Portraits of America’s pandemic economy

Selina Johansson

The pandemic’s effect on the US economy has been unmistakable: America suffered the starkest job losses since the Great Depression, supply chains ruptured, and lives were devastated by immense personal and financial hardship.

And now, high inflation is only compounding the problem.

But it hasn’t been all bad news. While some Americans have struggled tremendously, others have thrived.

The stock market has been on a wild ride since the beginning of the pandemic, reaching new record highs and enabling some Americans to retire early or greatly boost their portfolios. Meanwhile, remote work and a tight labor market have allowed others a chance to pursue a new life. And the rush to the suburbs provided many homeowners with an opportunity to benefit from the historic rise in home values.

CNN Business spoke with a cross-section of Americans about how they’ve fared since the pandemic began. Here are their stories.

In early 2020, before the pandemic hit, Euresha Thompson felt like her family was on stable footing.

Thompson, of Ville Platte, Louisiana, was in her eighth year of teaching math and science to fifth graders. Her husband, Carlos, had a solid job in Midland, Texas, working for Schlumberger, the world’s largest oilfield services company.

“He liked it, made great money,” said Euresha, 33, pictured below with Carlos, their children, Noah and Casyn, and Euresha’s mother, Mary Ross Fontenot. “We were OK and getting ready to buy a house… And then Covid hit.”

The price of oil crashed, Schlumberger laid off 21,000 workers, and Carlos lost his job. He applied for other jobs, but near-term prospects were bleak in the energy business.

Unemployment checks helped, but the situation wasn’t sustainable. To help make ends meet, Carlos started working as a driver for delivery companies seven days a week. At 6 a.m., he’d drive 45 minutes into Lafayette, where he’d field calls to pick up food or do shopping runs. He wouldn’t return home until about 10 p.m., Euresha said.

Even after logging those long hours, Carlos was making only about one-fifth of his previous income, she said.

Another financial challenge emerged when Euresha found out she was pregnant last spring and she decided not to return for the 2021-22 school year out of fear of contracting Covid.


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As money grew tighter, the couple fell behind on rent; their electricity was turned off at times; and they couldn’t afford therapy for Noah, who has nonverbal autism.

“We’ve been struggling for a while,” Euresha said. “We’ve been going on a prayer.”

The Thompsons tried to save in every way they could: They stopped using Euresha’s car; they dropped health insurance for themselves, keeping Noah on Medicaid; and they quit buying clothes. Their landlord worked with them on the rent, deferring some payments until their situation could improve. They qualified for food stamps, but inflation kept pushing prices higher, forcing Carlos to sit in hours-long lines at food banks.

Since the start of the pandemic, more women than men have dropped out of the workforce, exacerbated by increased responsibilities at home. In January, there were 1.8 million fewer women in the US labor force compared with February 2020.

Having to scrape by hasn’t been easy on anyone, especially Noah, Euresha said.

“There were times where I would just go in the room and cry, because I can’t explain to him why you can’t get what you want,” she said. “‘I’m trying, buddy, but we just can’t afford it right now.'”

But as 2022 gets underway, the family is more hopeful.

Carlos has started a new job at Oceaneering International, working on an offshore rig. He’ll be away for weeks at a time, but it’s an opportunity to help the family catch up, Euresha said.

“I know him, as soon as he gets out there whatever time he’s gonna start, he’s gonna work as long as they let him,” she said. “He just works. He’s that guy.”

After their youngest son, Leo, left for college in June 2019, Caroline and Laurie Hart decided they wanted a new beginning in a warmer climate.

So in September 2019, the couple moved to Winter Haven, Florida, from Somerset, Massachusetts, and started a website featuring travel blogs, interviews and storytelling about inspiring women.

They launched their site, TheLexperience, in February 2020 and got some early traction with donations and advertisers.

“Then, obviously, the pandemic started,” Caroline said. “And then everything that could go wrong, went wrong.”

Advertisers pulled back, businesses closed, travel halted, and panic started to settle in.

“Within just these few weeks of change, we’d gone from being really hopeful and optimistic to not having a clue of what we’re going to do,” Caroline said.


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The business was too new to qualify for most pandemic assistance from the government, and with no income flowing in, the Harts drained their savings, rang up credit card debt, and called up creditors to negotiate deferments and extensions on payments for their credit cards, electric bill and car loan.

At one point, Laurie donated plasma to get some extra money, Caroline said.

