CARRIERE — It takes $80 to fill the gas tank inside the beat-up white cargo van 34-year-old Michael Beard calls home.
He can’t afford that, so he usually fills it in $20 increments. He spends no more than $5.40 on food each day. The shower and washroom at a nearby Pearl River County truck stop are his biggest expense, eating up one of the largest chunks of his weekly unemployment checks after child support. Each shower costs $13.
“I have to, though,” Beard said. “No one wants to hire someone who hasn’t showered.”
That’s what Beard says he’s wanted for the last year: to land a job. But all he has to show for his efforts is an inbox of auto-generated rejection emails. Soon, the money he’s relied on to get by will be more than halved because Mississippi is dropping out of the federal pandemic aid program.
Ahead of the June 12 end date, about 87,000 Mississippians were collecting an extra $300 in unemployment on top of the state’s average payout of about $200 per week. Mississippi is one of the first states to drop the federal benefits, creating a mess of anxiety for people like Beard who say finding a decent, stable job after losing work to the pandemic has been a struggle.
Beard says in the state’s smaller towns, like his own, that struggle is only amplified. He keeps a marbled notebook with information about each job he’s applied for written in black ink. He started a new notebook a few weeks ago after filling the last one.
“I applied for nine jobs so far this week,” he said, looking down at the pages. It was only Tuesday.
Gov. Tate Reeves announced the program would end as early as federally allowed, giving recipients a four-week notice. Reeves, and two dozen other U.S. governors, have said the extra benefits have kept people from going back to work.
“I’m tired of this narrative that we are lazy,” Beard said. “People want to work. I want to work.”
At most, Mississipians can collect $235 per week from state unemployment. At minimum, $30. The extra $300 in federal benefits put minimum-wage workers above what they could make at $7.25-per-hour jobs each week.
Reeves said in a statement last month that after talks with small business owners, it “became clear” that the unemployment assistance “may have been necessary in May of last year” but wasn’t anymore. Reeves’ decision came after politicians and business leaders said people were denying job offers to continue collecting unemployment.
In response, the Mississippi Department of Employment Security pushed businesses to report people who denied offers to continue collecting benefits. The employment office says they’ve gotten 4,300 reports of “refusals to work” since January. Those are just the incidents that have been reported, not confirmed by the department’s investigators.
Even if the department’s investigators found every one of those reports to be true, they would still only account for about 5% of those collecting the extra aid in the state.
Mississippi’s labor outlook, while improved, still hasn’t recovered to what it was before the pandemic.
“Our job growth has kind of stalled out over the last few months,” said state economist Corey Miller.
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows about 28% of Mississippi jobs — or 42,000 jobs — that existed before the pandemic have not returned. The job count has actually worsened since the start of the year. The April jobs report, the latest available, showed 4,600 fewer jobs accounted for than there were in January.
Although Mississippi’s service industry jobs — typically minimum-wage positions — are returning some, industries like construction and manufacturing have lost positions, according to the labor data.
Economists largely agree low wages, the cost of and lack of child care, and fear of COVID-19 are all contributing to the labor demand.
“The federal aid is just part of it,” Miller said. “It’s not the whole story.”
Before the pandemic, Alexis Lee, a 35-year-old Vancleave resident, was a teacher’s assistant in Gulfport.
Lee, a single mother of four, went home for spring break and was never called back in. Her position wasn’t needed during remote learning.
She briefly collected unemployment starting in May 2020. By August, she became a COVID-19 substitute teacher for Jackson County. It was a good fit; she’s working on a degree online in secondary education.
It was in the final days of the school year, just before her last paycheck, when Lee learned the extra $300 in federal benefits would end.
“It was heartbreaking. Mississippi has the lowest everything,” she said, from wages to education ranks. “How can you say we shouldn’t have this anymore? And to cut them so fast? People didn’t get enough time to prepare.”
Unlike permanent teachers, substitutes like Lee don’t collect a paycheck over the summer. Further, her substitute position isn’t guaranteed to be available next school year. So, she signed up for unemployment a second time.
She thinks the state should have weaned back the federal funds, rather than cut them off completely at once. But right now, she’s not collecting anything. She has a hold on her account with the employment office over a discrepancy she doesn’t understand.
She says after more than a day waiting to hear back from the office by phone, she was told an investigator would look at her claim and potentially clear it up so she can receive the money in three to six weeks. Other substitutes have reported the same issue.
The Mississippi Department of Employment Security did not respond to request for comment regarding Lee’s issue.
