow picture,” Gill says. “I want my people to come back to work, and I miss working in the store. I’m doing a lot of work to make 30 percent of the money.”
If Diamond starts shipping or the big companies resume digital publishing before the shutdown ends, though, Gill might be in trouble.
“I could ship, but it’s gonna be a clusterfuck and probably not worth it,” Gill says. “I would do it because I want my customers buying my physical books and not going to digital.”
And while Ultimate might weather the storm better than smaller independent shops, NC Comicon represents a huge potential loss. The Raleigh edition in May is off, and Gill has doubts about November in Durham.
“When the Raleigh Convention Center said they’re not going to open, that’s great, I get my deposit back,” Gill says. “But I’ve got to find a way to pay back all my vendors. Their money was used to pay advertising and other stuff I’m not getting back, and I can’t just declare bankruptcy and tell all these vendors, my friends, hey, I’m not going to pay you.” —Brian Howe
Freddie Lee Jacobs
Freddie Lee Jacobs was born and raised in West Durham, and he’s been a barber in the neighborhood since 2000. He was having a tough time even before the coronavirus shut down Blonthell’s, a beauty salon on Chapel Hill Road where he rents a chair.
The soft-spoken barber says he and the shop’s stylists were told they’d be fined if the place remained open after Durham’s stay-at-home order took effect on March 26. Jacobs says he was just starting to rebuild his clientele—last June, the building where he’d run his own shop for the last 19 years was sold—and his old customers had started to return.
“Now I’m just laying around the house, getting fat, eating, and sleeping,” he says.
Jacobs says his girlfriend of 15 years has been his anchor during the shutdown.
“She tells me, ‘Just hold on. We’ll be all right.’ She’s out of work, too,” he says. “If it weren’t for her, I’d be up dookie creek.” —Thomasi McDonald
The bad news is that it’s been a month since Kathleen Makena saw her last client on March 17. The good news is that she’s confident her clients—most of whom come in for monthly facials at her private solo practice—will be waiting for her on the other side.
“I have the most amazing clients in the world, and I have been able to have a very busy, successful business,” she says.
Some clients have sent money or offered to pay for future appointments in advance—offers she’s turned down. “So many people are in the same boat, and it can always be worse,” she says.
Makena has seen the anxiety of other estheticians and beauty providers, who, like her, have not received word about their unemployment status and don’t have the crowdfunding resources other industries have seen. Because Makena’s bank, Wells Fargo, stopped taking PPP applications, she’s applied for one through Radius Bank. She also applied for an EIDL.
“I went through a lot financially in 2008 when we had the last craziness,” Makena says. “I worked very hard to get myself in a position that if something major happened again, I would be OK for a few weeks. Not indefinitely, but I’m definitely OK for a few weeks.”
She feels lucky not to have pre-existing debt, and she’s thankful that her dog, Carter, who just had surgery, will not require the additional $4,000 operation that the vets anticipated. Now that her paperwork is out the door—unemployment, her EIDL, her PPP—she’s home caring for Carter. And waiting.
“Raleigh is a really strong community, and we were built by helping each other and being a community,” Makenna says. “I have every faith that we will get back to that.” —Sarah Edwards
At 22, Maria (not her real name) crossed the border from Mexico hoping to get an education and secure a better life for herself and her young daughter. In the two decades since, she’s stayed under the government’s radar and avoided immigration authorities.
She lives in Raleigh with her daughter. Because it was difficult to find work beyond low-paying hourly jobs, she started a baking business. But when the coronavirus shut down the economy, her customers disappeared. Unlike other self-employed workers, Maria had nowhere to turn for help.
She pays taxes, but she won’t receive a stimulus check because she doesn’t have a social security number. Even if she could access benefits, she says, she wouldn’t risk alerting authorities of her whereabouts.
“It is truly a myth that my community lives off of government assistance, and I encourage anyone who believes that myth to try applying for assistance with a fake social security number,” she says. “It is truly impossible.”
