COVID-19 has put nearly 800,000 New York City residents out of a job. But for Shakira Crawford, a single mother of three, losing work was particularly scary.
Crawford had been homeless for 16 months until she got a job at a boutique hotel in Midtown four years ago doing housekeeping. It was a union job that paid well and provided good benefits.
But in March she was laid off.
“They're telling me basically, because of what's happening with the coronavirus there's no one coming in the hotel,” Crawford, 42, said in an interview in March.
COVID-19 dealt an immediate and devastating blow to New York City’s restaurant and hotel workers like Crawford. A third of the jobs that have disappeared since February were in the leisure and hospitality sector, according to data from the state Department of Labor.
But when Crawford lost her job, she and her three kids, Joshua, Jordan, and Julia, immediately started worrying. A few years ago, they had been homeless for 16 months. WNYC followed their journey back in 2015, and when they finally found a way out of the shelter system, Crawford and her kids ended up in an apartment in Wakefield in the Bronx. They’ve been there ever since.
“I could see the concern on their faces when my boys asked me, ‘What's gonna happen if you don't work and then we can't pay the rent?’” she said.
Her only recent job experience was in hotels. As the pandemic spread through the city, and service sector jobs dried up, she started to look for work she could do from home. But the options were limited.
“My job’s not an at-home job, because I don't have a bachelor’s degree in anything,” she said.
Over the past four months, she’s been spending her mornings glued to her computer, listening to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s daily briefings to get news about the coronavirus and possible job leads. After the state and city announced they would hire thousands of contact tracers, for example, she applied to become one. She also applied for call center jobs and regularly checked the MTA’s website for openings.
In the meantime, like more than 20 million Americans, she relied on unemployment benefits. Crawford has been getting $500 a week from the state and an additional $600 from the federal government. That’s $1,100 every week—more than what she used to earn at the hotel.
Those supplemental federal payments expire at the end of the month, and Congress is currently considering whether and how to extend them. Crawford’s been thinking about that all along.
“I think having a job is better than just relying on unemployment because what happens after all that is over,” she said.
With the job loss and the schools shutting down, the whole family has been spending a lot of time together. Julia, 12, actually liked getting a break from commuting to school every day, lugging her bag and going to classes.
“Remote learning you can do all the work at one time, so you could do it earlier and have the rest of the day to yourself,” she said.
Jordan, 16, and Joshua, 18, spent most of their free time playing video games. During extraordinary times the family found joy and ways to maintain normalcy, cooking together, re-organizing the apartment, and celebrating milestones, like Joshua’s high school graduation.
Crawford felt optimistic at the beginning of the pandemic, but she was always cautious. She stopped paying her landlord, thinking legislators might mandate rent reductions, and saved some of her unemployment money. Thoughts about homelessness were never far from her mind.
“I kept thinking about it day and night,” she said. “I didn’t tell the kids, but I was thinking about it a lot. A lot.”
Early one morning this week, she got a call from the hotel asking her to come back to work. She quickly made her way to Midtown, got training on cleaning rooms in the age of COVID and put on her grey uniform. She’s working five days this week, but her future remains uncertain. The hotel hasn’t committed to bringing her back in the coming weeks. Still, she said, this feels like a victory.
“It’s much more happy than Christmas,” she said. “It’s like when you get something so good, because you haven't had it for such a long time.”