It’s dizzying trying to make sense of the U.S. economy these days. Are we roaring back to full employment? Or will labor shortages derail our recovery? Did government stimulus spark inflation and indolence? Or did federal relief checks simply allow workers to hold out for a job that’s a better fit than their pre-pandemic gig?
Be skeptical of anyone who answers these questions with confidence, because no one really knows. That includes Governor Hutchinson, who announced in May that Arkansas would turn back federal pandemic unemployment payments. The federal program is slated to end in September; in Arkansas it stopped June 26. Hutchinson framed the move as a way to help employers flesh out their payrolls. “We don’t need to pay people to stay at home when employers are begging for workers,” he told NPR in May. Implicit in his comments is an idea, popular on the right, that government safety nets make people lazy, that labor should bow to the market.
To get a sense of what’s actually going on in the Arkansas labor market, the Arkansas Times spoke with workers about how the pandemic changed their career trajectories. Most of those we interviewed were women — by design. Whether they got chucked out against their will or bailed on their own terms, women were far more likely than men to be out of work during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, 5.4 million women lost jobs, compared to 4.32 million men. And those numbers don’t even include the women who ducked out of the workforce on their own volition to take care of children when schools and daycares shut down.
Rhett Brinkley also takes an in-depth look at what’s happening in the restaurant industry, where labor shortages have been particularly acute, a problem some workers blame on low wages and burnout.
Maygie Stallings, hair stylist turned salon owner
With more free time to think on it, Maygie Stallings might have admitted before the pandemic that while her job was fine, it didn’t offer some of the perks she really needed. As a stylist in someone else’s shop, she could hammer out her own schedule for the most part. But when she needed to work and watch her children at the same time, an inconvenience that inevitably befalls all working moms, Stallings had zero options. No matter how well-behaved they are, kids provisioned with their inevitable clutter of craft supplies and video games clash with the hushed and sleek aesthetic of a salon where adults go partly to escape that sort of thing.
When the salon where she was working closed abruptly in March 2020, along with pretty much every other business in town, Stallings suddenly found herself removed enough from her daily grind that she could consider it with a critical eye. It came up wanting. The work of a stylist renting a stall in a salon owned by someone else brought in enough money to pay the bills, but not enough to put much away for retirement. Finances were a concern before COVID-19, but with the sudden and unexpected loss of income, long-simmering economic anxiety boiled to the surface.
“Salons were shut down for eight weeks, but when they reopened they announced it on a Friday that we could reopen the next Monday. I wasn’t ready, it just didn’t seem OK for us to just jump right back in when we had no idea what being behind the chair would look like during a pandemic,” Stallings said. “So I waited another two weeks. So I was off for a total of 10 weeks.”
And, like so many others, Stallings couldn’t tap into the unemployment system that was supposed to be helping people like her who could no longer work through no fault of their own. “We were eligible for unemployment, but the state’s system wasn’t able to process our claims. So there was a period after the shutdown that hair stylists and other workers were receiving no income. It was pretty hard,” she said.
Once she went back, a staggered schedule the stylists arranged to minimize risk of exposure chopped her workweek from six days to three. And when her firefighter husband, Matthew Stallings, worked a 24-hour shift, she had to forgo a workday to take care of her children at home.
With the entire world in ongoing disarray, leaping into a risky entrepreneurial endeavor made as much sense as anything else. Her husband and parents embraced the vision along with her, giving her the courage to teeter out beyond her comfort zone. And by owning her own business, Stallings could arrange both her schedule and her workplace. Flexibility for working families is literally built in at Bloom, the Hillcrest salon Stallings opened in March of 2021.
“Opening my own spot, I knew I would need a space for the kids to hang out if I need to work while my husband is on a 24, so we have a little lounge downstairs with a couch and TV. Oh, and snacks, they love the snacks. But I also knew we needed to have that space because other stylists would also have situations where they might need it. Child care situations happen.”
ReBecca Graham, full-time employee turned full-time student
Pre-pandemic, single mom ReBecca Graham had a solid long-term plan in place, with her job as kitchen manager and security guard at a women’s prison in Fayetteville anchoring it all. The predictable hours with the Arkansas Division of Community Correction made scheduling child care for her 11-year-old son and online classes toward her political science degree easy. After eight years on the job, Graham felt confident she was next in line for a promotion.
“I was doing school part time, all online, a little at a time,” she said. “I was fine and happy with that. We had a system, it was a good state job with steady income and good benefits and that was my plan until I finished school.”