With no money coming in, the bills are starting to pile up. Maria hopes her landlord will cut her a break, but she hasn’t worked up the courage to ask.
“I had some savings that allowed me to get through, but I’m definitely at a breaking point,” she says. “I was able to pay my rent last month, and it certainly helped that there has been a pause on utility payments, but I know I have to pay those back, and next month I’m definitely not going to make it.” —Leigh Tauss
Before the lockdown, Braima Moiwai had a full slate lined up: residencies, after-school programs, drum circles. And just like that, it was gone.
A native of Sierra Leone who moved to Durham nearly 35 years ago, Moiwai now spends his time applying for federal assistance and state unemployment benefits. He’s nearly completed a small business loan application, and he’s applied for funds from the NorthStar Church of the Arts.
A drummer, storyteller, and fabric artist, Moiwai says he’s struggled with anxiety since learning that a close friend is battling COVID-19 in London.
“He has kidney issues and hypertension,” Moiwai says. “This is really taking the juice out of me. He’s alone. His loved ones can’t go near him. Once they take you [into the hospital], that’s it.”
Moiwai has worked for over a decade conducting drum circles with patients admitted to the psych ward at UNC hospitals. That’s his main source of income. A hospital official recently sent him a check for $200 to purchase groceries.
He’s also been on the phone with his internet provider and car insurer to make sure he can stay connected and drive legally.
“People should know that if you pick up the phone, they will work with you,” he says. “After this month, I don’t have rent money. I have to hold on to my little change for food.” —Thomasi McDonald
Portrait photography is personal. You can use a wide-lens camera, but ultimately, the details—fixing lipstick smudges, tucking hair, adjusting positions—require a more intimate touch than six feet of distance allows. And so Season Moore, a Raleigh-based portrait photographer, has been out of work since the beginning of March.
She’s checked with her landlord about suspending rent (no), with her bank about applying for a PPP loan (also no), and sought unemployment (unclear).
“Right now it’s a full-time job being unemployed and trying to access any of this so-called help we’re supposed to get,” Moore says.
Applying for unemployment as a self-employed person has proved a bureaucratic nightmare.
North Carolina doesn’t give benefits to the self-employed or to independent contractors, although the CARES Act Congress passed in March will award them federal benefits, likely beginning later this month. To get benefits sooner—and to get the combined state and federal money, rather than just the $600-a-week from the feds—Moore had to set up an account as the owner of her business, and then wait for account approval via snail mail so that she could declare herself, as her only employee, unemployed. When she received the approval, it listed a deadline two days prior. The penalty for a late application was an increased unemployment tax rate.
“I think I’ve spent the last four days talking to my accountant, talking to the bank, and sick to my stomach,” she says. “When all your friends are business owners and they’re all in it—you know, there’s grief, there’s panic. On Monday, I finally decided that I’m not getting any help. It is what it is.”
Moore has a lot on her mind. There’s her husband, who works for a small defense contracting company facing financial problems. There’s her 17-year-old son, who is spending his senior year as an unprotected worker at Harris Teeter. There’s her social-butterfly daughter, who is preparing to spend her Sweet 16 in isolation. And then there’s the community she has made over 16 years of taking portraits. She’s frustrated by the dissonance between the people treating the shutdown as a vacation and the other small business owners she knows, none of whom have received unemployment yet.
“I want people to understand that the news is reporting it like, small businesses are fine, they’ve gotten help, they’re OK,” she says. “We’re not OK.” —Sarah Edwards
As a small business owner, Nicole Oxendine’s revenues plummeted with the shutdown: no more live classes, studio rentals, or summer camps at downtown Durham’s Empower Dance Studio, and major disruptions in arts-consulting jobs for Rocky Mount Mills and the company that owns Northgate Mall.
Still, she’s relatively sanguine.