Then came an idea. Caroline, who trained as an artist, started getting creative. She and Laurie began handcrafting wooden art pieces to sell online and at local markets. The pieces — typically on sanded 5 1/2-by-20-inch slabs of pine — are an eclectic mix of beach scenes, wildlife imagery and personalized works and sell in the range of $22 to $100.

As sales have started to pick up, Caroline says she feels “quietly optimistic.”

“Slowly, we’re making our way again; but of course, having gone through what we’ve gone through, we’re having to catch up,” she said. “We’re very grateful to feel that people really love what we’re doing, and it’s something really different that neither of us have ever done before.”

The pandemic has had a scattershot effect on small businesses, and Kenneth Casseri has been in the unique position of experiencing the fallout from two distinct vantage points.

Casseri, 64, heads ProSquared Facility Solutions, a Kenmore, New York, firm that runs both a commercial janitorial business as well as a flooring services company.

After millions of workers across the US went remote, ProSquared’s office cleaning business dropped off dramatically. However, ramped-up disinfecting measures at some of its other clients helped offset those losses.

Casseri’s flooring business was able to keep busy for much of 2020. But as the winter weather approached the Buffalo, New York area, the work dropped off.


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“It was like a switch being turned off; we had some remaining contracts to complete in November, but our commercial construction pipeline evaporated and residential (as normal) cut way back due to the coming winter weather,” he said.

By that Thanksgiving, the lack of business forced Casseri to lay off workers at his flooring company for the first time.

Business started picking up again in April 2021, but supply chain issues, the pandemic, and labor shortages continued to cause delays and uncertainty.

Now up and running with a leaner staff, the business appears to be on a nice stretch, he said.

“We’ve got very good traction, very good visibility into next year; however, with the [Omicron] variant out there, it’s a crapshoot,” he said. “I don’t know what to expect, and so we’re kind of crossing our fingers.”

As a mental health professional, Kinshasa Elston has been working nonstop since the beginning of the pandemic.

Amidst heightened fears of illness from Covid, social unrest, the shuttering up of daily lives, unstable finances, rising costs, and painful and tragic losses of life, many people are hurting.

Elston, 46, of Chino, California, started out the pandemic providing crisis services for Riverside County’s mobile response team, then she worked for several months at a psychiatric hospital, and has been running parenting classes for Riverside County since late 2020.

“A lot of parents are struggling,” she said of her clients. “Parents have never had this much time with their school-aged children.”

For Elston, inflation has become a primary stressor in her life.

All of those pre-pandemic expenses are still there — the gas, the groceries, the bills, the taxes — but at a much higher cost, while her pay remains the same.

She doesn’t qualify for bill or rental assistance. Plus, to do so would involve missing payments and that’s just too much of a risk. Her dreams of home ownership no longer feel attainable, and her savings are dwindling down to next to nothing.

She said she’s currently living paycheck-to-paycheck, and it’s getting to the point where that’s not enough. Now Elston, who used to always pay with cash, finds herself relying on credit cards.

“I feel as if I have no choice but to get a second job,” she said. “I really don’t have a choice. I don’t see an end to my financial struggles at all.”

While the pandemic has helped shine a spotlight on mental health, Elston said she feels the well-being of providers like her has been forgotten.

“I really do feel like we’re the lost people,” she said.

While the pandemic forced many people to take a pause, Robert Guajardo kept moving.

Guajardo, 28, is currently a resident of Seattle, by way of Pittsburgh, and Fort Myers, Florida — relocations that all occurred within a 15-month span.

Born and raised in the Rio Grande Valley in “South, South, South Texas,” Guajardo earned a bachelor’s degree in neurobiology and a post-bachelor’s degree in cytogenetic technology.

After a few years working as a cytogenetic technologist, Guajardo wanted to learn more about the business and managerial aspects of the industry. So he enrolled at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Master of Business Administration program.


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When the pandemic hit, Guajardo’s courses went remote, providing him with the chance to pursue management jobs in other states while still taking his MBA classes.

“I didn’t have any strings attached,” he said. “I was this 25- to 26-year-old just living life.”

The first step up was a position in Pittsburgh working as a clinical laboratory manager for life sciences company PerkinElmer. And when an offer came in for a senior manager position at Adaptive Biotechnologies in Seattle, he leaped at the opportunity.

“The demand for skilled individuals is at an all-time high,” he said. “The pandemic allowed me to be more confident in my abilities, to be more vocal in my skillset and demand higher compensation.”

