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What It's Like to Get Laid Off During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on life as we know it, and in times of chaos and uncertainty, it’s important to try and stick to our normal routine as much as possible. For many, this means continuing to wake up at the same time every day and working from home. However, across Canada and the U.S., millions of people aren’t able to do so as massive and rapid unemployment spikes — myself included.

What does this mean on a practical level?

Since I was “laid off” and not “fired” (yup, it makes a difference!), I am eligible for Employment Insurance (EI) in Canada. On a regular day, EI applications are stressful and tedious. In Canada, one million people have applied for unemployment benefits. This week alone, the U.S. saw the number of claims rise to 3.3 million (the highest figure ever reported), resulting in web pages that keep timing out and phone lines that are too busy, thus making contact nearly impossible.

The U.S. Treasury Secretary predicts that the unemployment rate could reach 20%, and many experts are expecting this pandemic to last for at least another couple of months. What does this mean for us laid-off workers? What happens when you live in a city like New York City, where there is now a 1,000% increase in claims?

There’s still a lot we don’t know.

How is this affecting my anxiety?

I’m scared I filled out my EI forms wrong.

I’d never had to file before, so just starting the process was anxiety-inducing. I pushed it off for four days because I’d have a panic attack every time I tried to start. What’s the right site? What if I fill it out wrong? What if I accidentally enter wrong info and they don’t give me my benefits? 

I finally got my first installment and it was… 25% of what it’s supposed to be. I tried logging on — no info. I tried calling — lines busy. I am frustrated and scared and in a constant state of panic because I literally can not live off of the amount they gave me. I’m panicking and stressed, but I just have to wait because I have no other choice. 

I track every dollar.

I mean every dollar. I pre-plan grocery trips. I use Flipp to compare prices. I treat every dollar as my last because… it is. It’s a drastic change in lifestyle and habit. Meal planning takes twice as long because I have to plan backup meals in case grocery stores are out of food, which they often are. Empty sections, picked over produce… that’s our new normal now. I never thought I’d have to ration both my money and food portions, yet here we are. 

I can’t normalize it.

I recognize I am not the only one in this situation. I’m not alone and it’s not shameful, but that doesn’t make me feel better. Knowing that this is a global economic downturn that will eventually get better doesn’t give me hope because when is “eventually”? When is “soon”? I’m doing everything I can — everything I know how — but it feels like it isn’t enough. 

I am not going to sugarcoat it: I am anxious and I am scared for all the same reasons you are. My anxiety is coming out in ways I thought I had under control:

  • Irrational and excessive fear (I’m scared to go to the grocery store)
  • Safety behaviors (My phone is always within reach so I can read updates on stimulus packages and latest facts as they come in live)
  • Physical reactions (My heart is always racing; my head hurts; I never breathe deeply enough)
  • Panic attacks

After years of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), I am proud to say that I am usually really good at catching the beginnings of panic attacks to avoid spiraling. But recently, I feel it in my body before my mind reacts to it. My hands and feet go very cold. My shoulders tense up. My whole body flashes between really hot and really cold.

So what now? I wish I had a solution for you, but we are all in the same boat. In addition to doing what we have to do to stay safe (stay at home, self isolate, trying to eat healthy), here are a few things I’ve been doing that I find helpful. I hope these can help you, too.

Keep taking care of yourself. Open the window. Drink water. Get dressed. Take time for yourself: bake your favorite dessert; meditate; take a longer-than-normal bath to finish your book or movie just because you can. But continue to self-isolate. Believe in humanity and our resilience. 

And even though you’re scared for your future and your career, apply to jobs. And then apply to more jobs, even if it feels hopeless right now. Learn a new proficiency or take an online course (here are some free ones: here and here). Use this time to solidify your competencies so when there are jobs available, you are confident in your skills and the value you will add. 

Finesse your expertise and expand your capabilities in related fields. Interested in marketing but only know the basics of analytics? Delve into data science. Worked in graphic design but want to take on more responsibility? Learn about UI/UX or WordPress templates. Make delicious meals and want to share it with the world? Learn how to edit videos and start a YouTube channel and grow your audience. Or maybe learn a second, third or fourth language to expand the type of jobs you can apply for (multilingualism is always a great tool to set yourself apart!). 

Mostly, just stay inside. Do your part. Self-isolate. Look fear in the face. Help a neighbor. Believe in humanity and have faith that there are good people out there doing the work to help us through this. If you’re feeling more anxious, depressed, worried because you’ve lost a job or because your finances have been affected, let yourself feel all of these things, and feel them deeply. It’s scary out there, and I’ll keep going one day at at time if you do the same.

Learn more about the $2.2 trillion stimulus relief package that was passed in the U.S. here

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