Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Martin considers it luck of the draw that he works in an industry that is taking off as a result of Covid-19.
By May 2020, the region’s unemployment rate had jumped to 25 percent, according to the San Diego Association of Governments. As of September, the jobless rate had fallen to 13.3 percent, which is 10 points worse than a year earlier.
But it’s not all gloom. A handful of industries are meeting high demand with hiring surges. A quick Linkedin search returns more than 35,000 job openings in San Diego.
So much for numbers. Now, the human side of the story.
Eric gives me a glimpse of what it’s like to look for jobs during a quarantine. “The interviews were so weird. They were all on Zoom or Google Meetings, you’re in a meeting with five or six people interviewing you, and they would switch off asking the questions."
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
It captures my attention when Martin Culjat, a 43-year-old biomedical engineer from Rancho Peñasquitos, tells me his recent decision to change jobs was a direct response to the coronavirus. Some backstory: “I spent a lot of time working in medical device and digital health startups. I did a lot of work developing, and commercializing, and getting FDA approval for these kinds of products.”
So far, I’m keeping up with the Ph.D. “So when covid hit, it became pretty clear that patients couldn’t see their doctors anymore; treatments and diagnoses were being missed. And pretty much the whole way that healthcare was being delivered has totally changed overnight.” He spoke fervently about his work, “Pharma companies and startup companies were looking to deliver digital solutions to make healthcare delivery easier in this post-covid world. So there’s this huge gap, where there’s a need to have digital medicine solutions. And I just happened to have been working in this general field for a while.”
Culjat took coronavirus as a personal call to arms. “There aren’t really many opportunities where, during a global crisis, you can step in and actually make a difference. In this case, I thought I could.”
His employment background translated almost seamlessly, “because this company was doing what I had been doing at scale. And because there had been such a demand all of a sudden for these types of solutions, I got really interested and jumped into this company.”
Previously, Culjat divided his time between two companies before interviewing for a newly created division at his current company, Eversana. “It’s allowed me to work with 20 companies instead of 1 or 2 companies.” The transition was a whirlwind. “We had to expedite the process because everything was going crazy at the time. So it was pretty chaotic to try to get in there right before everything shut down in the country.”
The best part? He’s done all of this remotely. “I’ve actually never been to the office. There’s an office near UTC and I’ve never been there.”
Being a new hire during a pandemic presented unique obstacles. “My job description was evolving for the first two months because nobody knew what covid was going to create in the healthcare ecosystem. So really, it was kind of a leap of faith jumping into it and sort of figuring out my job and responsibilities as we went along. Things have kind of settled in a little bit.
“I think the industry has calmed down a bit. But I think there’s so much more demand that it seems like there’s still a constant barrage of projects coming our way.”
Culjat considers it luck of the draw that he works in an industry that is taking off as a result of covid-19. “This industry is one that has really gotten to be high in demand the last three or four months.” His claim is supported by Glassdoor, an online job board whose research found an 8.6 percent increase of job openings in the tech industry as of September, by far the highest among job groups.
Martin’s wife Allison Rief, who teaches at Ashford University, witnessed a similar surge in her line of work. “She’s been working for a while now in online education; she actually is a professor online. So she also happens to be in a field that’s growing in demand. I’ve been trying to stay in a pretty innovative space — so has she — but you could always guess wrong. In prior recessions, we might have not had as much luck. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time, in terms of our career interests and our backgrounds.”
Switching jobs in the midst of a global crisis paid off for Culjat. When I ask if he is happy in his new role, he doesn’t hesitate to answer, “I love it. It’s fun being on the leading edge. And there’s nothing I would rather be doing.”
Kenny and Kelsey
Poker enthusiasts may recognize Kelsey and Kenny McDowall from the betting floor of Barona Casino. Kelsey, 33, worked as a dealer, while her husband Kenny, 43, was a poker supervisor. The Lakeside couple is among 430,000 San Diegans who lost their jobs when the pandemic began.
“I’m just a mom now. I’m mommin’!” Kelsey says. She details how the unfortunate events unfolded. “Well, covid happened, and the casino ended up shutting down. So then we were kind of in limbo. We didn’t really know what to do — not just Kenny and I, but everybody in our whole department. We didn’t know if we should file for unemployment or what was going to happen to the casino.”
About a month later, both Kelsey and Kenny were notified that their positions were no longer available because of the closure of the poker room. “It wasn’t just that they let us go as employees, they completely got rid of our department.”
The poker pros pause to explain why their department got the axe. “Poker, for a casino, is not very lucrative. It’s about the slot machines. Poker, the casino does not make very much money off of, so it was one of the first things they let go. Because poker is a game you play against other players, and the house will only take money from the pot, but no more than $5 per hand.”