For Eva Wick, now 65, retirement came far earlier than she had anticipated.

Wick was laid off from her job as an in-home care worker in January 2021.

“I thought I would be able to do this much longer,” she told CNN Business, “until I’m 70.”

“I didn’t expect to retire,” she said.

Caring for people with severe disabilities, Wick was used to going into her clients’ homes every day. But the pandemic forced her to work remotely and interact with them over Zoom instead, which was a big adjustment for everyone.

As of January, the US was still down 2.9 million jobs from pre-pandemic levels. The health care and social assistance sector, which includes child care, is still down more than half a million jobs.

By January 2021, she was laid off.

Wick initially filed for enhanced unemployment benefits under the government’s pandemic relief effort and sold the home she had owned for nearly three decades. She used the proceeds to buy a place in San Jose with her son.

“I miss my home and my independence,” she said

After her jobless benefits ran out, Wick applied for Social Security. But the payments only account for a fraction of her previous income.

“I’m worried about making ends meet on Social Security. I’m low-income now, poverty level,” she said. “It’s so bad that I actually qualify for food stamps.”

Meanwhile, the surges in Covid cases from the latest variants have kept her from wanting to go back to work.

“I’m sure there are jobs available, but I don’t feel safe yet,” she told CNN Business.

Cambray and Stuart Guarino fell in love while treasure hunting in 2010 and built a Boise, Idaho-based business in the process.

They’d scour salvage yards, rummage through garage sales and scope out sidewalks for discarded furniture and antiques they could gussy up and give a second life.

Their business, Rusty Junquers, launched in 2012 and shortly thereafter became a vendor at an open-air market in downtown Boise.

“It just blew our minds; we were doing so well,” said Cambray, 39, pictured here with Stuart. “It just kept getting better and better, and we kept adding new stuff in and trying things out. And it just started paying the bills.”

The success had them dreaming of running a brick-and-mortar store, a business they could hand down to their kids.

“And that might not be in our future any more,” Cambray said. “And that’s just really sad, because we worked really hard at it.”


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Pandemic-related health and safety ordinances limited the market’s ability to operate, so organizers moved some vendors to a smaller set up in nearby Garden City, Idaho. However, the sales were about one-third of what they were before, Cambray said.

Supply chain issues and inflation have also made certain materials — such as the plywood they use to make their popular cornhole game boards — more expensive and difficult to find.

Each new wave of Covid-19 and the emergence of new variants have brought greater uncertainty for the Guarinos and their business.

“We’re taking it month-by-month,” she said. The market is expected to return to Boise in April, but the emergence of variants, like Omicron, has Cambray nervous. The couple started looking for other sources of income, and Cambray picked up a side job as a relocation consultant.

“It’s such a hard conversation to sit and talk about the future, if this business … is really going to be sustainable in the future,” Cambray said, as she fought back tears.

“You’re so proud of yourself and building something that you’re really proud of, and then it might not be something you can actually keep going.”

As the pandemic started to rage, Army veteran Joshua Smith found himself out of work. He lost his job as the general manager for a local sign and graphics shop when the business changed hands. Shortly thereafter, his 11-year-old Boxer, Caesar, died of cancer.

“It was the most horrible moment of my entire life,” said Smith, who is 40 and lives in Pensacola, Florida.

At that point, everything just started to snowball.

Unemployment benefits helped him pay rent and make car payments, but that support only lasted about 12 months. People close to him died, friendships fell apart, he got sick with Covid, he couldn’t find work, he lost the car that he was so close to paying off, he had to downsize to a room in a shared apartment, and his mental health grew weaker.

“There’s been days inside of this bedroom that were some of the darkest [moments],” he said. “I didn’t see any lights at the end of the tunnel.”

Then, in December, came a ray of hope.

Smith got a job preparing online orders for a major retailer and he says he loves it. He enjoys helping people with their orders and moving fast to get products ready for where they need to go.

And it was in one seemingly insignificant moment when Smith knew he was OK. He arrived home after work, put some groceries away in the fridge and walked into the bathroom where he placed fresh packs of razors and vitamins around his sink. For the first time in a long time, he felt self-sufficient and accomplished.

“Things aren’t 100% fixed, I still have far to go, but I have a job, I can carry myself again, and I can live more.”

Joshua Smith

Smith said he’s grateful to feel like he’s come out the other side and hopes others can do the same.

