Unemployed newlyweds hit new hurdles, keep looking on bright side

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This is the second in a series about life during the COVID-19 crisis from the perspective if newlyweds (and newly laid off workers) Oren and Rachael Peterson.

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Rachael Peterson was happy when her employer called her back in for one day of work the week of April 6. What she didn’t know then was that the five hours she logged would disqualify her from unemployment that week — including $600 of federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA).

“It almost makes you kind of not want to take certain opportunities, because it’s just going to completely kick you off,” Rachael said.

Indeed, she unwittingly traded around $110 net for the partial shift in her physical therapy assistant’s job for at least $130 in state unemployment plus that $600 PUA. But the 23-year-old didn’t want to pass up the chance to get out of the house and engage in her chosen field.

“I like to work, and it’s almost better to work and have less money,” she said as Oren, her husband of 19 days, worked on her 15-year-old Subaru behind her.

Oren Peterson works on his wife Rachael’s car.

Six weeks ago, Oren and Rachael thought they’d be gearing up for their May 2 wedding at a venue in Harriman. Instead, they’re legally wed, with plans for a “redo” ceremony in early September.

In the span of three weeks, they learned they’d be better off postponing the ceremony due to COVID-19, gotten hitched in a very small ceremony, begun sharing Rachael’s tiny rented house, and both been laid off from work.

Along with the surprise rejection of Rachael’s recertification claim last week, the pair confronted a large car repair bill. Oren’s a pretty good mechanic, but didn’t have the skills to replace the rack and pinion system on Rachael’s car.

That set them back $950. Fortunately, they did receive their stimulus checks during the week, but Rachael — an acknowledged money saver — said things are getting a little slim on the income side of the ledger.

“Money’s starting to get a little tighter,” she said. “We’re kind of having to penny pinch a lot more than we did before.”

Oren proudly pointed to a part he was able to put in as an example: “This was going to be $100, but I went to a junk yard and got it for $30.”

Both Oren and Rachael were impacted by the crushing amount of virtual traffic on the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s unemployment insurance website. It took them each a full three days to recertify — normally a process that takes just minutes.

“It would put us in the queue and then it would get down to like 1,600 people and then it would completely kick us off,” Rachael said. That, of course, was before she learned she wouldn’t be eligible for a check that week.

Oren’s unemployment hasn’t yet been officially approved, so neither he nor Rachael received a benefit last week. Oren did, however, get a job offer at a call center. It would start June 1 and pay $600 weekly — less than he’d make on unemployment with PUA added — and he has until Thursday to decide.

He also has another potential job opportunity that he said he’d prefer if it comes through.

In the meantime, the newlyweds are eating a lot of home-cooked meals and hanging out with their two dogs, Bruno and Blu, their two budgies (a type of parrot), Rob and Rue, and their lizard.

We’ll check back in with the Petersons next week to see how things went with the unemployment system, whether Oren accepted his job, and whether they’ve gotten to visit their favorite restaurant, at least for carryout.

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