The day I woke up to find my industry had vanished

CNN/ Newswire | 12/3/2020, 11:05 a.m.

Opinion by Gabbie Riley

(CNN) -- What if you woke up one day and discovered that your industry had just disappeared? The industry you had spent years learning, loving, building and becoming respected within just ... gone?

While many go on with their new normal of working remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic, you and your networks of friends and colleagues are left with nothing.

I'm in sales for the hotel industry ... or at least I was. On Sunday, March 8, I was heading to California from Minnesota, where, because of the freezing weather, I was in need of a dose of warmth and vitamin D. Little did I know then that a blissful Sunday brunch in Santa Monica would be my last dose of travel for the rest of 2020.

By Tuesday, Coachella had postponed its festival. By Wednesday, the NBA announced that it was suspending its season and the MLB announced that spring training and the beginning of the season were suspended. My specialty in hotel sales was in sports and entertainment. A triple threat of industries pulling the emergency brake.

Instead of feeling productive heading home that Thursday, I was surrounded by chaos. From the hotel, to the airport and on board my flight, I spent every waking moment fielding inquiries from management on the unexpected financial blow and possible recovery. Hour by hour, there were updates in how we were going to handle the changes, and client after client wondered what canceling a contract would entail.

The next week was spent processing over a million dollars in canceled revenue while Googling the definition of "furlough" and wondering when my inevitable one would begin. With shelter in place orders beginning to be enacted around the country, I learned that my furlough would begin Monday and our hotel closed that Friday. We all hunkered down hoping time would pass quickly. The fall would be busier than we had planned. This was just a temporary setback, we all thought.

But then the three-month furlough turned into six and as month six was hitting, it was pushed to a year. This time without benefits and no guarantee that I will have a job to go back to on March 31, 2021.

The Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefits are scheduled to end right after this Christmas for the 13.5 million Americans enrolled if Congress doesn't act soon to pass another stimulus package.

While many states, including Minnesota, where I live, will activate their "extended benefit" (EB) programs, payout is directly associated with each state's unemployment rates each week and can be halted when the rate dips below a certain percentage. And it's important to note that not all states offer this extension.

Saying it a little louder for those in the back: unemployment compensation is not livable. Unemployment assistance requires sacrifices and adjustments, as it is only a small fraction of your normal earnings. I am one of the lucky ones using some retirement savings to cover my basic necessities: food, rent, car and auto insurance.

In my case, cable TV and medical insurance became a luxury that I couldn't afford. Yes, my quote for my little family of two is $400 a month for a $12,000 deductible for the Affordable Care Act and $1,200 a month for COBRA -- insurance is a luxury.

Among those being hit the hardest are gig workers and sole proprietors, who earn their living independently and don't qualify for standard unemployment benefits. As of October, over nine million self-employed or gig workers were enrolled in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

Many of them worked in the live events and entertainment industry, which along with the hospitality/travel industries, are frozen, dead or dying and cannot start a recovery until a vaccine is distributed to the masses.

Sorry folks, despite some citing "bad leftist leadership" in blue states for these industries suffering, the fact is that these markets aren't thriving globally. If and when they can begin the process of recovering, there are steep repercussions and hurdles after a year or more without sustainable revenue. Many hotels, restaurants and live music venues will not reopen.

That's an abysmal thought. And when you think about the fact that these businesses are a gateway to connecting people with diversity, losing many of them would essentially be the death of culture.

Millions of us around the world are being forced to pivot from our beloved careers at a time when there are more unemployed people than available jobs and the jobs available are outside of our honed industries.

Our lack of hard skills, like career-specific technical knowledge, keeps us from being even slightly considered. And as for our high caliber, transferable soft skills, like being a leader and an effective communicator that can't be taught? Ignored. Changing industries at any time is difficult, but in a pandemic, things are even worse. And I get it, training people in new hard skills is a challenge while remote. However, it's not impossible, and great leaders know that.

Understand that we spend our days scanning job boards, attempting to network virtually and trying to beat artificial intelligence technology with each application in hopes of finally getting our resume in front of a human. We're budgeting and rebudgeting, trying to figure out how to make ends meet. We're being ghosted more than rejected after sending emails asking for help, resumes are uploaded or interviews are completed. We're underqualified. We're overqualified. Still, despite what we're enduring, we're showing compassion and empathy for each other. One way we do that is by posting in industry-specific social media groups, trying to support one another as much as possible.

I volunteered all summer and worked in the polls this past election. It feels good to give back and have purpose. What doesn't feel good is being in dire need and seeing comments on social media accusing millions of us of "abusing the system."

It also doesn't feel good to find ourselves in this situation through no fault of our own with absolutely no rush or determination by Congress and the White House in trying to give us a lifeline. It hurts. It's exhausting. It's defeating. It's numbing. It's stressful. It's isolating. It's maddening. In layman's terms? It sucks.

Nine months have passed since millions of us lost our livelihoods overnight; however we're only a few pieces of the Covid-19 pandemic puzzle. Conveying the unemployment challenges currently being navigated is critical, but collectively it is all so much more. Friends, Covid-19 is our enemy, not each other.

Muhammad Ali once said, "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth." That mantra is more important now than it ever was before. Even among our most trying personal situations, we all have something to contribute here. Be kind. Wear a mask. Social distance. Stay home. Support small business. See a need, fill a need. And Congress? Get your act together.