Naturally, losing their jobs pushed them into a fearful phase. “It was scary, you know? It was a bummer. I had been there for 15 years… basically my entire adult life. Having been there for so long. And they talked about it being a family and then to let so many people go, it was pretty heartbreaking. We definitely initially were offended and we felt like... ” Kelsey retracts an expletive. “But now, months later, I get it. It’s a business move. They couldn’t hire everybody back. And things still aren’t back to normal. Initially, we took it a lot more personally, and now we are able to step back and kind of see it from a business point of view. But still unfortunate that we had been there for so long and we were let go so quickly.”
Kenny was flummoxed by the news, “I worked there for almost 20 years. You build relationships and you see people every single day, as much as you see your own family. So yeah, of course I miss those people.”
Kelsey began looking for openings at other casinos, knowing that poker rooms would be highly sought-after by unrelenting gamblers. “I worked at a sister casino in Jamul, but I only worked for a week and a half and then some... complications happened.” Kelsey is referring to a time-off request for her sister’s wedding in Idaho, which the casino was unable to accommodate. “I applied because I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t know if I should wait or if I should try to get in as soon as possible. And then they hired me so I went in and… it was crazy. And I’m glad I don’t work there anymore,” she says with a nervous chuckle. “But then after that, it was pretty clear to me that I no longer wanted to work in that industry. I feel like I’ve been at that conclusion for a long time, but it’s really hard to leave when you’re so comfortable and that’s all that you know.”
Kelsey has decided to prioritize helping her children navigate remote learning, which is especially challenging since their middle son is in special education. She finds herself wondering, “What if I was working? Who would sit with him on every single Zoom meeting throughout the day? He can’t do it by himself. Maybe that’s why it was easier for me to be ok just staying home for a little while and not be desperately seeking a job.”
Kelsey is one of many mothers trending toward the stay-at-home path. According to the Census Bureau, women ages 25-44 are almost three times as likely as men not to be working due to childcare demands, accounting for about one in three (32.1 percent) women who are unemployed.
“In a weird way, now I’m able to look at it like maybe this was a blessing in disguise. I really genuinely feel that way now. Especially now that my husband will be getting his license in the next few weeks.”
After his layoff, Kenny chose to embark on a new industry as a mortgage loan originator, handling refinancing and home loans. “It was something I had thought about before in a small capacity, not a lot.” He explains how he learned of this venture from a connection, “A guy that used to play at Barona, that I’ve known for many years, had offered me a job a long time ago. And I called him when we were on our way back [from the wedding in Idaho]. I told him, ‘Hey I’m thinking about doing this,’ and he said he’d take care of me.”
But first, Kenny had to hit the books for his pre-licensing test, which has about a 50 percent pass rate for first-time takers. “I’ve already done the hard part, I passed the test. I haven’t taken a test in 25 years. Now I’m just kind of waiting, so I hope that happens soon. I’m not too stressed out — but I would like to start. It’s a whole new business I have to learn.”
He adds, “But I have forever to work. It’s nice to have time with my kids.”
Kenny acknowledges the complacency that two decades caused in him. “I guess this was the kick in the butt I needed. If covid hadn’t happened, I’m 99 percent sure that I would still be at the casino.” He’s confident that this new pursuit will prove prosperous. “The potential is a hundred times better. It’s going to be a lot for me to get started, but the potential is definitely a lot better than the casino. I’m just lucky, we’re in a good spot… It just fell into place for us. I’m sure a lot of people have it a lot worse. We’re pretty lucky, we’re going to be alright.”
About two years ago, 31-year-old Eric (not his real name) from University Heights decided to leave his still-developing career in marketing to become a high school English teacher. “I was teaching, but I wasn’t quite full time; I was at 60 percent last year. After my discussions with administration, there was an understanding that I likely was coming back. Nothing was set in stone really, but they made it seem clear to me that there would be a spot for me — at least at 60 percent, but hopefully at more moving forward.”
Enter coronavirus. “I got a phone call saying, ‘Hey, we can’t guarantee we’re going to have you back. Sit tight, we’ll let you know more.’ And then, near the end of the year... in the teaching profession they usually post the periods that everyone has that they’re going to be teaching, like a preliminary schedule. And I wasn’t on the schedule…” He pauses to allow the awkwardness to sink in. “That’s how I preliminarily found out, and then I got a phone call afterward. But they didn’t actually say to me, ‘You’re not coming back.’ They said, ‘Hold off until August. We’ll let you know. Everything’s up in the air, we don’t know how this is going to play out.’ Which is apparently common for early teachers. But given the nature of the pandemic and that I was pretty sure we weren’t going to come back in person... I didn’t feel too good about it.”
