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Money Talks: The couple making it work during coronavirus layoffs

Ryan and Julie work in the entertainment industry and were already living paycheck to paycheck. Now Ryan is navigating unemployment.

Nicole Dieker is a personal finance expert who's been writing about money for over a decade. Her work has appeared in Bankrate, Lifehacker, Morning Brew, and Dwell. She answers reader questions for Vox's On the Money column.

Welcome to Money Talks, a series in which we interview people about their relationship with money, their relationship with each other, and how those relationships inform one another.

Ryan and Julie (not their real names) live in Los Angeles and work in the entertainment industry. Ryan, 39, just got laid off from his second temp job this year; prior to his most recent layoff, he was earning $18 an hour. Julie, 32, is a writer’s assistant on a popular network show and earns $16.50 an hour with a 60-hour guarantee and overtime built in. Julie has a union job with benefits and protections; Ryan just filed for unemployment.

The following conversation is lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Ryan: I haven’t picked up a show since February 2019 [his last assistant job]. If I were working on something with multiple seasons, you’d work a season and you’d have some time off. You could pick up other gigs, go on unemployment, and after two to three months the show would pick you back up and you’d be working again. I found a couple temp jobs, but I got laid off from both of them.

Julie: I started working on my current show in November. When we are working, we have the illusion of consistency — because if you are in a writers’ room or on a show, those are gigs that tend to last at least 20 weeks, if not nine months at a time.

What’s really tough about this current situation is that the people who are in Ryan’s boat, who were depending on the short, couple-day or couple-week gigs, all of that work is gone. I’m lucky in that my work continues, writers’ rooms are still going, but that’s the only thing that can still happen because you can do that remotely. I know some people in post [production] who are still working, but basically everything else had to completely stop.

Executives are fine, the people I know who work at studios are still working because you can do that remotely, but the people who are actually making the stuff — all of those people are in big trouble. Networks are taking this opportunity to bank scripts, but we can’t film new material while this is happening, and there is a real possibility that we might run out of material [for viewers to watch/stream].

Ryan: We’re home together all day long. We have a two-bedroom apartment, so we have a roommate who lives here as well. We’re very lucky because we have a decent-sized place. Our total rent is $1,900 split three ways, so we hit the jackpot. It’s very cheap compared to everyone else we know.

Julie: Our 1,200-square-foot apartment, which is palatial to most people, has now become all of our home offices.

Ryan: We’re spending a lot more on food than we usually do. In the entertainment industry your lunch is always covered.

Julie: I went from having lunch, if not breakfast and lunch, and all my snack food coming from work, to having to feed myself. It’s a strange adjustment.

Ryan: [We’re spending] next to nothing on gas. We try to, once or twice a week, order something to pick up from our local small restaurants to keep them supported, but we’re not going out to eat very often.

Julie: Ryan and I work in a big money industry and make very little of it. We’re paycheck-to-paycheck, honestly. We’ve got a couple months’ cushion before we’re completely screwed.

A thing that’s been oddly good about this, which is not really the word I should be using, is that our student loans automatically went into forbearance. That’s $500 a month that I can put towards the credit card debt we built while we were unemployed for seven months.

Both of us are paying less for car insurance, paying less for various bills, I think one of my credit card companies has offered some sort of interest reduction thing. Ryan is on unemployment.

Ryan: I’ll be making more on unemployment than you will working 60 hours a week. When my payments start up I will probably get $450 a week. [Under the CARES Act, which includes a $600 weekly expanded unemployment benefit] I’m not sure how the $600 works, but if it’s each week, I’ll be getting $1050 a week.

Julie: I personally believe that speaks more to how underpaid I am in general. I think we’re in this pocket of people — and it’s true of a lot of people — before, we were underpaid Hollywood assistants. Now, everybody is getting the help that we’ve kind of always needed.

