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Where they are now: Checking in with LIers who shared their pandemic stories

Sue Anne Konkle, a single mother, who had

Sue Anne Konkle, a single mother, who had two part-time jobs in the hospitality industry, is now a bartender at a local pub and is feeling optimistic. Credit: Barry Sloan

It took less than 20 days for COVID-19 to deflate the economy. A year later, Long Islanders are still trying to find their footing.

Doctors discovered the Island’s first official case of coronavirus on March 7, 2020. Ten days later, the first Long Islander died of the disease. Within another nine days, the state ordered businesses closed, except for essential operations like grocery stores and banks.

By the end of March, New Yorkers suddenly without jobs were placing 8.2 million calls a week to the state Department of Labor — far more than the typical 50,000 calls per week — and the system grew overwhelmed, frequently crashing the department’s website.

Long Islanders turned to food pantries. Some ran up credit card debt and borrowed from family and friends to make rent and mortgage payments.

The government began lifting restrictions on businesses in May. But competition for job openings has been fierce.

Newsday reconnected with Long Islanders we spoke with during the early days of the pandemic. One year in, a Lindenhurst woman is thrilled to start a new job, while an Oceanside resident worries nobody will hire her at age 90. Others are recovering from health emergencies, starting families and cherishing neighbors who stepped up when times were tough.

Here are their stories:

Unexpected kindness

A new gastro pub has given Sue Anne Konkle, a bartender, something to toast.

Konkle, a single mom in Lindenhurst, lost part-time jobs at a sports bar and catering company early in the pandemic. Finding work was difficult: She took a position at an events company, but gigs were sparse. She volunteered at a Moose Lodge, but her tips weren’t large enough to justify paying a babysitter. And she filled in at an eatery until a new state curfew eliminated Konkle’s shifts.

Earlier this month, Konkle began bartending at Belfast Gastro Pub.

"It’s going to be life-changing," Konkle said, noting that the Lindenhurst venue has been busy since its debut. "I’m very grateful."

Konkle described the challenges of living off $138 a week in unemployment in a Newsday story last summer. Although the government periodically boosted benefits, Konkle said accessing the aid remained difficult.

Long Islanders stepped up to support Konkle after she shared her story.

"All these miracles kept happening," Konkle said. "This stranger paid my rent. I had this other couple send me a check for $250."

Staff and families at the Lindenhurst School District donated food and gift cards, which helped Konkle get a bicycle for her daughter at Christmas.

Still, money is tight. Konkle is more than a month behind on her $1,500 rent, other bills have gone unpaid and she owes all of her friends money. But her new job has buoyed her spirits.

"I feel like I took a year off of life … a hiatus from life," she said. "It’s OK though. We’re still here, and things are going to change."

Optimistic about 2021

Osmond Fletcher, 62, a real estate agent and Uber driver, said while he’s not where he planned to be financially prior to the start of the pandemic, he’s in much better shape than he was last year.

"I’m on my way," said Fletcher. "Right now, I’m OK. I’m not wealthy, but my bills are being taken care of."

When the pandemic first hit and home showings were put on hold, several deals Fletcher had in the works came to an abrupt halt, putting him in a tough spot.

"Last year I had put some deals together but none of those deals closed," he said.

Worried about getting sick driving for Uber, Fletcher didn’t work for months and relied on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance — a special form of unemployment for gig workers and contractors — to cover expenses.

But even as uncertainty loomed, the Brentwood resident remained optimistic about his ability to eventually turn things around.

Now, having closed a home sale in February — his first completed deal since the pandemic began — and grown accustomed to driving with COVID protections in place, Fletcher thinks this year has the potential to be his best yet financially.

"I’m not where I want to be yet, but the thing is I’m in position, so this year can be a very great year for me," Fletcher said. "It’s not back to normal, but it’s a new normal."

Missing work at 90  

For Barbara Levine, 90, of Oceanside, working was more than a means to financial security. It was a way of life. But after she lost her telemarketing job of 22 years last March, her life underwent a series of changes and "not for the better," she said.

"I can’t stand my life the way it is," Levine said. "I would love to get up in the morning and go to work. I enjoyed it … and I did a good job."

Shortly after losing her job, Levine joined the thousands of unemployed New Yorkers desperately trying to apply for unemployment. After failing to reach a Labor Department representative over the phone for weeks — sometimes calling 50 times a day — Levine eventually started to receive payments.

She’s had no luck finding a job, and at this point, doubts it will happen, largely because of her age, she said. The money she is still receiving under unemployment has been a big help.

"I’m in good shape," she said. "If somebody would hire me, I would run and get the job immediately. Nobody wants me."

Levine said she’s faced some personal challenges as well. Her middle daughter, granddaughter and great grandchildren relocated from the Island to South Carolina over cost-of-living concerns.

Additionally, Levine said she doesn’t drive anymore because of declining eyesight. All in all, the past year has made life much more difficult.

