My Pandemic Experience as a Laid Off, Working Poor Student

Category: Listening Sessions, Personal Stories, Poverty News & Policy Updates, The Safety Net

March 21st, 2022

Sadia Escovar will graduate in June from Compton College where she is the vice president of the Associated Student Government. In the Fall, she will attend a California State University.

This June, I will graduate from Compton College with four associates degrees—in Spanish, Ethnic Studies, Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Cultural Communications. In the fall, I will transfer to a California State University to pursue a career as a court translator and, ultimately, obtain my PhD and teach Spanish.

I am now age 36—a mother, role model, and breadwinner for my 7-year-old daughter—and I’m exactly where I want to be. As is the case for so many of my community college peers, it’s taken a lot of hard work and perseverance to get here, and there is a lot more we could do to ensure that more of us are able to realize our dreams.

I grew up in poverty in Lynwood, California. I’ve never been a stranger to hard work, nor was my mother, or most other people I knew during my childhood. I worked full-time for 15 years in finance and accounting in corporate America before returning to school.

In 2019, when I enrolled at Compton College, I was a full-time student with a full-time job. I needed to work to support my daughter, as well as my mother who’s been medically disabled for 7 years and was battling cancer. 

When the pandemic hit, my life was turned upside down as it was for so many of us. I was laid off and unable to look for new work because I had no safe daycare for my daughter. I filed for unemployment. It took them 6 months to process my claim, which eventually I learned was due to an identity error. I’m tech savvy, I knew how to follow up. I would call but was unable to get help over the phone. My application was lost. I would resubmit paperwork to no avail. I kept records in a manilla folder which contained everything I had provided the California Employment Development Department (EDD) to process my claim. Still, I reached only dead-ends. 

I had managed some savings over the years but by the fall those were used up—on rent, food, and the basics of living. So I turned to LA County for emergency rental assistance. I was told that Long Beach where I resided had its own program, and I could apply in April 2021. That was too far away. I then learned I could obtain $300 per month rental assistance through a program at Compton College, but my landlord didn’t want to give her personal information to a school and said she would only work with the city. 

I reached a point where I was unsure what would happen to me and my daughter—that we might end up homeless. So, for the first time in my life, I went to the welfare office—the LA County Department of Public Social Services (DPSS). It was one of the most difficult experiences in my life.

I was already scared about my daughter and my vulnerability. But I was also scared to ask for help. When my turn came, I began by trying to explain my situation. The individual helping me interrupted.

Many people in both cities think the public and elected leaders don’t understand the trauma of living in poverty—“I don’t need to hear your whole life story. Just fill this out,” she said, handing me paperwork.

After I finished, she proceeded to tell me that they couldn’t do anything to help me until I received a letter denying my unemployment claim. 

“But it’s been almost six months I’ve been waiting for an answer,” I said. “How can you help me?”

She couldn’t.

When I left, I felt like I had been treated as if I were a burden to society, that I was seen as less than a full person. It affected my sense of dignity. Only recently have I realized that no one can take away our dignity—whether we are working, or not working, our dignity is innate and we should all be treated that way. If we aren’t, that’s on the other person, not on us.

When I was finally able to apply to Long Beach for rental assistance, my landlord—who was only owed $500—would not provide the information the agency said would make my case a priority (like her bank account or P.O. Box to receive the funds, proof of ownership or mortgage, etc.). Meanwhile, I had submitted my online application, uploaded my lease to my file, and provided the past due notice my landlord had taped to my front door for all my neighbors and then-6-year-old daughter to see. (Thankfully, my daughter couldn’t read it.) Nearly a year later, I am still waiting for that application to be processed.

It was the resumption of the fall semester at Compton College that saved me. I was able to use some financial aid towards expenses. EDD finally approved my unemployment application and the back payments I was eligible for. DPSS then approved me for food assistance and cash aid—I’m grateful, but still find it absurd that I was unable to receive that assistance until after my unemployment was approved.

I obtained a job working for the school’s Call Center—it’s 20 hours per week assisting new students with the enrollment process. I’m blessed that my daughter is now in an afterschool program until 6:00, so if I make it home around 3 or 4 o’clock, I get that time to study, or do the things that I need to do for myself or our family. My daughter and I moved to a new apartment with a friendly landlord—she did her part so I could obtain the $300 per month rental assistance through Compton that the previous landlord rejected.

I’m back on my feet now, and I’ve learned a lot through this struggle which I will advocate for as I move forward with my life. For starters, we need people in power—whether caseworkers, elected officials, or others—to recognize the humanity and dignity of people who are struggling. How many of them are truly passionate about helping people when we are broken?

Second, we need to streamline the benefits processes however possible. There are too many different jurisdictions, running too many programs in different ways, requiring too much repeated paperwork and documentation. We must find a way for people to provide their information one time in order to determine eligibility across programs. Our state is full of brilliant, innovative people, and political leaders who say they care about helping everyone—this needs to be a top priority.

Third, the cost of housing is crushing everyone, and community college students—most of whom are low-income—need access to affordable student housing just like state university students. Moreover, getting help for housing shouldn’t depend on the kindness of a landlord—that is no way to determine any public benefit.

We have the opportunity to emerge from this pandemic stronger and smarter as people and as a state. Those of us who are lucky enough to have survived need to seize this moment, learn the lessons we need to learn, and take action to increase economic security and opportunity for everyone in the Golden State.