ATLANTA—Until the COVID-19 pandemic upended her life, Cameren Cook worked as a line cook at the Lazy Llama Cantina, a casual Mexican restaurant downtown. “Life had meaning and purpose when I was working full-time as a cook,” she told The Real News.
On March 18, she was furloughed, and, like 10 million other Americans that month, she tried to get unemployment benefits. The Georgia Department of Labor asked employers to file for their employees so as to help them handle a massive surge in claims. Cook reached out to her employers, who filed for her on March 27. Then she waited.
In the meantime, she received a community newsletter from her apartment complex, Park Estates. The letter told those recently out of work not to worry because Amazon and Instacart were hiring. This might be more appealing if hundreds of Amazon warehouse workers were not holding a sick out this week over allegations of lax safety and inadequate paid leave policies. Cook doesn’t have a driver’s license, so Instacart was out. It’s worth noting that Instacart is also under fire for its alleged failure to ensure workers’ safety.
In Cook’s eyes, her landlord’s solution was not too different from Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s recent push to reopen businesses in the state. Get back to work, keep money flowing, and take your chances. Cook said even if restaurants do open on April 27, as Kemp is proposing, “I wouldn’t want to expose myself for $13 an hour.”
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms also expressed concern over Kemp’s decision this week to allow businesses to reopen. Georgia is not currently testing asymptomatic patients unless they are deemed essential workers and ranks 45th in per capita testing among the states and DC.
Now that restaurants are scheduled to reopen, it is unclear if workers are still entitled to the same unemployment benefits. The mayor of Athens-Clarke county, Kelly Girtz, shared a public post about benefits where he wrote, “SOME (but not all) people could be impacted by the crisis and eligible for unemployment even if their place of work is open. As I find more, I’ll post.” Even mayors in Georgia are waiting for guidance from the Department of Labor.
Cook lives in Decatur, just outside Atlanta, in a two bedroom apartment she shares with two roommates. One of her roommates works at Papa John’s and is deemed an “essential worker” despite most restaurants closing on March 19. They have been able to make rent thanks to his income, but as time passes, she is becoming more indebted to him.
“I have to rely on my roommate right now to do everything for me until I get the money the government says is mine,” Cook said. “That I earned. It’s demeaning.”
Georgia Unemployment Insurance Program division director Denise Beckwith said if employers file on behalf of their employees for partial benefits, workers should see benefits within 48 hours. Cook said she waited for three weeks for any money to arrive.
When Cook received some of her back payments, she paid off her bills for March and started to pay down the debt she owed her roommate. If she loses those benefits because of businesses reopening, she may have to choose between her health and taking on more debt. With every decision, rent is on her mind.
Cook is not the only one in the Atlanta area trying to make rent while furloughed. Jennifer Feathers is a lawyer based in the metro area who shared on social media an offer of pro bono work for those facing eviction. She said she received over 1,500 emails from panicked renters within seven days of her post. She added that despite federal protections and a moratorium on evictions in Atlanta, the magistrate courts are still processing filings. A recent investigation by ProPublica found a number of complexes illegally filing eviction papers in Georgia.
Sheriffs are no longer turning people out of their homes due to non-payment and courts are physically closed following an emergency declaration by the chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. But in Dekalb county, where Cook lives, the court is still allowing online filing to begin the eviction process. Together, Dekalb and Fulton counties cover the metro Atlanta area. A clerk in Fulton County confirmed it, too, is accepting online filings.
Sheriff’s offices in the other surrounding counties give differing responses about handling evictions during this period.
“I have seen at least 700 [eviction] cases filed in April.” Feathers told The Real News.
In his April 20 press conference, Kemp said reopening businesses is a question of “literally being able to put food on the table.” He’s not wrong. After Cook received her unemployment benefits, the first thing she did was buy food. She said, “I was waiting for the government to give a crap that I can’t eat. When am I going to be worth it to get food?”
Dr. Victor Chen is a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is also the author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy. Even as politicians and the general public agree workers furloughed due to the virus need help, in general, Chen said Americans uphold “a culture of personal responsibility” that can make accessing benefits difficult. Chen describes workers like Cook as facing, “a perfect storm of failing systems.”
Cook said she will not return to work even if her restaurant decides to fully reopen. She does not have health insurance and does not trust that widespread testing will take place. When asked about how she will make ends meet, she said, “I’m on my own in terms of keeping others around me safe, getting treatment, and paying for this.”