Generations of Americans are unemployed in the COVID-19 economy. Hear their stories.

Generations of Americans are unemployed in the COVID-19 economy. Hear their stories.

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“Unlike most recessions where the policy goal is just, as quick as possible, get people back into a job, this was different. We actually wanted to give people the economic space to not work for a while because we wanted to reduce the spread.”

That extra cushion, which has stopped the fall of consumption spending in response to the sudden shock of job losses, has kept many Americans’ lives afloat. But the country is currently poised to leap off a fiscal cliff without an extension of those benefits, Bivens said. 

That could be dire economically for the country and for individuals, especially as outbreaks of the virus are growing in Texas, Arizona and across the Southeast. 

“If we have another similarly sized shutdown and we don’t have the extra $600, I mean, people will literally go hungry,” Bivens said. “We already saw the lines at food banks and things like that in the past three months, it will get exponentially worse if nothing changes.”

But it’s not just the possible loss of the assistance that worries Americans who remain out of work. Many states suspended rent and mortgage payments as the pandemic spread across the country, but those freezes are beginning to expire. 

That’s another level of relief lost for the record number of people who are now unemployed, many of whom also lost their job-provided health insurance.

But people like Marty Petersen, 57, don’t have much hope that Congress or the Trump administration will do much to help. Petersen, who worked as a stagehand at a theater in Schenectady, New York, for 31 years until he was laid off because of the pandemic, said that it appears both political parties seem more concerned about political wins than addressing the economic woes of Americans across the country.

“They’re deciding not to work together and we’re all getting caught up and neglected,” Petersen said, noting that he’s had to pull from his retirement savings to help pay for health insurance coverage for his family of four and is considering selling his car to make ends meet if he loses the CARES Act benefits. “We’re the pile of sawdust that they’re creating.” 

Democrats have proposed extending the CARES Act unemployment benefits until the end of the year, but the extension has yet to find much bipartisan support. 

Many said they feel as if they’re in limbo, already unable to make any plans for their future — financial and otherwise — because of COVID-19, and they worry about losing the one lifeline they feel they have left. 

Nevertheless, President Donald Trump has insisted that the economy will quickly bounce back once states come out of lockdowns. But as the number of unemployment claims continues to grow and with a number of states having to reverse reopening plans, it appears as if Trump’s confidence could be misguided.

It’s not convincing to Nicole Anerud, 37, who lost her job in the oil and gas industry three weeks after returning from maternity leave. Anerud, who had dreams of becoming a history professor until the Great Recession forced her to pivot into her most recent role as an oil and gas planner, said that she doesn’t have much hope for finding work again in her current field, especially as Texas faces a growing rate of infection. Now she’s forced to once again rethink her career goals. 

“It’s getting harder,” she said from her home in Katy, Texas. “I don’t know what the ramifications are going to be from COVID-19 or how bad it’s going to get, but I’ve got a double-edged worry of trying to find a job while balancing that with my son.”

While no two unemployment stories are the same, the common threads are a sense of dreams deferred and a need to take temporary work in the strange new world the United States has become amid the pandemic. 

Emily Nygard, 23, of Tacoma, Washington, thought she had found her dream job at the intersection of law and health when she took a position as a medical reports coordinator right after graduating from college. Seven months after she started, her company laid her off. Her unemployment claim allowed her to pay a mounting number of bills as she applied for dozens of jobs each day.

“I was sitting at home for six weeks just going, ‘you know, the world’s been taken. I’m doing nothing, and I just so desperately want to help,’” said Nygard, who said that she cried when she had to apply for unemployment. 

She eventually found another position, as a COVID-19 screener at the hospital near her home, but the job is temporary, adding another variable to an already murky future.

“It’s been a little bit of cognitive dissonance of like, ‘what’s my work worth? And what’s my degree worth? And what’s my health worth?’” Nygard said. “Because a lot of the money that I make right now is, ‘Thanks for putting your life on the line.’”

Design and development: Robin Muccari / NBC News

Art Director: Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

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