She has been applying for a mix of jobs: seasonal retail gigs to get her family through the next few months and teaching assistant jobs in case she isn’t offered a substitute position for the fall.
She said when she is honest with employers that she intends to go back to teaching in the fall, they’re no longer interested.
“It isn’t as easy as people think,” Lee said. “I got rejected from McDonald’s.”
Tara Owens, a 39-year-old Gulfport resident, used to work in childcare. Now many of her former clients work from home and don’t need her to watch their children like they used to.
Two of her own children are Type 1 diabetics, which makes Owens hesitant to take a public-facing job. Should those children contract the virus, they’re at a higher risk of having complications. She also has asthma and a history of bronchitis, which puts her in the same high-risk category.
She and her husband have six kids total, five of whom still live at home.
“I’ll apply to any and every job that’s COVID safe,” she said, “but a lot of places aren’t.”
Mississippi has one of the lowest rates of vaccination at about 29% and was one of the first to lift its mask mandates and business restrictions.
Owens has focused on applying to jobs paying above minimum wage. Ideally, she’d have a customer service job she could do by phone at home. The cut in benefits won’t change the types of job she applies to.
“I’m going to sit here and apply for jobs like I have all along,” she said. “I’m not going to stop doing what I’ve been doing.”
She said the decision to pull back the federal aid should have been matched with a minimum wage hike.
For now, she’s shifting her focus on her own online retail business selling mugs and T-shirts online. It’s something she can do from home, something with a chance of a payout above a bleak $7.25 an hour. Her family can’t survive on that.
“I just have to believe the good Lord would never give me more than I can carry,” Owens said.
Beard says he doesn’t see a major demand for workers in Pearl River County, where he’s lived his entire life. It’s home to about 55,500 people — 18% of whom are living in poverty, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. That’s double the national average.
On a recent afternoon, Beard pulled his van off Interstate 59 in Carriere, a few miles outside the even smaller town where he held his last job — the McDonald’s in Derby. He was laid off at the onset of the pandemic, but then the franchise owner decided to shut down the fast-food spot altogether.
Beard tucked his van onto a dirt lot with a drive-up ice machine. It was hot. He sat on a camping chair — a gift from a stranger — inside the flat back of the van so he could face the roadway.
A white poster board was beside him: “PLEASE HELP! HOMELESS MAN START A BUSINESS!! WILL WORK.”
Beard had been at McDonald’s for about a year. Even then, he was always looking for something better. He’s done the math: He’d need to make at least $14.25 an hour to inch above the poverty line in Mississippi.
He has completed some college in computer engineering, which left him $16,000 in student loans. He has worked call center jobs, which he’d like to get back into, but a lot of them are now making those positions permanently remote.
He sighed as he gestured to the van. Remote work, obviously, isn’t an option.
Beard balanced the laptop he bought with his stimulus check on his passenger seat, using his phone as a hotspot as he checked the payout balances on the state employment website.
Mississippi usually sends him $116 a week, though sometimes it’s as low as $53 when his child support is sent out. He expects the last $300 from the federal program to be deposited June 14.
His whole life is packed up in the compact space. He sleeps sprawled across the two front seats at night. Three plastic bins hold all his clothes.
His father’s ashes are in a tin box on a shelf secured to the van’s back wall. His mother died right before the pandemic, and he can’t afford the drive to Jackson to retrieve her ashes.
Beard recently decided he will broaden his job search to the Gulf Coast, where the summer tourism surge has meant a pick-up in business. Outside of his immediate surroundings, he’d been applying largely just across the state border in Louisiana and Alabama where he found slightly higher wages.
Ashley Edwards, the CEO of the Gulf Coast Business Council, said there’s a labor demand in his region but that doesn’t mean getting a job there, or anywhere, during this time isn’t challenging.
“I think with the demands comes increased wages, and in some areas increased wages increases competition,” Edwards said. “It’s clear employers are looking for talent. We live in a human capital economy in which workforce talent and workforce skills are one of the major driving factors.”
He also sees businesses recovering and having record months. That’s especially true of the coast’s casinos, which just reported another record-breaking revenue month in April.
But Edwards says workers who lost jobs in 2020 are not walking into the same economy or employment outlook as they apply for jobs in 2021. The market isn’t static, he said.
For Beard, years living with little have made it feel impossible to catch up. He just got his current van in February, but he has been living out of a vehicle for the last two years.
Scratched in his notebook is a job opening that has given him more hope than any other in a while. He had to plan when he could take the typing test around which days the public library in Picayune was open.
It’s at a call center that pays $13.35 an hour. It’s in Bogalusa, Louisiana.