Post-Sandy, Newly Unemployed Struggle To Stay Afloat

Dec 12, 2012
Originally published on December 12, 2012 5:19 pm

Hurricane Sandy's effect on the nation's unemployment figures was less pronounced than expected. The reasons are complex, but one thing is clear: Thousands of victims are still struggling to rebuild their lives and get back to work.

Danielle Siekierski was tending bar at a restaurant in Manhattan's Meatpacking District before Sandy hit. When the restaurant was damaged in the storm, the workers were told it might be a week before it reopened.

Two weeks later, it closed for good. Siekierski says the restaurant's finances were already shaky, and Sandy was the nail in the coffin.

'It's Beating Me Down'

Now Siekierski is on the hunt for work. Every day she gets up, goes on the Internet and sends out resumes — often applying for 10 or 20 jobs in a day. She's had no luck, she says, and "it's beating me down."

She tries to go to several interviews a day, but that has also been discouraging. At her most recent interview, there were 30 people in the room when she arrived. Knowing the window for interviews was short, Siekierski left. "I know that by the time I get in there and I wait, they will cut it off at [7 p.m.] and no one is going to even speak with me," she says.

Siekierski has applied for unemployment insurance through funds targeted for people laid off because of the storm. The money hasn't come through yet, but it will be only a drop in the bucket when it does. "It's $180," Siekierski says. "I live in downtown. $1,300 rent. That doesn't cover it."

Manhattan, where Siekierski lives, seems much recovered on the surface. But near the JFK airport over in Howard Beach, Queens, the effects of Sandy are still visible everywhere. There are Dumpsters filled with Sheetrock and stacks of broken wood in front of many houses.

One Week Becomes Six

Erin Kulick, a veterinarian, chose to work at the Howard Beach Animal Clinic because she loved the people — but also because the clinic is very close to her home. Pointing it out from her balcony, she notes its missing siding.

At first, Kulick, less than three years out of vet school, was optimistic after the storm. Staff cleaned up the clinic and ferried animals to heated shelters nearby. The head of the clinic told the staff to take a week or two off, but two weeks later, the power was still out.

"There was no way you could practice," Kulick says, "And you were starting to get mold issues." At three weeks, her situation was getting dire. "I just couldn't afford to be unemployed that long," she says.

The clinic's owner is trying to get it back up and running, but Kulick says all five associate veterinarians have their resumes out. Kulick was lucky, as she and her husband had some savings and she is getting unemployment insurance.

But the couple had to spend their savings to replace their cars, both destroyed in the storm. Finding a rental car in the interim took days, and having to care for their dog made things even more difficult.

An Uncertain Holiday Season

But "cars are nothing," Kulick says. "Job uncertainty sucks." On the flip side, she says, her neighbors have been great. "I have never been so close to my community."

And yet, there are moments when Kulick feels survivor's guilt. "So many people have it worse," she says. "There are still people with no heat."

Both Siekierski and Kulick have family out of state, but neither is sure she will make it home for Christmas. "I've never missed a Christmas, but I feel I can't really leave," Siekierski says. "Because if I do, how can I start a job?"

Various government agencies have their own yardsticks to measure Sandy's impact on employment. But the personal stories are many — and they are not going away.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

When the latest unemployment numbers came out last Friday, the impact from Hurricane Sandy was less than expected. The reasons why are complicated and not fully understood. But one thing is clear, thousands of people are still struggling to rebuild their homes and businesses and get back to work.

NPR's Margot Adler has the story of two of them.

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: Danielle Siekiersky was tending bar at Ryu, a Japanese restaurant in the meat packing district on the far west side of Manhattan. When Sandy hit, there was damage and workers were told it might be a week. But two weeks later, the restaurant closed for good. Sierkiersky says the restaurant's finances weren't great to begin with and Sandy was the nail in the coffin.

DANIELLE SIEKIERSKY: I wake up in the morning and I get on the Internet and I look and I send out resumes.

ADLER: She says she sometimes applies for 10 or 20 jobs in a day.

SIEKIERSKY: And nothing, getting no response is beating me down.

ADLER: She goes to several interviews a day, most recently a bartending position at a restaurant.

SIEKIERSKY: And I get there and there's 30 people in the room. And it's only two hours, so I know that by the time I get in there and I wait, they're going to cut it off at seven - no one is even going to speak with me.

ADLER: She has applied for unemployment - there are funds for people laid off because of the storm - it still hasn't come through. But even when it does, she says...

SIEKIERSKY: Its $180 and I live in downtown, $1300 rent, that doesn't cover it.

ADLER: When she was working, she might have made that in a good day with tips. Siekiersky is in Manhattan, which on the surface seems much recovered.

Over in Howard Beach in Queens, right near JFK Airport, you can still see the effects of Hurricane Sandy everywhere. There are dumpsters filled with sheet rock, and stacks of broken wood in front of many houses.

Erin Kulick is a veterinarian, two and a half years out of vet school. She chose to work at Howard Beach Animal Clinic not only because she loved the people, but because she can even see the clinic from the balcony of her house. She watched the storm hit.

ERIN KULICK: When it was storming, we saw waves in that Burger King. Down there is Jamaica Bay. And the practice, that's Rousseau's, that giant building there. The practice is right after where you can see the missing siding.

ADLER: After Sandy she was optimistic. They were cleaning up the Howard Beach Animal Clinic; they were ferrying animals to heated shelters in Brooklyn and near JFK Airport. The head of the clinic said, take a week or two off. But days went by.

KULICK: You know, at two weeks, the power was still out. There was no way you could really practice and you're starting to get mold issues.

ADLER: At three weeks it was getting dire. She went to the owner of the clinic.

KULICK: And I just couldn't afford to be unemployed that long. And so, I spoke to him face to face. And he said, you know, do what you need to do to take care of yourself.

ADLER: The owner is trying to bring the clinic back. Kulick says all five associate veterinarians have their resumes out. Kulick was lucky; She and her husband had some savings, all of which went to buy two new cars, since both their cars were destroyed. And she is getting unemployment insurance. But finding a rental car in the meantime - the gas shortage, having to care for a pet - that was difficult. And yet, she feels survivor's guilt, since so many people have it worse. There are still people with no heat, she says. The hardest thing...

KULICK: Uncertainty, that's it. Cars are nothing. Job uncertainty sucks.

ADLER: Have people been great, though, neighbors and...

KULICK: I have never been so close to my community.

ADLER: Both Siekiersky in Manhattan and Kulick in Queens, have family out of state, in Maryland and Virginia. The holidays...

KULICK: I've never missed a Christmas but I feel I can't really leave, 'cause if I do, how am I going to start a job? We've told both our families that Christmas giving is off.

ADLER: You going to see them at all?

KULICK: I hope so.

ADLER: The various government agencies that give employment data may have their yardsticks to measure Sandy's impact on employment. But the personal stories are many and they are not going away.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.