As a tech worker living in San Francisco, Michelle Mak had a schedule many Bay Area residents can relate to.
“I would go into the office. I would drive to San Mateo for 30 minutes and lose an hour of my time everyday,” she told NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit in the backyard of her Ingleside home.
When COVID hit, Mak and millions of Californians lost their jobs. Days after returning from maternity leave after having her first child, Mak says her bosses at her e-commerce job told her she was being laid off.
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“What do I do about my career? How do I balance this? How do I make this work?” Mak wondered.
During the pandemic and postpartum, make did what many might consider surprising; she launched her own business selling a baby schedule tracker she calls Mewl Baby. Mak says the pandemic forced her to re-evaluate her life priorities.
“I feel like I will never go back to my old job only because I really enjoy creating products and having that passive income so that I could enjoy my time with my son,” Mak said.
Her entire household income has cut by half; she says her husband is supporting the family as she navigates this new chapter in her life.
Mak isn’t the only one who started a new business during the pandemic. The Investigative Unit obtained U.S. Census Bureau data showing 520,904 applications to form new businesses in California last year. That’s an 18% increase from 2020. It’s a sign the economy is picking back up, but for most people who lost their jobs due to COVID, starting a new company just isn’t plausible.
“[The pandemic] really hit low-wage workers hardest,” said Enrique Lopezlira, PH.D., director of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.
Dr. Lopezlira points to California Policy Lab data showing low-wage employees from the pandemic’s hardest hit sectors, like accommodation and food services, typically found different jobs in similar-paying industries, like retail. Workers in the science and tech sectors typically transitions to information industries, like publishing and data services.
“The Black and Hispanic workers were already trailing in wages and income…Women, especially those who are mothers or taking care of relatives, they’ve had to exit the workforce,” said Dr. Lopezlira. “Those with lower education rates, high school diploma or less have also been hurt more than college educated workers.
Mak admits her journey navigating life after being laid off would’ve been more difficult if she didn’t have the education and work experience she has, which is why she gives back. She donates a percentage of her proceeds to a non-profit and connects with complete strangers who reach out about pivoting their careers during the pandemic.
One of those people is U.S. Air Force veteran Ski Allender from Vacaville who is trying to market his creation, the Surf Sheet.
“I’ve actually felt that I’ve connected with more people than I’ve ever known or met before,” she said.