“[The] main thing is to be thankful for what we love, what we have and the privilege of loving those who are no longer here,” he said.

Mekhala Chakraborty spent the past 25 years working in the high-risk, high-reward world of Silicon Valley.

Chakraborty, 47, pictured here with her daughter, Amisha Bhattacharya, worked in finance, mostly at software startups abuzz with potential. Immersed in a field of high achievers, Chakraborty worked hard to climb the ladder and earn more money, especially since she shared half of her daughter’s expenses and college savings with her ex-husband.

“We were just going, going, going,” said Chakraborty, who notes she often worked seven days a week.

As Covid-19 brought many facets of life to a standstill, it offered her an opportunity for something often lost in the day-to-day hustle and bustle: a moment of reflection.

One day it hit her that her daughter would soon be off to college 2,700 miles away and their close relationship would drastically change.

“Just the fact that things were changing so much with the pandemic,” she said. “I realized there are bigger things in life than just the job, and I was doing the job all the time.”

So she quit, pursued some consulting work and eventually started working remotely as a senior accounting manager for a software firm that would enable her to move to Florida to be closer to her daughter.


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The move proved costlier than it would have in normal times, but Chakraborty said she feels tremendously grateful to have the ability to make such a drastic change. She’s also in a fortunate enough position to send money to family members in India who lost their jobs or saw their medical bills pile up after being ill from the coronavirus.

“Life is so short, and life can just change so quickly,” she said. “You can have everything, but if you have something like this, it’s gone in a day. Rather, live your life in a meaningful way.”

Jim and Cathy Johnson, of Laurium, Michigan, have long played it safe and kept things simple.

They were both working professionals who steadily paid off debt, socked away money, heeded the advice of their financial advisors and refrained from buying big-ticket items or the latest gadgets.

Family vacations consisted of piling themselves and their kids and some camping gear into a minivan and taking road trips.

The frugal yet fulfilling lifestyle allowed the couple to not only retire early and debt-free, but it has also provided a financial buffer as the Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the economy.

“We keep our life simple,” said Jim Johnson, 66, pictured here with Cathy and their dog, Tucker. “And while it’s not exactly exciting, the flip side of it is because of that, we have those extra funds to absorb the extra costs that are happening right now.”


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Photo courtesy of James M. Johnson

The Johnsons also play it safe with their health. They keep in touch with their kids and grandkids through video chats. And throughout this winter, camping out in their RV in Johnson City, Texas, the couple is able to hang out amongst a socially distanced crowd of fellow vaccinated retirees.

If the pandemic wasn’t in play, they’d likely entertain others more, pop out to the movies, shop in local stores and travel a bit more often.

“Life is not as horrible as it could be; it’s not as grand as it could be,” Jim said. “It is what it is; but financially, with the lifestyle we’ve got, it hasn’t hit us all that hard.”

Ever since the start of the pandemic, Thomas Harbison has been working remotely from his home in Richmond, Virginia.

“I’m a divorced father of three, my youngest is just finishing his last year of university,” said Harbison, who works in information technology. “I don’t have the added responsibility of having the kids at home so much.”

With few other financial obligations, Harbison, who is 52, has been able to cut back on expenses, save more money and is now even planning to retire in the next few years.

“I almost feel a little guilty, considering some of the struggles that some [other] folks are going through,” he said.

After the pandemic started, Harbison had more time on his hands and began focusing on retirement planning and brushing up on his financial literacy. That’s when he found the FIRE, or Financial Independence Retire Early, community, which preaches frugality, extreme savings and prudent investing.

“One of the biggest ways you can position yourself for financial independence is, well, cutting expenses, but one of the biggest expenses everybody has is their housing,” he said.

In January, 15.4% of American workers worked remotely. The increase was mainly due to rising Covid-19 infections.

So Harbison decided to downsize his living arrangements. Instead of selling his three-bedroom home, he opted to test the waters of the rental market. If he couldn’t find any takers, he’d put it up for sale.

“As it turned out, I rented it on the first day,” he said.


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He now lives in a two-bedroom townhome, and combined with the rental income and fewer financial obligations from the other property, he estimates he’s saving $650 a month.

He has also buckled down on other expenses and has put more money into his retirement savings.

He estimates he’s probably three years away from financial independence and the opportunity to retire.

When that day comes, he’s considering becoming a certified financial planner.

“[I want to] try to somehow channel this energy into some sort of good,” he said.

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