In March, Lauren Williams moved across the country for a new job — her big opportunity after years of underemployment in New York. 

But the timing was all wrong. When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, businesses, including her new employer, started to feel the strain of the new economic realities. 

Her first day at the public relations and marketing agency was March 9. Her severance letter was dated May 8, less than two months later. 

"I had a feeling it was going to come. As the new guy, I kind of anticipated I would be last in, first out," said Williams, who goes professionally by the pseudonym "Bobby Pen". "The position that I took was sort of created for me. Meaning they really didn't need me."

As the United States economy hemorrhaged jobs in March and April, smashing unemployment records from week to week, Williams held on to her job. But it took a toll. 

"When I was trying to hold on to the position and living in the space of 'Oh no, someone's going to have to get cut, I don't want it to be me,' I was clocking in 12-18 hours some days," she remembered, "just trying to prove my value and make sure that they see me working."

When she was ultimately laid off, it was a kind of relief from the anxiety and fear of waiting for it to happen. 

It also signified a larger challenge in the unemployment crisis: businesses that did not immediately have to close due to public health concerns are finally making cuts as economic impacts snowball.

That leaves the recently unemployed, who weathered the beginning of the health crisis with jobs intact, now facing an even more difficult job market even as enhanced federal benefits begin to phase out. 

For Williams, the combination of a cross-country move and a job loss makes unemployment more financially uncertain. Especially when the unemployment insurance system is inaccessible. 

"I am having the hardest time getting through to even complete the application," Williams bemoaned.

Williams has called the unemployment telephone line repeatedly. After spending hours on hold, she has continually been disconnected. 

Texas' April unemployment rate was 12.8 percent, the highest in its recorded history. People like Williams aren't counted in those numbers both because of the date she was let go and also because unemployment claims dictate those statistics. If claims cannot be filed, rates are artificially lower. 

She worries about the strain on the system. 

"That is really scary, and I'm sure quite telling about how many people are applying for these benefits," she said. "It seems like they don't have the capacity to help everyone."

While she waits to get through on the phone lines, Williams is channeling her entrepreneurial spirit to build her brand as Bobby Pen, a digital content creator and distributor. 

The middle of a pandemic may not seem like the ideal time to launch a start-up but Williams is undaunted. She is using unemployment as an inspiration. 

"I could be depressed and frustrated and like 'How am I here again?' Or I could look at this and be like, 'Look this is kind of what you've been wanting,'" Williams explained. "Obviously you weren't expecting it now, and this is not how you wanted it, but use it to move forward."

She sees opportunity in the pandemic. Telling a story about an older relative embracing Zelle, the mobile payment system, she recounts how more people who have been old-school for a long time are embracing a digital life under lockdown. 

"Everybody's online. Everybody's using social media," Williams explained. "Now's the time for people to really dive into social media and see how you can make money off of it."

While she builds her brand and persona online, she still makes time for a little levity. When asked about what she's doing for fun during the uncertainty, she spotlighted the next big app.

"There's a vocal TikTok called Voisey, and I go on there at least once a week," Williams said.

She's using the music as an outlet to de-stress and to connect with other artists, even some unconventional ones.

"I did a duet yesterday with a guy who plays the xylophone," she said. "This is just a new platform of people just having fun. I love that."

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