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'Everything Changed': Pandemic Unemployment Forces Lifestyle Changes, for Better or Worse


Imagine leaving a job you really like to work fewer hours and live a more balanced life. Not an easy choice.

Then the pandemic hits, and your new employer shuts down.

That’s what happened to Sarah Butler. She lives in Bourne with her husband.

“We were planning on starting a family,” she said.

She left an off-Cape job to work-part time in a local restaurant.


She’d been there four months, she said. "And that's when everything changed."

This summer brought historic unemployment to the Cape and Islands — and many people are still struggling to recover what they’ve lost.

For others, the pandemic has permanently changed how they work — and how they plan to spend their time in the years to come.

After a period serving take-out only to comply with Gov. Baker’s statewide order, the restaurant decided to close.

When it reopened in July, Butler had a choice to make.

She has lupus, which puts her at greater risk for the virus that causes COVID-19. And by this time, she was pregnant with her first child.

“Now I'm choosing not to work, just because really the money doesn't outweigh the risks of being in that kind of an environment,” she said.

That puts her among the millions of people who have lost their income in the COVID-19 economy. For Butler, it makes the family budget that much tighter.

“It turned out, we're going to do the ‘breadwinner is Dad’ and the ‘stay-at-home caretaker is Mom,’” she said. “We're going to have to make it work.”

In the spring, the Cape and Islands took an economic gut-punch from the coronavirus, due largely to travel and restaurant restrictions. 

Unemployment spiked immediately.

Worries about the tourist season had businesses in a panic, said Kara O’Donnell-Galvin, executive director of the MassHire Cape & Islands Workforce Board. 

“The numbers skyrocketed like nothing we've ever seen.” she said.

In April, the three counties posted the highest unemployment in the state — with Nantucket at a staggering 28 percent.

That’s Depression level, though it quickly improved. The Cape and Islands are now doing better than the state average of 16 percent.

O’Donnell-Galvin said the state did a good job helping people navigate unemployment benefits, many for the first time.

“Because admittedly, it's a scary system. It can be hard to maneuver,” she said.

Some jobs have returned, but many have not. The extra $600 a week Congress approved in the spring expired at the end of July. After weeks without a deal, President Trump revived it by executive order, but at half the amount.

Meanwhile, a loan program for small businesses ended, too.

Adriana Kugler, a professor of public policy and economics at Georgetown University, said people who have good unemployment benefits get better jobs when they return to work.

“So rather than going and working as an Uber Eats driver,” she said, a person with a college degree “would wait to find a job that is actually much better for them, and ... be able to still feed their families through this period of time.”

The national unemployment rate of 8.4 percent has dropped substantially since April. About 14 million Americans are unemployed and actively looking for work. But that number is small compared to the nearly 30 million people who have active claims for unemployment insurance.

“We're not even close to being out of the woods,” she said.

Kugler served as chief economist of the U.S. Department of Labor under President Obama.

She says compared to a typical recession, the pandemic has hurt more workers in low-wage jobs. In particular, people of color and women are overrepresented in that group.

“Hispanics and African-Americans have suffered disproportionately — both from the pandemic, on the health front, in terms of infections and that, but also on the economic front,” she said.

With all the doors that have closed, Kugler said the pandemic has opened new doors for people who can get the right training — in testing and tracing, IT support, pharmaceuticals, and counseling.

So much has changed about the way we work.

Sarah Butler, the new mom in Bourne, said for her, the nudge toward staying home was a blessing in disguise, though she knows that’s not true for everyone.

“You know, I'm not a trust fund baby,” she said. “We have to make sacrifices, but it's pretty exciting.”

Ready or not, their baby is due next week. And like many people, they're planning a future very different from the one they envisioned before the pandemic.