Fortunately, Eric’s teaching contract paid until August, at which point he turned to his supervisors, who advised him to look for new jobs. “I told [my principal], ‘This is my dream to teach here, should I just hold tight? I’ll do anything.’ And he said, ‘Well, ideally, in a perfect world, we’d be able to get you back, but I’d say you should be looking for other jobs and going on other interviews.’”
Eric wasn’t the only one holding out hope. A recent poll by the Washington Post revealed that nearly 6 in 10 laid off or furloughed workers were optimistic about being rehired at their old job. “As the quarantine got more and more drastic, more and more people laid off, I kind of in my head decided there was no way I would have a job the next year. So I went on the hunt.”
Finding a teaching opportunity proved difficult. “It was tough last year, my first year. And it was even tougher this year because of the pandemic.” Eric applied to every available teaching position and picked up part-time copywriting work as a safety net. As the end of summer neared, he considered falling back on his previous work experience. “Come August, I started applying for full time marketing, anything I could find. And my thinking was in September - that was when I was going to broaden my search to, ‘I just need a job, I’ll take anything.’”
Eric gives me a glimpse of what it’s like to look for jobs during a quarantine. “The interviews were so weird. They were all on Zoom or Google Meetings, you’re in a meeting with five or six people interviewing you, and they would switch off asking the questions. And of course it’s the middle of summer, so I’m in my house, sweating my face off! Because I’m in a suit... wearing workout shorts,” he confesses, not too ashamed. He recalls other difficulties, “It was really hard to keep on track, I found myself forgetting the questions. It’s just so different being in a room with someone, and also I feel like you can really get a feel for someone in a room. It’s so weird. There was a lot of active listening, nodding and smiling. They probably thought I had music playing in the background because I was bumping my head so hard,” he says, massaging the back of his neck.
He lost track while searching for marketing jobs, but estimates hitting the LinkedIn Easy Apply button upwards of 100 times. “People were hiring, there were jobs listed! I just imagine that it’s super competitive with so many people being laid off and also the fact that every job was listed as remote.” Eric elaborates on his theory, “All the jobs here in San Diego, who knows where people are at? People in the Bay Area could have applied. People in Missouri could have applied. I don’t know if that’s the case, but I’m assuming.”
His theory holds water, considering 4.7 million people, or 3.4 percent of the U.S. population, were already working remotely before the arrival of covid-19.
Uncertain of the future, he joined over two million Californians in the virtual line for unemployment claims. “And… whoo! It pays well,” he says, inhaling sharply. “The first check came in and I was expecting it to be much lower... a couple hundred extra bucks to help cushion the fall. But I could have lived off that, which was crazy.”
On that note, I have to ask him whether it’s more lucrative live off of unemployment than to find employment in this climate. Eric tilts his head as if to say it crossed his mind, but shakes the thought away. “During quarantine, having a job gives you some meaning. There are only so many days you can be a do-nothing. I mean, I love my job. I was in a different field for a long time and I chose this job because it’s kind of what I’ve always wanted to do. Already, teaching was my acknowledgment that it’s not really about money, it’s about what I want to do and what I enjoy. Any kind of teaching is better than unemployment, even if the money’s not equal.”
Eric tried to roll with the punches, but, “I just came to the point where I was like ‘I’m not going to teach this year. It’s just not in the cards for me,’ and that’s when I was getting very bummed out — because I had a job before this. I put my whole life on hold to be a teacher. But then I got a phone call. Out of nowhere. It was pretty funny, because I had an interview with another school. And then two hours after I agreed to the interview, I got a text message from the head of my department at my school and she said, ‘We got a part time job for you.’”
Eric was offered a return to his same hours. “That made my decision a lot easier — and I didn’t get the other job anyway.” He laughs off the rejection. “Then they ended up bumping me up to 80 percent so… it all worked out!” To celebrate the good news, “there were beverages of the adult kind, for sure. Mostly just such a burden lifted off my back, because I assumed I was not going to be doing anything all year.”
If Eric could go back in time, the advice he would give himself is, “Don’t try to see into the future, because nobody knows anything about this. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? I tried to live a day at a time when I was unemployed and just enjoy today. I started to get super down and was thinking big picture, like, ‘I sacrificed so much to do this job, I can’t even do it. What was the point?’ But then it all worked out! So I just wasted all this mental energy, worrying about things outside of my control.”