While searching for a job over the last few months, Maylene Gonzalez had two strikes against her: she had spent time in prison and she was a single mother.
“Being a single mom is another door or obstacle that you have to overcome because they see single parents as a liability,” Gonzalez said. “OK, so what happens if your child gets sick? You’re responsible because you don’t have anyone else. Well, that’s just reality and that is life.”
The 39-year-old Fairbank, Iowa, resident takes exception to the trope that everyone who receives unemployment benefits or other government assistance is lazy or that they don’t want to work.
“How are we supposed to live if companies decide we’re not going to hire single mothers or single parents because they’re a liability?” she asked. “Without a job, we cannot support our children and then we get talked down upon because we receive food stamps or housing, like, ‘Hey lazy, get off your asses and go get a job!’”
When Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Iowa was ending participation in the federal pandemic-related unemployment benefit programs early, she cited a need to get people back to work.
“Our businesses and schools have reopened, these payments are discouraging people from returning to work,” she said in May. “Our unemployment rate is at 3.7 percent, vaccines are available to anyone who wants one, and we have more jobs available than unemployed people.”
Iowa’s average unemployment rate was 3.16% from 2014-2019 and went up to 5.6% in 2020, which was the highest it had been since 2012, according to data from Iowa Workforce Development.
The agency reported the unemployment rate at 4% in June, noting there were about 67,400 people unemployed and more than 70,000 job openings.
Marlon Mormann, a Des Moines-based attorney who specializes in unemployment cases, agreed the extra $600 provided in federal unemployment benefits kept a lot of people from returning to the workforce, but he noted this exposes bigger issues with employers.
“Number one: They’re picky. Number two: They are not paying enough money,” Mormann said of businesses hiring. “There’s the problem I see with my clients. They’re out there like crazy hustling trying to find work and it isn’t that easy because you want a wage that’s higher than eight dollars an hour and you want something with a future and a lot of these jobs are dead end.”
Mormann, who has practiced law in Iowa since 1984, is a former unemployment appeals judge. Over his career, he has tried more than 15,000 cases related to the subject. He puts the onus on employers to pay more money and provide better opportunities for workers.
“Reynolds cutting all this money off, it helps all these low-paying jobs; it’s more beneficial to business than it is to working people,” he said. “Unemployment should be a social safety net. It should be there for if you get a bad deal, you get in that spot and it helps you get through it.
“I’ve got some pretty good, talented people that were making enough money on unemployment that they didn’t have to look hard—there weren’t a lot of jobs—but there’s a lot of jobs now but it’s just that people are trying to find enough money.”
Gonzalez spent a good portion of summer searching for a new role before finally landing her “dream job” at John Deere in Waterloo. Before that, however, Gonzalez was rejected by dozens of employers including two she worked for previously.
“I’m a believer, I believe in God and I believe he knew what direction I needed to go down,” she said. “So, as upset as I was for being turned down by all of those other jobs, I’m grateful that I’m exactly where I’ve wanted to be for the last three years.”
Gonzalez is a CNC machinist by trade. She noted most factories don’t offer first shift jobs to new hires since that shift is based on seniority, but second and third shift jobs don’t work for her because she has two daughters, Amaya, 7, and Alecya, 6.
“I worked for a company that said, ‘We are family-oriented,’ and they were not because I lost my job because of lack of daycare and having to find a different babysitter every single week,” she said. “I had four babysitters in four weeks and they would tell me hours before I’m supposed to go to work, ‘I can’t watch your kids today.’”
Gonzalez doesn’t have a large support system in Iowa to help with her daughters.
She grew up in the state’s foster care system, living in 42 different homes across Iowa before she aged out. Shortly after that, she gave birth to a son who was later adopted by her last set of foster parents.
At 19, she was convicted of felony crimes for forgery and theft and served about half of a 15-year sentence in the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville.
As the job rejection notices mounted up, Gonzalez wondered which aspect of her life hurt her most with potential employers.
“Is it because I’m a felon? Is it because I’m a single mom who’s limited?” she said. “What is it? I know I have all of these things that work against me, but they shouldn’t, especially a 20 years ago felon charges and me being a single mom. You would think that people would feel something for single moms.”
Most of Gonzalez’s biological family is in Florida—she lived there for a while but moved back to Iowa in 2017 due to a lower cost of living—and her children’s father is in and out of jail and provides sporadic child support payments.
Because she doesn’t have someone who can consistently watch her kids, Gonzalez has missed work at some of her previous jobs.
“How do I convince this company that this is not just me being lazy and this is not just me not wanting to come into work, but this is reality for me?” she said. “I feel like I’m being penalized for it because otherwise, I would show up to work. I have no problem, I love being at work, but I can’t just leave my six- and seven-year-old at home by themselves.”
Desiree McFredries of Davenport has a similar dilemma.
Also a single mother of two, McFedries worked as a stylist at a Great Clips salon for six years before it shut down due to early pandemic precautions.
However, when the salon reopened, McFedries declined to return to work. She had an infant at home whose daycare had closed and a teenage son going to school online. Furthermore, she was worried about catching the coronavirus, a fear that remains.
“I mean, they’re saying everything’s dying back down, but nobody’s wearing a mask,” she said. “It feels scary, you know?”
McFedries filed for unemployment in March 2020 and those benefits allowed her family to stay safe while also enabling her to pay her bills. She also cuts hair for a few people she trusts in her home, whereas at her former salon, cutting 14 heads was considered a slow day. Fewer people, less exposure to the virus is how she views it.
When McFedries tried to get an extension on her unemployment benefits this year, her former employer denied her claim. She has an Aug. 3 appeal hearing over the matter, and in the meantime, she is looking for a new job.
“Probably have to go back to work if this doesn’t work out,” McFedries said. “So it’s just kind of hard. Everything’s going up, everything. Daycare’s up, rent is going up, gas is going up. They want us to go back and I don’t know. It’s crazy. I feel like we’re going to probably have another shutdown before it ends.”
Mormann does think people who have relied on the extra federal unemployment benefits will start trickling back into the workforce and fill the low-wage openings as they become more desperate, but he does not think that benefits the people he represents.
“You got a single mom, she can’t be making eight bucks an hour,” he said. “You got to be up there at 13, 14, 15 bucks just to try to make ends meet. That’s the problem.”
by Ty Rushing