Chris Yonker has been collecting unemployment benefits payments for three weeks while applying for jobs that pay only a third of what he was making before the coronavirus pandemic began.

As long as he can find a position that doesn’t require a lot of face-to-face contact, he said, he’s ready to go back to work.

“I have such a sense of urgency to leave oil and gas or to start whatever my new life looks like,” Yonker said. “If this is really what I think it is, at least for oil and gas and potentially for a much larger section of the economy, I need to figure out what that path is and start as soon as possible, because time is wasting.”

Some economists say nationwide unemployment could approach levels seen during the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world.

Last month, more than 20.5 million people were laid off, more than a million of those in Texas. Like the pandemic itself, the decline has been swift and widespread: National unemployment currently stands at 14.7 percent, a 10 percent jump from March. During the decade-long Great Depression, unemployment is estimated to have peaked at 25 percent.

But that might not be the full picture yet.

“Since potential claimants have overwhelmed the Texas Workforce Commission’s phone lines, this likely has delayed the number of claims filed, and thus the unemployment rate may be higher than what the claims data suggest,” said Keith Phillips, assistant vice president and senior economist with the Dallas Federal Reserve in an April 17 jobs report.

“It is also the case, however, that many unemployed may not be looking for work due to social distancing rules and may not be counted in the labor force, which would mean the standard measure of unemployment may be lower than what the claims data indicate.”

Layoffs and furloughs are having an outsize impact on social services as food banks are overwhelmed with long lines of people waiting for assistance. Businesses of every size have shut their doors while other owners are pleading for financial aid. In every industry, people are out of work. Texas’ unemployment rate stands at 4.7 percent, but employment is a lagging indicator of economic conditions and will likely increase.

Yonker was working as a corporate petroleum landman, someone who acquires mineral rights from landowners for energy exploration, when he left the company to work for a San Antonio startup that offered more money and opportunity. But when the startup failed to pay him on time, he left to start his own business as a landman consultant.

“The work was steady and I was paid an agreed-upon day rate … and I could work as often as I wanted,” Yonker said. He was busier than he’d ever been in the weeks leading up to the Russia-Saudia Arabia price war in early March. When oil prices dropped into a negative range, a major contract with Marathon Petroleum fell through, and Yonker was suddenly out of work.

“At that point, I really felt like I [was] on a three-legged stool,” he said. First, the shale industry had become unstable, then the price war came along, and the third leg, he said, was when COVID-19 entered the picture. “Since then, it’s just been despair and the end times in oil and gas.”

After a 16-year career in the energy industry, Yonker is searching for jobs in other fields while he leans on unemployment benefits to make ends meet for his family of four. “With the status of things now, I don’t believe that I’ll ever be able to work in the field again, and I’m having to make hard decisions,” he said.

Government agencies tasked with providing benefits to Americans who find themselves out of work are also looking ahead. On March 17, already inundated with unemployment filings, the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) waived some requirements for unemployment benefits, including the standard one-week waiting period and mandatory work search activity. In early April, a federal coronavirus relief package increased the weekly benefit by $600. But is unknown how long those sources of extra help will continue.

A TWC spokesman told the Rivard Report that it has not set a date for restoring work search requirements despite talk among Texas legislators about reinstating that requirement once the governor raises retail and restaurant capacities to 50 percent. But if that happens, he said, claimants would be notified “well in advance, at a minimum of two weeks.”

Many people who apply for unemployment benefits are not sole proprietors like Yonker, but instead, have been temporarily laid off or furloughed by major employers.

Of those who became unemployed in April, 2 million said their job loss was permanent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but 18 million said the layoff was temporary.

In the case of one San Antonian, the collapse of the tourism and convention business, where job losses first began, led to a furlough he saw coming early on.

The unpaid break from his job working with a team handling shipping and receiving in a downtown hotel began May 1. Days later, the local tourism bureau Visit San Antonio also announced furloughs of 40 of its 82-member staff.

“We are certainly not alone in making painful moves in the wake of this pandemic, but it doesn’t ease the disappointment of affecting the lives of employees who we regard as family,” said Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit San Antonio, in making the announcement.

But the packaging and shipping worker, who requested anonymity because he did not want to jeopardize his chances of returning to work, is hopeful he will be able to resume his job and go back to the company where he’s worked for the past 15 years. With unemployment benefits, a recent tax refund, and the federal stimulus payment, he feels he can get by until then.

He is concerned, however, that returning to work will mean reduced hours as the hospitality industry gets going again and that the pay won’t equal what he made before working 12-hour days.

“If I came back and the hours were guaranteed, I’d be happy to return, I’d be happy to be doing stuff,” he said. “Honestly, at this point, I’ve only been out for like a week so it’s kind of felt almost like a long weekend. And I’m trying not to be stressed about it.”

TWC is encouraging those who are out of work to search, which lists over 480,000 available jobs, said the agency’s spokesman, and to visit a local workforce solutions office.

This article has been updated to remove an incorrect reference to Chris Yonker’s previous employer.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.