June 9, 2020

I thought my first layoff meant the end of my career. Dead on arrival when I was only 28 and still had a lot to learn. Fortunately, it wasn’t. Two years later, I marked the ominous anniversary in February by wrapping up my coverage of the Sundance Film Festival. I had plans for more festivals across the country and set my sights on Cannes, which I had never attended before.

Roughly a month and a half later, movie theaters across the U.S. would be closed, film festivals the world over would be canceled or moved online, and I would face those old dark thoughts once again: Is this the end of my career?

As a freelance critic and writer covering film, arts and culture, I’ve seen my share of highs and lows. I’d even gotten used to the rhythm between lucrative months where I banked dream assignments and fallow periods when none of my pitches would take root.

However, the spread of the coronavirus was different. I haven’t been this out of work since I was a recent college graduate writing for free (don’t repeat my mistakes, grads!). In those days, I supported myself with a series of odd jobs including movie theater usher, waitress, social media manager and dance teacher, but even most of those jobs have been put on hold due to COVID-19.

MORE ON JOBS: How do you launch a journalism career in the middle of a pandemic?

Like millions of Americans, my income took a dive almost as soon as cities began to close. The week I had planned to cover South by Southwest, I received emails from various outlets letting me know they would no longer take pitches from freelancers. Others started reining in their budgets. News about layoffs and outlet closures brought even more worry.

In my experience, editors have been understanding and even apologetic when giving out rejections or other bad news. There’s a sense of helplessness that we’re all caught in the same mousetrap with potentially grim prospects, a recognition that we’re collectively going through a painful time.

As my workload continued to evaporate, I put my reporter skills to work.

The most helpful resource throughout this ordeal has been talking to fellow freelancers also navigating these uncharted waters. A friend invited me to a private Facebook group for freelancers and independent contractors early on, and it’s become a safe space for those of us trying to understand if we qualify for the new Small Business Administration loans, a place to vent about how everything is taking so long or sharing the latest news that affects us. It was where I learned that I qualified for the first round of Economic Injury Disaster Loans in March, that the loan amount had shrunk from $10,000 to $1,000 per employer/employee and that rules about who qualified — and if the SBA was still accepting applications — kept changing.

TRAINING FROM POYNTER: Job-Hunting During a Pandemic

Unfortunately, the horror stories of filing for unemployment are true. Many state systems were not set up to handle independent contractors and self-employed workers, and they certainly weren’t prepared for the astronomic numbers of people who needed assistance. I filed in New York state as soon as I lost more than half my regular outlets in March, and I started receiving unemployment checks only in May.

It took me over an hour to file my claim because the website repeatedly crashed, losing all of my data in the process. I’m unsure if or when I’ll see anything from the previous weeks I certified in March and April –– you have to certify that you still need unemployment help, if you worked at all and if you have somehow been affected by COVID-19 in order to receive payment.

I’m glad something is finally starting to come through. As many freelancers know, checks may not always come in on the desired 30-day cycle, so preparing to wait for or chase after a paycheck is all too common.

The state didn’t publish guidelines on how to file as a freelancer until several days after many of us first started filing. Some people had their claims rejected because of simple mix-ups. While complaints about call wait times have gone down, it can still be difficult to get a hold of someone for help.

Because I’m lucky enough to still nab at least one or two assignments per week, I make the adjustments on my weekly certification. It brings my weekly pay to $252 with a bonus $600 from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which is set to run out at the end of July. I opted to have taxes taken out ahead of time because, yes, you do have to pay taxes on unemployment.

What I wasn’t prepared for — and I hope to see this much more written about – is the emotional and mental toll the pandemic is taking on all of us. In my mind, freelancing always came with a certain level of uncertainty. Will you make enough for rent this month? Who knows! Fingers crossed you land enough work and outlets pay on time.

But the pandemic brought new bouts of anxiety, depression, grief, loneliness, stress, insomnia and so on that have made it difficult to focus on work and come up with new pitches. Eventually, I ended going back to teletherapy, but I know many other writers and journalists struggling in silence, trying to keep their minds on the work or afraid that talking about these issues will affect their chances of future employment.

When enough outlets dried up, I knew I had to keep writing, if only for my own peace of mind. A few critics I knew had already turned to Patreon to publish written pieces or video essays, and since I already had a free newsletter that collected my various articles, I decided I would try my luck starting a Patreon. I wish I could say self-publishing was the answer to all of my problems, but it’s a modest start. As the only writer for my account, it’s kept me busier than I expected. I’m still figuring out how to grow it like a new business in the depths of a pandemic.

But first, I had to get over the surprise guilt I felt when asking for help. When I launched my Patreon, I cried and I continued to cry after my first several subscribers. I felt like some part of me had failed. Because I failed to fit in a newsroom, it meant that my work was unworthy of a steady paycheck. And who was I to ask for money when other critics with twice my experience were in the same situation? I knew this was my impostor syndrome talking, but it didn’t make the experience hurt less until I started writing.

MORE FROM POYNTER: How getting laid off from the Times-Picayune prepared me for a global pandemic

If I’m not writing or watching a movie, just about all of my focus is on surviving this crisis with a roof over my head. I’m thinking about how to get through whatever the economic fallout will look like in the long term, finding every penny I can stretch to make it last a little longer. Not all freelancers are going through the mess I’m in, but I know I’m not alone in feeling this uncertainty about our future.

I’ve sat through a few pitching workshops and nervous Slack and Facebook discussions to know many of us are facing that awful question: Is this the end of my career? If I had to find a silver lining in all this, it’s that I’m glad freelancers are helping each other out, and I’m happy to see we’re sharing our experiences.

I can only encourage it more because it’s the closest I’ve felt to feeling like I can answer the question. Is this the end of my career? Not yet.

Monica Castillo is a critic and writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and other outlets. Follow her on Twitter at @mcastimovies.

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