When schools closed in the spring of 2020, Graham stayed the course, enlisting her parents to watch her son when she was at work. Then a few things happened that opened up cracks in her long-term plans. COVID-19 was spreading fast in some of the state’s prisons, and Graham worried the same would soon happen where she worked, especially since some of her co-workers didn’t seem to be taking any precautions to avoid COVID-19 exposure on their off hours. With a grandmother just home from the hospital after back surgery living next door, Graham fretted about bringing the virus to her. She took to ditching her potentially contaminated clothes in the garage and showering as soon as she got home. A few times, when she learned she may have been exposed to the virus, Graham stayed alone in a hotel. Added to that stress were the overtime hours she was working to cover for sick or quarantining co-workers. She didn’t want the extra shifts, but said she didn’t feel like she could say no.
“In my job specifically, the people who were calling me in to work at 1 or 2 in the morning weren’t willing to do it themselves,” she said.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, it was time for a reckoning.
“It was just getting to where I was exhausted,” Graham said. “And it was costing me money to go to work. I was having to find somewhere for the kid to go or find a hotel room. My schoolwork was suffering. I felt like the only choice was to leave.”
So she did. Off the table went Graham’s plan to buy a house. She needed to keep those savings in the bank while she dived into school full time. She tapped Pell Grants and scholarships, and started making and selling woodworking projects for cash. She’s on course to finish her degree in December 2022, and doesn’t plan to go back to work until then.
“I’ve gotten into a pretty good system of living on as little as humanly possible, spending as little as humanly possible. We’re stable if we can stay that way.”
Herself immunocompromised, and the sole caregiver for her son, Graham was told she met qualifications to tap Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. She applied and followed up with lots of phone calls to a busy line. Someone at Arkansas Division of Workforce Services told her she would have to first be denied for regular unemployment before she could access PUA money, but her online application was a dead end. “I never could get anything to go through. Honestly I just kind of gave up after a while.”
Months later, she got a letter from Workforce Services telling her she should reapply. At that point, though, after so many hours and phone calls already invested with no payoff, the effort didn’t seem worth it. She suspects that was the point.
“In Arkansas we really have that mentality that if we make this as hard and as bureaucratically complicated as possible, we will weed out people who are trying to abuse the system,” she said. But that approach also weeds out people who really need help. “I definitely feel like that attitude surrounds everything, from SNAP benefits to whatever, that if we make it as hard as humanly possible, people will just give up.”
Graham thinks she can stretch to graduation day 2022 with the lights still on, and that with a degree in hand she will find work she wants to do. She points to the governor’s decision to cut off federal unemployment benefits early as one reason why other workers won’t have that kind of opportunity to work toward higher-paying careers.
“They don’t want people to have access to help,” she said. “You’ve got to work for peanuts rather than take anything from the government.”
But for her, Graham said there’s no chance she would ever go back to her old job. Her experience during the pandemic changed her trajectory completely.
“Had the pandemic not come along I would probably still be there,” she said. “It forced me to make this decision that is very hard, but it’s working. I have a lot of sleepless nights. I have more stress and anxiety and probably depression than I’ve ever had in my life. But I was literally putting my body and my health and my sanity on the line for a job that, when it came down to it, didn’t have my back.”
Scott Faldon, finally off the market
Scott Faldon of Fort Smith spent two decades working as a sportswriter and editor before leaving for a corporate marketing job, where he worked for 5 years until last May*, when he got laid off. The company, which he declined to name, supplies retailers and when its biggest customers closed shop, his job disappeared. “It was kind of out of the blue, but I understand it from a business perspective,” Faldon said. He got severance and, when that ran out, unemployment benefits. But he didn’t take losing his job well. “I was depressed and angry and not pleasant to be around for several weeks. My wife and our child were very understanding and forgiving and did everything they could. It was really rough.”
He’d spend hours on LinkedIn and Indeed.com and every other online job board he could find. Not long after he was laid off, he had several interviews, but those positions weren’t ever filled as the companies rethought hiring as the coronavirus dragged on. “Each day the drip drip of news, it changed everyone’s stance on everything.”
As much as he loved Fort Smith, he worried that he wouldn’t be able to find another marketing or communications job in middle age. “Who’s going to hire a 52-year-old to work in a marketing department at this point?” he remembered thinking. “They’re going to want someone who knows how to run TikTok.”
