A new baby and a 9-month furlough with no end in sight: How COVID is straining Mich. families

By: - December 17, 2020 8:27 am

Rachael Guzzardo with her husband, Craig, and their two children

When Rachael Guzzardo was furloughed from her job as a physical therapist for a large health system in metro Detroit in May, the mother of two, including a son born on Feb. 29, applied for unemployment. When she was told she could receive the benefits for up to 26 weeks, Guzzardo told her husband, “There’s no way I’ll need that many weeks.”

By the end of summer, she figured, she’d be back at work. But, the summer came and went, and her job kept telling her she’d be able return soon. That she was “in the next round, probably.”

Rachael Guzzardo with her two children

Now Christmas is next week, and she’s still not back at work.

“I went from being a full-time working parent of one to a stay-at-home mom of two, and it’s been the weirdest experience of my life,” Guzzardo said.

Guzzardo is certainly not alone. Since March, about 62% of Michigan households with children have lost employment income at some point during the pandemic, according to a new nationwide report analyzing the impact of COVID-19 on families. 

Published earlier this week, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s “Kids, Families and COVID-19: Pandemic Pain Points and a Roadmap for Recovery” pieces together a picture of families struggling with job loss, mental health, eviction, foreclosure, food insecurity and difficulties paying for usual household needs, such as rent and mortgage, student loans and medical expenses.

The report, which is part of the foundation’s and Michigan League for Public Policy’s (MLPP) “Kids Count” program, examines data about households with children ages 0 to 17 from weekly surveys conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau between April and October. Data updated through November is available through the foundation’s website.

“We have known since the coronavirus pandemic hit Michigan that it was going to hit families with children particularly hard, but this report gives us concrete data to show how parents are faring and where help is most needed,” said Kelsey Perdue, MLPP Michigan Kids Count project director.

So exactly how are families in Michigan faring? To begin with, many have seen a significant drop in income after being laid off or furloughed from their jobs. Sixty-two percent of adults in the state reported losing employment income during the pandemic.

Guzzardo, for example, is now looking for another job after facing months of being furloughed.

“I haven’t talked to my supervisors about that, but they’d be delusional to think nine months in I don’t need money,” said Guzzardo, who had been on unpaid maternity leave before the pandemic.

But, COVID-19 has made physical therapy jobs scarce. The demand for physical therapy as it once existed isn’t there for a variety of reasons, including fewer elective surgeries being performed and a drop in sports injuries because teams aren’t playing.

“I have a doctorate, and I’m legitimately considering applying for positions that require high school education because there are no jobs to be had,” Guzzardo said.

Adam Pierce, a Flint native who currently lives in the Detroit suburb of Oak Park was furloughed from his advertising job in May and is now back at work full-time.

“It was really stressful,” said Pierce, who lives with his wife and 10-year-old daughter.

After being furloughed, Pierce filed for unemployment and said it was “an absolute nightmare.”

“Probably about 12 weeks went by, and I still hadn’t received any benefits,” he said. “I couldn’t get through to anybody.”

Finally, after extensive legwork, Pierce discovered the state had “put a hold” on his Social Security number because his identity had been stolen, and, in 2018, someone had tried to file a false claim under his name and Social Security number. But Pierce had never been notified of this. 

“I finally got my unemployment benefits a week before they called me back to work,” he said. 

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Struggles with food insecurity, eviction and mental health

The drop in income faced by Michiganders has led to families being unable to pay for basic needs.

Using an average of the weekly Census Bureau surveys between April and November, more than one-third — 38.6% — of adults raising children said it’s been “somewhat or very difficult” to pay for typical household expenses, like food, rent, car payments, student loans and more.

In that same time period, 17% of Michigan adults with children reported having little or no confidence they’ll be able to pay their next rent or mortgage payment on time, and 13.2% said their households “sometimes or often did not have enough food to eat in the past seven days.” 

With no money for rent or mortgages, families are deeply worried about facing eviction or foreclosure. In the Census Bureau surveys from August through November, an average of 27% of households said they are “very likely or extremely likely to have to leave their home/apartment due to eviction or foreclosure in the next two months.”

