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For millions of unemployed, Christmas is a season to experience, not to celebrate

Nicole Craig, an unemployed Pittsburgh mother of two, will not have Christmas presents for her two children, and the ham she bought with food stamps will be far less than their usual holiday dinner. Months behind on her rent and utility bills, she struggled to purchase infant formula and diapers. But there is one thing she couldn’t give up: a little Christmas tree and the trimmings to go with it.

Ms Craig spent the last 7 dollars in her bank account on garlands, a light-in-the-dark symbol of 2020. “It’s my baby’s first Christmas,” she says. “I wanted him to be able to see a Christmas tree.”

Although Ms Craig, 42, lost her job as an at-risk youth counselor through no fault of her own, she can’t help but blame herself when she sees Christmas decorations and other holiday reminders that she can hardly celebrate. “I don’t even want to think about it because I feel so bad for my kids,” she says. “It makes me feel like such a failure.”

For Ms. Craig, and millions of other Americans who have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a holiday season more to experience than to savor. With the exhaustion of unemployment benefits and a ruthless job market with few places, many will remember this Christmas for painful sacrifices, not the joy of exchanging gifts and having festive meals with the family.

The arrival of vaccines and the approval of a new federal relief program offer hope, but they come too late to save this year’s celebration – especially with the prospect that this winter could bring the most days of the year. gloomy pandemic.

“I’m really scared of what’s going to happen,” Ms. Craig said.

The long delay in reaching a Congressional deal on an aid bill has meant fewer freebies under the tree even as the pandemic has separated families and shifted the holiday cheer this year to reunions of video chat.

And for many families, the stimulus payments of $ 600 per person approved by Congress are already earmarked for rent and other necessities.

In the meantime, unemployed Americans like Monica Scott of Lakeland, Florida, look to the past for comfort.

“This year the only thing I can do is talk about memories,” said Ms Scott, who was five months pregnant and had to quit her job at an Amazon warehouse due to the risk of miscarriage from loading and unloading. unloading of heavy packages. “The past year has been great – so many toys, clothes and shoes.”

Ms Scott, 34, wants to cook a Christmas dinner with her three boys – 14, 10 and 8 – but food will be limited as it will depend on food stamps and lack of cooking. Ms Scott lives in a motel after being evicted from her apartment last spring, but hopes to find permanent accommodation soon.

“It’s just a bedroom with a bathroom,” she says. “The rent is due and I don’t know where it will come from. I could move in with my sister, but she has her kids and it’s just not comfortable.

Ms Scott and others will also look to food banks to prepare Christmas dinner.

“We usually do rib roast, Martinelli apple cider, a few desserts,” said Jessica Hudson, a full-time student and mother of two from Millbrae, Calif. “We won’t be able to do any of that this year. “

Ms Hudson and her partner, who is unemployed, do their best to make Christmas as merry as possible: They bought stockings and candy at the dollar store, and they have spent the last few weeks searching the local streets. more nicely decorated. so they can take their children by car to see them on Christmas Day.

Ms. Hudson’s 13-year-old Marleigh only had one thing on her Christmas list this year: a family camping trip to Yosemite National Park. Ms. Hudson struggled to find a way to say no. “She’s basically getting an iou for Christmas, that when the pandemic is over and we’re able to travel, we’ll take her,” Ms. Hudson said. “But the truth is, we just can’t afford to do something like this right now.”

Jamie Snyder, who lives in Grayling, Michigan, bought his kids some big-ticket items last Christmas: a new TV for his daughter, an Xbox for his son. But since her husband was fired in June and then accepted a job with a $ 20,000 pay cut, money has been tight.

To buy simple gifts for the kids – a video game, a new sweater – Ms. Snyder used the money she would have spent on the electric bill. When this payment comes due on January 10, she worries that her electricity will be cut.

“We just want them to have something to look forward to,” Ms. Snyder said. For Christmas dinner, she will rely on a program from her daughter’s school that provides meals to families in need.

There is a touch of Dickens in this year’s celebrations, except that the relevant story is not “A Christmas Carol” but “A Tale of Two Cities”. Even as the stock market hits record highs and waiting lists grow for luxury items like Peloton exercise bikes, around 20 million workers were receiving unemployment benefits through state programs or federal governments at the end of November, according to the Department of Labor.

Some of the lucky ones try to give back. Sterling Beau Schecter, a machinery and equipment appraiser, received a 20% pay rise in October and increased his charitable donations to a local church accordingly.

“I am very grateful for the blessing of having a job and I try not to take it for granted,” he said. Mr Schecter, 26, lives in Chicago but was able to return home to Fort Worth for Christmas.

In a typical year, around 30 members of his extended family get together on Christmas Eve. This year, to comply with pandemic guidelines, only his immediate family will be spending time together indoors.

Nonetheless, her mother is cooking up a Christmas treat – with turkey, mashed potatoes, and rolls. Mr Schecter and his friends plan to rent a local movie theater this week for a private screening of a Christmas movie.

Workers like Mr. Schechter have generally been more resilient in the pandemic recession than those in the service sector with fewer skills and lower pay. Although the unemployment rate fell to 6.7% in November from 14.7% in April, the pace of hiring has slowed. At the same time, new claims for state unemployment benefits amount to nearly a million per week.

Many of the unemployed come from industries like hospitality, travel, dining and entertainment, which were still suffering from the initial pandemic strike in the spring when a new round of lockdowns and restrictions arrived this fall.

At 10.2 million, restaurant employment is down more than two million from February and fell again in November after rebounding in the spring and summer.

Few experts expect these sectors of the economy to experience a significant recovery until mass vaccination takes hold and consumers feel comfortable eating indoors again. – or, in places like New York and California, are even allowed to do so. Likewise, stadiums, airports and amusement parks will likely remain dormant until temperatures rise and the virus is repelled by herd immunity induced by inoculation next year.

One of those people on hold is Tresa Watson, 44, who worked as a server and host for four and a half years in the premium suite at Fiserv Forum, home of the National Basketball Association’s Milwaukee Bucks. Until she was laid off in March, she was making $ 35,000 to $ 40,000 per year, enough to buy a $ 199 car seat last year for her new grandson, Khalil. .

This year, she gives him a laptop, stuffed animals and a broom and dustpan set from Melissa & Doug, the maker of children’s toys. Most importantly, she focuses on vacation experiences that are priceless, like spending time with Khalil, and feeling grateful that she can pay the rent and keep the lights on for now.

“I will offer love, hope and prayer,” she said. “And keep hope that that too will pass.”

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