On a whim, he put together a Father’s Day gift guide for The Woodsman Company, a local outdoor clothing and supplies store, where he’d been a customer for 30 years. He emailed it to the general manager, letting her know he was looking for work. The owner called not long after, and Faldon told him he was desperate to get out of the house. That landed him a part-time job that morphed into a full-time job in management. “I don’t want to say it was a blessing to get laid off, but the people at The Woodsman have been a blessing,” Faldon said. He’s had to adjust to retail hours, working, say, 1 p.m.-9 p.m. on weekdays, rather than 9-5, and working on weekends, but the owner has been flexible with him when he’s had to care for his 12-year-old daughter.
“When I talked to the owner, I told him if he just wanted me to show up and sweep the floors, I’d be glad to do it,” Faldon said. “I knew that I needed that, to get out of my own head and have a job. If he calls me tomorrow and says, ‘I just need you to come in and sweep all day tomorrow,’ I wouldn’t mind a bit.”
Going from a corporate management position to retail meant a significant pay cut. “But things could be a lot worse,” Faldon said. His wife has a good corporate gig, and he was able to get on her insurance plan. Over the years, the Faldons lived so frugally that they didn’t have to dip into their healthy savings after Scott got laid off. The unemployment checks went into savings for their daughter’s college fund.
Faldon is so happy at The Woodsman, which is expanding to include a bike shop, that he told them several months ago that he wasn’t going to look for other jobs. “I enjoy going to work,” he said.
Mary West, thrown to the wolves
Ahead of last school year, Mary West hoped the Central Arkansas high school where she taught would go all virtual. Or at least allow teachers like herself with underlying health conditions to teach virtually. Or, short of that, that her school would make significant improvements to its ventilation system. When none of that happened, she quit rather than risk exposure to the coronavirus. She already lived with an adult daughter whose corporate job allowed her to work remotely. She also had savings. Without that safety net, “I’d have been in a hell of a mess,” she said.
West, 53, started selling secondhand clothes and books on eBay to supplement her savings. But she had to significantly cut down on her spending as well. She and her daughter cook instead of eating food from restaurants, and they buy generic items from the grocery store. She doesn’t go to Starbucks anymore. She hasn’t bought new clothes in years, “but that’s no big deal.” Veterinarian bills have been a particular worry. West and her daughter have five dogs and four cats. In the hope of saving money, she’s been researching homeopathic remedies for the animals. She’ll have to find at least a part-time job before too long to cover bills and debt, but she’s unsure she wants to return to the classroom after “teachers were thrown to the wolves” this school year.
The notion that generous unemployment benefits, which West didn’t apply for, kept people from working is “bullshit,” she said.
“I think people want to work. People want to make a living. I don’t like not having money. I don’t like not working. I want to feel like I’m safe in the workplace. I want to feel like my concerns are valued, not just pushed aside. I think that’s how a lot of people feel who haven’t gone back to work. They can’t just say, ‘We’re going to starve you guys into going back to work.’ No, you’re probably not. You’re going to make it difficult for people. You’re going to make a lot of people get on food stamps. You’re going to make them move in with family members. But you’re not going to force someone who feels unsafe in the workplace to go back to work.”
Amy Gillespie, substitute teacher turned temporary stay-at-home mom
Ducking out of the workforce, at least temporarily, felt like the only choice for substitute teacher and mom of two Amy Gillespie. Before the pandemic, Gillespie worked at the Arkansas Arts Academy in Rogers as often as they called her in, and always at least three days a week. When schools closed in March 2020, cutting out any need for substitutes, she assumed the work of managing her children’s online schooling while her husband, whose job in the food supply chain made him an essential worker, continued logging full-time hours.
When it came time to decide what to do when schools opened back up, Gillespie made plans that took into account the well-being of not just her own children, but their classmates, too.
Gillespie opted to keep her own children home to quell their anxiety and avoid possible COVID-19 exposure. Plus, Gillespie said she felt good about freeing up more social distancing space for students whose working parents didn’t have the option to keep them home.
“We can do it, and that will create a safer environment for people who can’t,” Gillespie explained.
The family finances took a hit. But since her children were home from school and she wasn’t substitute teaching, Gillespie saved lots of gas money by skipping out on the daily drive from their home in Bella Vista to the Rogers school campus. Marking Lunchables and other convenient but pricey foods off the grocery list helped, too.