That’s because Oxendine is a detail-oriented person with five years in business to help her navigate the ever-changing sea of relief acronyms. She says she can’t imagine what it’s like for less-experienced, less-organized entrepreneurs. And even if she receives all the aid she’s pursuing, it will only be a fraction of her usual income.
“If this would have hit me a few years ago, there’s no way I would have been prepared to have the information and documents they’re asking for,” she says. “If you have it, it’s easy to send off the PPP, if you have a relationship with your bank. If you didn’t have that already, it’s difficult to get access.”
The application for the PPP changed several times after she first submitted it on April 7, requiring additional information. If she receives it, it won’t be enough to cover her payroll, any more than the EIDL, from which she says she could receive up to $10,000, will cover her $66,000 in projected revenue.
In the meantime, there’s plenty of work to do. Empower has started online classes to keep students engaged and employees paid, but tuition has been slashed by 50 percent. Virtual learning doesn’t work for everyone, and enrollment is down.
“We found it was harder to engage the younger group,” Oxendine says. “I had to comfort a three-year-old because she didn’t understand how dance was going to be in the computer.”
Oxendine is preparing to launch an Empower YouTube channel, too. Optimistically, she’s thinking of virtual dance classes as an investment that will pay off beyond the shutdown, though it comes with costs: paying for Zoom and microphones; she also wants to get a greenscreen.
But Oxendine says she doesn’t want to lose sight of the long game in the short panic.
“I want to stay on top of whatever assistance is out there, but I also want to think about what my business is going to look like after this, so it’s a delicate balance,” she says. “This has forced me to slow down, release the schedule, and be present. It’s actually been a little liberating. Some days, it’s super frustrating, and it’s like, I’m not going to do a loan application today, just be.” —Brian Howe
As artists and servers facing the coronavirus wipeout go, Allie Pfeffer has it OK.
Though she’s a dancer, she didn’t have money tied up in a dance project when the world shut down. She’s a bartender at Pizzeria Toro and Jack Tar, and her employer, Gray Brooks, is providing his laid-off staff with regular meals and CSA-style groceries. Those with benefits, such as Pfeffer, keep them. And her unemployment checks have already started coming.
The state unemployment checks she’s getting now amount to a third of her usual income, but things should improve once the $600-a-week federal benefit kicks in. It runs through the end of July. Who knows how long the shutdown will last—or what the new normal will look like?
Pfeffer’s situation illustrates the difference that a caring employer can make as employees navigate the unfamiliar, crashy waters of federal and independent relief.
“How do you transcribe high-pitched maniacal laughter?” Pfeffer says, remembering her first reaction to the shutdown. “It was surreal tinged with mild panic. I’ve never been laid off before, so I didn’t know anything about the process of filing for unemployment.”
Like many others, Pfeffer weathered a day of 15-minute page loads and failures before she got her unemployment application through by getting up in the middle of the night.
She also applied to several local relief funds for service workers. So far, those time-consuming efforts have netted her $100 from the Service Industry Relief Fund North Carolina. It was a single downloadable form instead of a website to navigate, but other local funds had overloaded sites. The low-return toil takes a psychological toll.
“It feels kind of demeaning to sit in front of my computer hitting refresh,” Pfeffer says. “It’s hard, virtually begging for money from no one in front of my blank computer screen. I can’t even, like, make my case to a person.” —Brian Howe
Jesica Sanchez always wanted to be a tattoo artist. After working for years as a cook, she finally scored an apprenticeship in Raleigh. She lived out of her car and moved around, learning the trade. She had recently gotten a job at Golden Coils, a new tattoo and piercing parlor in Raleigh when the coronavirus pandemic forced the business to close.
“I was actually more prepared for this than I’ve ever been in my life. I don’t know what I’d do if I hadn’t just reached that point of mild stability,” Sanchez says.
She’s been out of work for almost a month. So far things have been pretty quiet. Some coworkers have applied for unemployment benefits but haven’t been approved. She doesn’t have a computer, so she hasn’t been able to file the paperwork. She hasn’t tried the phone number; the state’s website is vague about that process, she says.
