Pasadena family relied on unemployment benefits that have now expired. How are they making it work?

As Congress and the president argue over how to help the 30 million Americans who are now unemployed, many of those Americans are struggling to survive.

Pasadena resident Vania Harris was working as a bartender before the pandemic hit. She and her husband have a 2-year-old child. 

She says it’s disturbing that Congress can’t agree on a plan to extend unemployment benefits. “These are people’s livelihoods. We didn’t create this pandemic. It’s kind of hard because every day is passing and people still have bills. So don’t take it lightly. But come on, get the work done.” 

Harris was receiving the extra $600 per week in federal unemployment benefits. But since that aid expired, she had to rebudget. 

“Some things are going to go through the cracks. Some things might not get paid. … We see people moving out of their apartments. … It comes down to some major changes in our lives,” she says. 

Harris says that fortunately, she and her family had savings plans since they were married. “The $600 really helped. … So to take it away, it’s like, ‘Okay, let’s redo it again.’ We dipped into savings. You dip into mutual funds earlier than planned. So you make it work. And then looking for jobs.” 

Harris didn’t get a chance to return to work because restaurants shut down, briefly reopened, then shut down again. She notes that she was a newbie bartender who worked part-time. 

Her husband was working full-time as a physical education teacher and athletic director at a private school in Koreatown. Harris says that he won’t get his job back. 

How much money does her family bring in now? Harris says it’s $100 per week for herself and $350 per week for her husband. So they’re living on $450 per week plus their savings. 

And Pasadena isn’t a cheap place, but they’re able to cover the rent. Harris says she and her husband saved enough money to cover rent for the next four to six months. She hopes that they’ll be able to find new jobs. 

“We’ve thought about if we have to leave here, what will we do and where will we go? And if we need to downsize. … We’re just praying about it all because we don’t have all the answers either.” 

This pandemic has made her reconsider trusting the system, she says. “I don’t trust the system. One minute, you could be receiving a check to help you out from pandemic, a stimulus check. And the next thing, you don’t. We can only trust the people ... that we have in our circles that can possibly help us. You have a job today, it’s gone tomorrow. Who can we rely on?”

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin