Unemployment diary: I’m a 51-year-old bartender in Kansas who’s been out of work since March

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Kansas 4x3
Stacie Sulzen.

The Unemployed States of America takes readers deep inside the decimated American workforce.
Stacie Sulzen is a 51-year-old bartender based in Kansas City, Kansas.
Her bar closed at midnight on March 16, and she hasn’t been back since.
It took her about three months to start getting unemployment, and she didn’t have any money left by the time it arrived.
This is her story, as told to Jill Dutton. 
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I’d worked as a bartender for 27 years when the shutdown of the bars went into effect in Kansas. I was working at Reich’s Club, a small dive bar in Kansas City, Kansas, when the owner told me on March 16 to close the doors at midnight. 

I haven’t been back since.

It was such an uncertain time. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I didn’t really think it would last. I figured a week or two and things would start going back to normal. The day after closing, I went out and bought a bunch of cans of soup and TV dinners.

The bar was sold during the shutdown period and the new owner, not knowing how long it would last, began gutting the bar to make renovations. At first, when I heard the previous owner washed his hands of it, I wondered if I’d have a job to go back to at all. The new owner does plan to bring us back, but it’s not ready to open yet.

In 27 years as a bartender, I’ve never taken a day off that I was scheduled to work. I would even cover other people’s shifts, often working double shifts. I just worked all the time. So at first, it was kind of neat to have some time off. You don’t get vacation days when you’re a bartender. There’s no insurance, no 401(k) — you live on tips and that’s how you live.

The first couple weeks, it was nice to sleep in and know that no one was going to call me into work. Then it got to the point where I was ready for the vacation to be over and get back to work. Food was running out; money was running out. It took about three months to start getting unemployment. 

Luckily, I have friends and family that helped me out. For my bills, when they would call, I would tell them that as soon as I had some money, I would send it their way. I was lucky that I never got any threats of the electricity being shut off, and my landlord was very kind and never said a word about my rent being late. I was very fortunate because I knew a lot of people who didn’t have understanding landlords.

By the time I received my first unemployment check, I didn’t have any money left.

I paid my electric bill and gave the rest of that first check to my landlord, except for a small bit I kept for myself. I did that again with the next few checks. So for the first month of getting unemployment I was still broke, because I was trying to catch up from three months of arrears.

The Kansas unemployment site was screwy, too. Even once I was getting checks, the site would go down and I couldn’t file a claim. Or I would file a claim and get an error message. It was a mess. It took me probably a month to get through by phone to the unemployment office just so I could get the errors fixed regarding the back pay I was owed. For those three months of unemployment in the beginning, I was owed five weeks of back pay. Finally, last week, I received the back pay.

I used the money to pay off all my bills. I actually paid ahead because I don’t know how long this will continue. My eligibility for unemployment has now run out. I filed for an extension a couple weeks ago, but again, haven’t heard anything yet.

When I was younger, I did some factory work. It seems like everyone I know who works in a factory hasn’t missed a beat because they’re considered essential workers. So I was thinking about doing that. I mean, there have been threats of them shutting the bars down again, so bartending or serving doesn’t look too promising going forward.

I have a job waiting for me when the remodeling at the bar is finished, but I can’t go to work until then. And even then, only half-capacity is allowed, so there isn’t much opportunity for tips.

I’m thinking factory work will be where I need to go.

I’ve been happy bartending — especially the socialization that comes with the job — so I know I’ll miss that if I have to take a factory job. Really, I worry that I won’t be able to find any job. What if everyone else decides to do the same thing as me and go into factory work? There might not be a job to go to. 

I’m glad I was able to prepay my bills for a few months, but after that, the future looks uncertain.

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