Besides, she’s not yet in dire straits. She’s single and rents a room—no kids or mortgage payments to worry about. She OK for now, but she’s not sure what will happen if the shutdown continues much longer.
“I don’t have a lot more than a month and a half of bills saved up,” Sanchez says. “We’re all pretty much paycheck to paycheck. None of us have worked since [the outbreak], and I don’t expect them to let us go back to work, so we are just kind of in the dark.” —Leigh Tauss
Kenneth Yowell doesn’t want to be the government’s middleman.
As best he can determine, that’s what filing for the PPP program would make him. Small business owners jump through hoops to get the loan, but the money they get is redistributed to their employees and landlords; because he’s an owner, he’s not eligible for state unemployment, though he will be eligible for expanded federal benefits.
“So we have to hope that federal unemployment comes through at some point in the future,” he posted on Facebook on April 6, three days after PPP applications opened. “Until then, enjoy your new job as an unemployment funds distributor. And BTW, if you mess up any paperwork while trying to do the right thing by your staff, you can be held liable, and it will convert to a loan that you’re on the hook for.”
Then, by the end of June, his restaurant, Oak City Meatball Shoppe, would have to be fully staffed again. But that presumes that the restaurant industry has fully recovered by then. Fat chance. “You want to hire every one of your employees back, but you don’t have the sales to support that,” he says.
If he violates the terms, he’ll have to pay back part of the loan over just two years—before the feds rewrote the rules, it was supposed to be 10—without the sales to meet that obligation. All the while, he’ll be living off credit cards.
“I think what ends up happening is, your corporate fast-food places are going to survive, your super-high-end-experience-dining restaurants are gonna survive,” Yowell says. “Places like us are gonna have a tough time coming back. Landlords will have gotten paid, utilities gotten paid, but restaurant sales will be 25 percent of what it was before.”
Because restaurants operate on tight margins, he adds, even at 50 percent of pre-coronavirus revenue, “it’ll be a bloodbath in the business.”
Despite those trepidations, he applied. But Wells Fargo quickly stopped processing PPP. So he went to North State and got things rolling.
When everything shut down, Yowell was also in the process of turning his other restaurant, Calavera, into an event space for weddings, drag brunches, ghost kitchens, and so on. This was the nail in its coffin. For the time being, he turned over the space to a group producing and donating masks to hospitals, homeless shelters, and other places that need them.
Oak City Meatball Shoppe is fortunate to do decent takeout and delivery revenue, he says—about a quarter of what it saw before. If you want delivery, Yowell says, don’t go through a delivery app. For starters, they take 20–30 percent commissions on top of a delivery fee—and have refused to reduce them amid the crisis. Besides, if an Oak City driver delivers your food, that’s someone else Yowell can keep employed.
“We are still trying to stay open and keeping staff employed,” he says. “Trying to navigate all of this is still difficult—trying to hold everything else together, keep the doors open every day.” —Jeffrey C. Billman
Social distancing is, of course, impossible in the massage business. So on March 14, with the coronavirus beginning to close bars and restaurants, Linda Zukowski closed Metamorphic Massage for Women, too.
“I can be up to 60 percent prenatal massages in my business. That’s a high-risk population,” Zukowski says. Her second biggest clientele group: women over 50. “Another high-risk population. I didn’t want to be responsible for spreading it.”
A week later, when Governor Cooper shut down all nonessential businesses, she started her unemployment application. But as a small business owner, the process was complicated, she says. She finally finished it last week.
“As small business owners, we don’t know what’s going to happen with us,” she says. “We don’t know if we’re going to get any money, and if we do, what we’re going to get. I’ve applied, but I’m in limbo with the system, and I know the system is overwhelmed, so it’s probably going to take them a while to get to people, especially those of us who are self-employed.” —Leigh Tauss
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