A sign thanking essential workers on one of the homes of the author's deliveries in Oakland. Credit: Tonya Shipp

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This article was written for and originally published by Oakland Voices, a nine-month program led by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education that trains Oakland residents to tell the stories of their neighborhoods. Since the pandemic began, alumni and correspondents at Oakland Voices have been sharing their personal experiences of what life has been like since COVID-19. Below, alumna Tonya Shipp shares hers.

I was working as a call center representative for approximately five months when COVID-19 dropped in March 2020. One late Friday afternoon, management called each of us—30-plus collectors—into the office individually, to say we were being laid-off for an indeterminate period of time. I was told I would be paid for the rest of the day, could leave, and was given EDD (unemployment insurance) information. Excited about getting off early and obtaining three free hours, I still cleaned off my desk and carefully packed up some of my belongings before heading to the bus stop.

Having previously worked through temporary agencies for several years, I thought, “I know exactly how to file.” However, I ran into login problems and quickly learned that all of the job search centers and libraries were closed. I had no home internet and my cell phone was only wifi-enabled. I ended up on the phone waiting for EDD for hours, on several different days. I resorted to going to the EDD office near my residence, where I was greeted by a security officer who informed me of their closure too, and that I may find information taped to their door. It had a local phone number and email address on it, as well as the main phone number I have saved on my phone and the web address.  

I called the local number and shared my problems with filing for my unemployment benefits, for which they had no solution. Luckily, although SparkPoint, a social service center in Eastmont Mall, was closed, I saw a worker in the office, took a chance, knocked on the door, and asked them to print and fax my unemployment paperwork. I filled out the 12 pages or so, and approximately a month later, received my award letter. I filled out two continued claim forms, they replied to one, and I never heard from them again. I called them a few more times, to no avail.

Not the type to sit around waiting for things to happen, I took inventory of my available resources—a PC with no internet, a rented house, and hobbies—and decided to purchase a car. The driver apps such as Caviar, Door Dash, Grub Hub, and Postmates would be my best option. I headed to downtown San Leandro to use their free outdoor wifi, in search of an economy car. It took approximately two weeks to find a dealership and financing before I was on my way! After reading each app’s instructions, I decided to drive during the peak lunch and dinner hours. The next day, fired up, I set out for my day’s work.  

Snacks, books, magazines in the back of the car; water bottle in the holder, carrying bag, cloths, mask, sanitizer, gloves, and cell phone in the front. Seats adjusted, seatbelt fastened, app and radio turned on, there I went day in and out to either a call or the “hotspot,” the starting point with lots of activity according to the app. I was under the impression that most people were working from home. I expected business-dressed people awaiting their meals because they were too busy to make their own. What I found were casually dressed people that appeared to be everyday living and just ordering a meal. When I arrived some were waiting, some even helpful by coming to my car, while others left specific no-contact instructions.  

It was fun while it lasted: I had grooved to some tunes and operated through little traffic. I had felt the breeze and enjoyed the sunshine. I had visited and notated restaurants that I had never been to and learned my neighborhood and vicinity a little better. I had also stood in line, bonded with my fellow drivers, and learned a new trade.

Then in September, I was hurt in a car accident and shut down. Because I was driving for work purposes, my insurance would not cover it. I learned the hard way that I needed a different type of insurance. It took a few months of paperwork, back and forth emails and phone calls, and steadily declining savings, before it was apparent that I would be back on AC Transit, at least for a while.

In the meantime, I applied for Internet Essentials, Xfinity’s low-income internet program. I spent weeks scouring the internet for computer-based income opportunities. I opened up an Amazon store and applied for other affiliate programs but have not received any income from these endeavors yet. I did gain from participating in a paid survey with Indeed, from a COVID grant from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and later, from USA stimulus payments that helped me to stay afloat.

Sometime thereafter, I received an email about a 6-week online bookkeeping class being offered by my alma mater, JVS, a nonprofit job search and training center in San Francisco. A few years prior, I had graduated from their administrative boot camp they had taught downtown on 1200 Broadway. I completed the training and am now studying and testing to be QuickBooks Pro certified, and afterward, will be placed in a 6-8 week-long internship. Meanwhile, I officially started an online business, Services by TNS, where I offer a variety of business services including bookkeeping. Oakland Voices was my first client, receiving my first invoice through QuickBooks!

The Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons came and went and I had the opportunity to be on the other side of the driver apps, as a patron. I had learned from other Oaklanders about how to be a good customer, cultivating methods such as leaving a light on for night deliveries to providing block-by-block directions when they are located in hard-to-find areas. When not done right, I have worn the teacher’s hat, too.  

Life keeps going and my main outings are to my front and back yards to fuss over my gardens or to take out the trash. I miss volunteering at Oakland First Fridays, enjoying the performances, vendors and the good food that I would photograph. While I have been enjoying the reruns on YouTube, Amazon Prime and the like, I miss going to the movies as well. I am busy, though, with my house duties, the course, purposefully surfing the internet, the TV, radio and creative eating. I am conscious about eating nutritiously and have been thinking about taking an online yoga class, like where I spent New Year’s Eve!

Due to the recent vaccines, I am optimistically and enthusiastically awaiting the day I do not have to wear a face mask, of which I have a hard time breathing in, and instead of keeping in touch with family, the news, and entertainment online, actually being able to shop, be social, and active outdoors again.

Tonya Shipp

Tonya Shipp is a mother of two and avid supporter of education and development. For the past ten years, she has been freelancing and working through staffing agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area but recently began as Program Aide at Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency. She obtained an associate’s degree in the social sciences from Laney College and is one class shy of receiving a bachelor’s degree in Business Management. She also served eight years in the Army Reserves before being honorably discharged. She volunteers regularly at the events and offices of non-profits. Having experienced extensive periods of homelessness, unemployment and being without dental coverage is a strong advocate for the poor.