Unemployment diary: I'm a 58-year-old event planner in Alaska who's been out of work since March

  • The Unemployed States of America takes readers deep inside the decimated American workforce.
  • Elisa Hitchcock is a 58-year-old event planner based in Anchorage, Alaska.
  • After losing her job, she now spends most days helping to care for her elderly parents. A part-time job might be possible, but as a caregiver she worries about increased COVID-19 exposure.
  • Unemployment benefits of $277.20 aren't enough to cover her living expenses, so her savings are dwindling. Hitchcock doesn't have a spouse or partner whose salary could help shore up her finances.
  • This is Elisa Hitchcock's story, as told to freelance writer Donna Freedman.
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I've always thought of myself as strong. Growing up in Alaska will do that for you. Even though I'm 58 years old, I can still split wood, fix a carburetor, cut salmon, drive a tractor, and do home repairs. Good thing, because my 87-year-old father needs help at his off-the-grid homestead — and lately, I've had the time.

Before the pandemic hit, I'd worked at an events planning company in Anchorage. We staged corporate functions, high-end weddings, benefit auctions, and other special events. It was a creative, challenging job, and I loved sharing people's celebrations. 

After my March 18 layoff, I knew the industry wouldn't bounce back quickly.

The whole point of an "event" is to bring folks together. You can't do that if people are standing six feet apart. 

My expenses are fairly low: I drive a paid-for car, rent a room in a friend's house, and don't go out to eat. But my savings are dwindling because unemployment doesn't cover the basics. After 10% is withheld for taxes, I get $277.20 a week. (I'm divorced, so I don't have a spouse with a salary to help out.)

Work doesn't faze me. I've been a fast-food cashier, a convenience-store clerk, and a professional log cabin builder; as an event planner, I folded napkins and set up tables. Right now, I could probably get a supermarket job filling curbside pickup orders. But I can't risk exposure to COVID-19 because I might give it to my parents.

I spend up to five days a week either at the homestead with dad and his wife or at my 87-year-old mother's place in Palmer, about 40 miles north of Anchorage. My sister moved in with my mom, but 24/7 caretaking is exhausting. Usually, I stay a few days at a time.

The CARES Act stipulates up to 39 weeks of unemployment, which means I've used almost half my benefits. The extra $300-a-week payment starts October 24; that boost means I could last another six months if nothing goes wrong. 

As far as what might go wrong, I try not to obsess over a COVID-19 vaccine, the economy, or whether my job will come back. If I do start spiraling, I grab a novel to quiet the anxiety. 

Not that I have a lot of time to obsess. Unemployment hasn't meant lounging around baking bread and updating Facebook. Most of my days are spent caring for my parents, driving there and back (the homestead is two hours away), doing my share when I'm home, and sometimes helping my friend's daughter with her two kids.

Self-care has fallen by the wayside, but I'm trying to change that.

At the homestead I have my own space, the Alaska version of a tiny house: a 224-square-foot log cabin. It doesn't have electricity or running water, but it does have peace and quiet (and sometimes a movie on my iPad). I can escape the fear and uncertainty for a little while. The next day I start all over again.

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