As parents navigate everything from job loss to eviction, households have been hit hard by mental health concerns. About 22% of adults responding to the Census Bureau surveys between April and November said they were feeling “down, depressed or hopeless for more than half of the days or nearly every day” for the past week.

That number increases to 31.6% for adults who said they’ve felt “nervous, anxious or on edge” for most, if not all, of the past week.

For Guzzardo, mental health has been one of the biggest challenges she has faced this year. 

“Whether it’s because of the pandemic, the isolation, by the time I went to my six-week postpartum appointment, I was getting into the depths of postpartum depression,” she said.

When she had her son on Feb. 29, she also had the flu. Because of that, family members were planning to see her and the baby a week or so after the birth. Then COVID-19 arrived.

“We went from, ‘We’ll see you all in a week,’ to, ‘We don’t know when we’re going to see anybody,’” she said. “It was so isolating and so abrupt. I got so depressed. I have a propensity for depression and anxiety, but I’ve never felt like this in my life. I told my husband, ‘I don’t want to die, but I do not want to be here.’ Mentally, I was checked out.”

Guzzardo ended up speaking with her health care provider about the depression, after which she was able to connect with a therapist who specializes in working with postpartum mothers. 

“She’s been phenomenal in helping me pull myself out of this,” Guzzardo said. “… My son and mental health were the greatest gifts I’ve been given this year.”

Report sheds light on racial inequities

The statistics detailed in the Kids Count report highlight Michigan’s racial inequities. Black residents, who, along with facing a greater risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19 due to systemic racism, are experiencing job loss, financial instability and food insecurity at higher rates than white individuals.

A little more than 70% of Black families, for example, reported losing employment during the pandemic, compared to 57.9% of white households.

Far more Black adults — about 33% — said they were worried they won’t be able to make their next rent or mortgage payment on time. Meanwhile, 12.9% of white households reported the same. And 27.4% of Black families stated in the surveys between April and November that they “sometimes or often did not have enough food to eat in the past seven days,” compared to 10% of white adults.

Calls for lawmakers to help

In light of this data, the Michigan League for Public Policy is calling for state legislators to take up COVID-19 relief during its 2020 Lame Duck session, including a six-week extension of emergency unemployment benefits, a moratorium on water shutoffs, and a $100 million COVID-19 relief fund proposed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. 

The last day of voting looks to be Monday. Although with the House losing a week of sessions because of concerns over another COVID-19 outbreak, that could change.

“If lawmakers have been waiting for a clear signal and opportunity to pass policy that helps vulnerable kids and families, this is it,” Perdue said. “Michigan kids and their parents urgently need help, and our leaders need to respond with that same sense of urgency. There are plenty of concrete pieces of legislation to address unemployment and other relief that are just waiting for a vote.” 

Despite these calls, the MLPP did not appear optimistic that the state will act, or that any action from them will be enough.

“However, as legal, fiscal and political tensions between the governor and the Republican-led Legislature continue, additional federal aid and funding is key to helping Michigan families weather this storm,” the nonprofit’s press release this week stated.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation urged federal policymakers from both sides of the aisle to place COVID-19 relief at the top of their 2021 agendas. As part of the same news release, the foundation called for prioritizing racial and ethnic equity in policymaking in order to center and support those hit hardest by the pandemic. The foundation also said policymakers need to “prioritize the physical and mental health of all children by guaranteeing that any vaccine will be available without cost as a factor and by retaining and strengthening the Affordable Care Act.”

To help financially burdened families, the foundation called on lawmakers to expand access to child care, as well as to unemployment insurance for part-time and gig economy workers, low-wage workers and students. Further, to address financial instability, policymakers “should eliminate barriers to accessing” a variety of government programs, including the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit.

In order to address the impending foreclosure and eviction crisis, federal policymakers need to expand the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program and increase the overall availability of public housing, according to the foundation.

As legislators hash this out, parents said they cannot stop thinking of the end to this pandemic. 

“A year is a long time for a professional to be off, and I’m hopeful in the future that when someone looks at my resumé and they see I was unemployed for 2020, they understand,” Guzzardo said. “We need a Zoom support group for furloughed working mothers pulling their hair out right now.”

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country.