Gillespie will head back to the classroom in August, a job she prefers to the unpaid role she’s been playing. “I find it easier to teach a classroom of kids as a substitute than to manage my own kids’ daily lessons,” she said. “They just don’t want to learn from mom.”
While Gillespie said she was glad to be in the financial position to be able to take a year off teaching, managing her children’s schoolwork on top of their worries and uncertainty was a harder job. “Women have really carried the weight of families during this time,” she said.
Kim Bratton, baked through it all
A mother of two and a server at Doe’s Eat Place, Kim Bratton was surprised to find herself without a job to go to when the restaurant shut down because of the coronavirus.
“I was one of the millions of people who started collecting unemployment, which was weird for me. I had never been on any kind of unemployment, or even food stamps,” she said.
Bratton used that time to work on her already established side hustle, selling homemade cakes and cookies under her BatchLife brand, replete with cleverly named specialties. “Basic batch” is her version of chocolate chip cookies, and “salty batch” is a salted caramel and white chocolate. Bratton amped production and tried out a sales pitch over Facebook Live. It went better than expected, egging her on toward her goal of taking BatchLife out of her kitchen and on the road as a food truck. The three months she was home gave her time to fine-tune her business plan.
When she got a call that Doe’s was going to reopen, she gladly headed back to the restaurant to help with a two-week-long deep clean and repainting project to prepare to welcome customers back.
“I had thought about not going back, but at the same time, I like to work,” she said. “I can’t stay home and just do nothing. It was driving me crazy. I had to go back to work.”
But because so many customers were staying home, the tips that accounted for almost all of her income didn’t materialize. “I was probably making about a third of what I was pre-COVID. It was less than what I was getting from unemployment.”
Business has since picked up, and Bratton plans to stick there for a while, largely because of owner Katherine Eldridge. Service work is infamous for bad hours and poor working conditions. But that’s not the case at Doe’s, Bratton said.
“Katherine spoils us there, so we are very loyal to her. I really am planning for Doe’s to be my last job before I take on my own food truck.”
Kelly Simon, teacher by day turned teacher by night
She never balked at an early morning before, but 3 a.m. is a preposterous start time for even the most dogged morning person. Still, that’s when Kelly Simon starts her workday teaching virtual English lessons to students in China.
The veteran elementary school teacher didn’t seek out such unorthodox hours. She needed a teaching gig she could do from home, though, and Zooming with pupils on the other side of the planet met the requirement.
Simon was teaching first grade at the Little Rock School District’s Williams Magnet Elementary when COVID-19 first shut down Arkansas schools. She worked from home for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, and hoped to be able to do the same for 2020-21. She knew some teachers were going back to the classroom with their students, but going back to work in person while the pandemic was still raging simply wasn’t an option. Her husband, Charles Zook, is immunocompromised, and his doctor was clear that exposure to COVID-19 would be very serious for him. Her mom was having health challenges, too. So when school started again in August and Simon was expected to show up in person, she took sick leave in the hope that district policy might change so she could keep teaching remotely. She hoped there would be more demand for virtual teachers, or that other teachers would rebel against the in-person mandate. She hoped the people making the decisions about in-person learning would err on the side of caution. It didn’t happen.
“I never expected to have to make that decision. I really expected things to play out differently,” she said. So once her sick leave ran out and she couldn’t stall any longer, Simon resigned. “Which is crappy,” she said. “As a teacher, you hate to do that.” But there were simply no good choices available to her, she said. “It was lose, lose, lose, lose, lose.”
The financial repercussions were substantial. Simon resigned, so she wasn’t eligible for unemployment. The school district had covered the thousands it cost for her to get National Board certification, but that benefit was contingent on her remaining as a teacher in the district. So she paid the district back.
“I had figured out how much in retirement I could take out. I looked up the Blue Book on my car in case I needed to sell it,” she said. Family members sent some money to help out. “We weren’t gonna be evicted but there was a lot of uncertainty,” she said.
The job teaching English is not ideal, she said, but at least she’s still teaching. She said it was tough watching Arkansas teachers working so hard in trying circumstances.
“Expecting teachers to teach both in person and online was lunacy. It just didn’t serve the learners. The kids who were in the building suffered, the kids who were remote suffered.”
Simon recently landed a job back with LRSD for the upcoming school year, as a kindergarten teacher in the new Ignite Digital Academy, set up to cater specifically to stay-at-home students.
*A previous version of this story mistakenly described Scott Faldon spending a decade in sports reporting and editing and a decade in marketing.