"Everything has changed," she said.

‘I was afraid’

Amityville couple Kristyn Lawson and Josh Campbell, both waiters, found themselves suddenly unemployed as a result of the pandemic.

Lawson, 25, worked her last shifts at an IHOP in Farmingdale and a Red Robin in West Babylon on March 14. She had trouble reaching the Department of Labor to apply for unemployment benefits, but eventually was able to submit her application online and began receiving weekly payments of $419.

In July, she was called back to work at IHOP. Red Robin never reopened, she said.

But by December, Lawson — who is seven months pregnant — said an increase in COVID cases at the restaurant led her back to unemployment.

"I had recently found out I was pregnant and at that time multiple employees had gotten sick with COVID," she said. "The restaurant would close for a day for cleaning but workers weren’t quarantining and I was afraid.

"Things haven’t been easy … especially with the baby coming. That’s added a crazy amount of stress because I’ve struggled to get a job that allows me to work from home, and I’m too afraid of getting the virus since my pregnancy is high risk," Lawson said. "But we are getting by and pray things go back to normal soon."

Health emergencies amid COVID

Just as things were starting to improve, health emergencies struck the Mendez family.

The neurologist’s office where Jessica Mendez, 27, worked shut during the early days of COVID-19; and her husband, Erick Mendez, had less landscaping work.

Jessica Mendez, of Huntington Station, returned to work part-time in September. But in early January, she went to Huntington Hospital with an inflamed pancreas and high levels of fat in her blood. Staff gave her insulin, then a blood transfusion, and she ultimately had a stroke.

"Everything in my stomach system, my whole organs shut down," she said. "I just thank God that I didn’t get any COVID because on that floor … there were like six people with COVID."

Days later, a tree fell on Erick Mendez’s right knee. He was rushed to Huntington Hospital, where a plate was installed in his tibia.

"The nurses were like, ‘Oh, he must have missed you so much,’" Jessica Mendez said, noting that the couple were discharged on the same day. "We made it through. We’re alive, and at home."

Mendez hopes to return to work in April; her husband will likely need six months to recover.

The family paid rent and bills with family leave and disability benefits, as well as help from the community. The kids’ schools and Helping Hand Rescue Mission collectively raised $11,800 for them.

"People that we don’t even know helping us and supporting us — it’s just heartwarming," Jessica Mendez said, adding that she is encouraging her sons to give back. "We’re doing a little bin to donate."

Finding personal strength

With college graduation approaching, Amber Mahoney, 23, grew stressed when her waitressing shifts disappeared last March.

The Bellmore resident graduated in May, as planned, and spent months applying to about 10 jobs a week. Mahoney said she’d initially been interested in bigger marketing firms in the city, but felt nervous about being close to others — and about rising crime rates.

"I didn’t want to be in the city — between the public transportation and the fear of violence," she said.

Mahoney has been able to pay her bills and stay with her parents, where she plans to remain until she is ready to buy a house.

"Prices have gone up tremendously," said Mahoney. "I’ll be staying at home for probably longer than I would hope."

In July, her waitressing job resumed, where she now works one shift a week. In November, Mahoney started working remotely as a senior customer relations coordinator at Bideawee, an animal rescue and shelter organization.

Mahoney said social distancing has made it hard to observe and learn aspects of the job from colleagues at Bideawee.

But telecommuting has shown Mahoney that she has the discipline required to one day launch her own business.

"I never thought that I would have that strong personality, where I could hold myself to a certain schedule and be on top of myself like that," she said. "I definitely want to try and figure out how I can potentially start my own business."

A new life, with amenities

When Rian and Melissa Guy lost their jobs last spring, the Westbury couple made it their mission to "buckle down, cut expenses, save as much money as possible, and move."

Five months later, Rian, 38, who had worked as a receptionist at a veterinary hospital in West Islip, and Melissa, 36, a former director at a performing arts center in Bay Shore, packed their belongings in a van. With their children Nesta, 4, and Gryffin, 2, in tow, they relocated to Georgia.

Making ends meet on the Island was challenging for the Guys even before COVID hit.

"The pandemic exacerbated the situation," Rian Guy said, "but we had been struggling for a long time."

After marrying five years ago, the couple lived at Melissa’s parents’ house, unable to afford a place of their own.

"Now, we live in a beautiful two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment … with every amenity you could ask for … and pay $1,200 a month," Melissa Guy said. "There’s no way we could find anything remotely comparable on Long Island."

And they’re able to afford rent on one income. Within weeks of arriving in Georgia, Melissa Guy found work with a catering company, and in October, she accepted a full-time position as a grocery store supervisor.

Rian Guy said he’s enjoyed staying home with the children and helping them transition to life in their new home state.

"I am starting to look for work now," he said. But he’ll be doing it "without that … overwhelming stress of just surviving on Long Island. It just doesn’t exist here."

With Victor Ocasio and Daysi Calavia-Robertson

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