We were so on the edge of financial ruin to begin with, that I’m actually able to take this time and pay off debt in a way that I couldn’t before, since we have the money we’re saving on student loan payments and Ryan’s supplemental unemployment. We had a very large vet bill back in January that we hopefully will be able to pay off before the credit card interest hits 28 percent.

Ryan: We have two cats. One of them started breathing kind of funny, so we took him into the vet and they sent him to an emergency animal hospital. His lungs were filling up with fluid. He was on constant oxygen for two weeks, and it got to the point where we were financially going to have to start considering maybe letting him go, and then he started getting better. Then he got sick again, and then he started to get better again.

Julie: It ended up costing us $15,000.

Ryan: If we had known that would be the total cost, our cat probably wouldn’t be with us right now. But because of the incremental nature and the rollercoaster nature of how he kept getting better and then getting worse again … basically we both took out new credit cards to cover the costs. We also did a GoFundMe and raised $6,000, which helped a lot.

Julie: Our credit cards came from CareCredit, which is a stopgap credit plan for pet emergencies and things like that. We’ve already been able to pay off one of the cards with the help of friends and family, and the other one is six months interest-free. That’s the one we’re trying to go after, because once the six months are over, it jumps up to like 28 percent interest.

Neither of us have great credit. I recently paid off my car entirely, which helped. But last February, we both were out of work at the same time, and although we had jobs here and there and were on unemployment, I didn’t get another full-time job until October. Our credit card debt in general just sort of went back up, and that’s extremely common for people at our level in this industry. We’re paid fine when we’re working, but we don’t have a lot of protection for when we’re not.

Ryan: You’re also not paid well enough when you’re working to cover yourself when you’re not.

Julie: Basically you pay off your credit cards when you’re working, so when you’re not working you can run them back up. When our cat got sick, we were just at the place where we had started to even back out again, and then we got the surprise bill.

Ryan: I also have $250,000 in student loans to pay off.

Julie: And I’m near that. I’d have to look. I hate talking about our debt. It’s like you think you’re doing okay, and then you look at the numbers, and you think, “Oh God, maybe I’m not.”

I’m in an interesting situation because I should be able to stay at my job for a while — and there’s both opportunity and precedent for me to get promoted from assistant to staff writer. The difference between what an assistant gets paid and what a staff writer gets paid is enormous. Union minimum for staff writing jobs is $4,000 a week, which is four times what I’m making. If that were to happen, even if Ryan is making no money at all, I’ll still be making double what we’ve ever made before.

Ryan: I’ll be your house husband! I’ll clean and cook.

Julie: That’d be great!

It’s already harder for people to find work because of smaller writers’ rooms and so on. Ryan was on a network show for four years, and when he went on hiatus he didn’t look for work because he knew it would only be two or three months before he went back to a job. Now, when you do a season of a Netflix show, it can be a year before the room starts up again. Those assistants and those writers, the people at the same level we’re at, they have to find another job to fill the year. Finding writing jobs is hard, and finding assistant jobs in writers’ rooms is even harder. In my room, there are 10 writers and one of me.

A fear I have when this all ends is that, since everyone is out of work right now, everyone will be looking for work at the exact same time.

Ryan: This is a big scary gray area for me right now. It’s been over a year since I’ve been able to find a job in the part of the industry that I’m trying to work and move up in. My biggest fear about all of this is that, for the next show I get hired on, I’m still going to be a writers’ PA — that’s the person who gets coffee and snacks and lunch for everyone — and I’m not going to move up. It’s frustrating to have a master’s degree in screenwriting and spend four years as a glorified coffee delivery service. It’s possible to go from where I am right now to becoming a well-paid writer, but there’s no way to know.

Julie: It’s the strangest thing — for most people in our industry, this aspect is not new. This is happening to everybody at the exact same time, but this was always happening to everybody in a slow churn. Because [this kind of financial uncertainty] is now happening on such a giant scale, the national response is able to help us in a way that we always could have used, I suppose.


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