JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- At the time of day Friday when most workers are making plans for happy hour, Cheryl Johnson is making a final scan of the online job listings at the Jersey City One-Stop Career Center. Her skirt suit is wrinkled.
Johnson lost her job after Hurricane Sandy lashed the mid-Atlantic states three weeks ago. The superstorm destroyed the Staten Island offices of the marketing firm where she worked as an account executive for the past three years. After more than a decade of continuous employment, the storm has put the 54-year-old single mother in a position she never imagined she'd be: Collecting unemployment and applying for nearly any job for which she is remotely qualified.
Johnson represents one of the thousands of new faces in the unemployment line following the hurricane. Last week, the Labor Department reported that initial claims for state unemployment rose by 78,000 to a seasonally adjusted 439,000. That is the highest level since April 2011, and the biggest one-week increase in new claims since 2005.
An analyst from the Labor Department said much of the claims’ increase came from states in the mid-Atlantic region, where the storm flooded thousand of homes and businesses, according to Reuters. The damage from the storm is estimated to be as much as $50 billion.
Deutsche Bank's chief U.S. economist, Joseph LaVorgna, said he anticipated the storm's impact would weigh heavily on the overall jobs picture.
"The data reported last week showed preliminary evidence of Hurricane Sandy disrupting economic activity," LaVorgna told CNBC on Monday. "We are concerned there may be an acute hurricane impact on November payrolls."
While there has been some overall improvement in employment in recent months, the storm could unwind that progress. For those already dancing the thin line between poverty and some semblance of financial stability, the storm has been nothing short of life altering.
Now, in the aftermath of the storm, Johnson has no idea where money will come from to pay for rent and food for her 12-year-old son, not to mention the holidays. Her unemployment benefits qualify her for more than $1,400 per month, but her rent plus food alone add up to at least $1,600. Already Thanksgiving has been essentially canceled in her mind. She is holding on to the hope that she will find a way to afford a present for her son at Christmas.
“We are robbing Peter to pay Paul at this point,” Johnson said.
Several computer stations away from Johnson, Emoni Jones, 29, also works her way through an online job application. This one is for Staples. Her $12-per-hour job working in a warehouse in Secaucus, N.J., washed away with the storm, too.
Jones is now dangerously close to dire poverty as the storm took everything from her: Floodwaters filled her basement apartment, destroying not only her clothes and all her identification papers, like her birth certificate, but also taking the two small joys of her life, she says -- her Beta fish, Aqua and Autumn.
Jones has been able to move back in with her mother in Jersey City, but with five other siblings in the house, there is little to spare. Deep lines underscore her brown eyes. There is not only the money to worry about, but also replacing all her identification papers, which are essential to securing employment. To get a new birth certificate, for example, requires a $42 round-trip bus ticket to Trenton, N.J., 60 miles away. Jones has no money to pay for the bus ticket to do that either. "I'm screwed," she said, fighting back tears.
But for some, the hurricane has sparked hope that clean-up jobs could come in the storm's wake. In early November, New York's Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the state had received $27 million in grant money from federal agencies that had been earmarked for post-storm jobs. New Jersey also received a $15.6 million grant to hire unemployed New Jersey residents to assist with Hurricane Sandy clean-up and recovery efforts in the Garden State.
Moses Williams, 47, submitted an application for a hurricane clean-up job with FEMA. He has been out of work for three months and is looking for anything that pays, he said. On Friday, he had yet not heard whether or not he received a hurricane-related job.
But some job seekers at the unemployment office complained the clean-up jobs are not being well advertised or are only appropriate for certain kinds of workers. Johnson herself gave FEMA a try, but concluded that all the jobs were manual labor aimed primarily at male job applicants.
Not everyone who has lost jobs and income from the storm has filed for unemployment, managing to survive instead with a mix of FEMA aid, the kindness of strangers and family.
Chris Romulo, 38, lost his martial arts business in the Rockaways due to flooding but has quickly changed gears to earn money, ramping up his personal training business to offset the losses. With his family's apartment flooded, he received funds from FEMA for the equivalent of two months of expenses.
But the real income has come from total strangers who want to help him build back his business, which serves kids and teens in the neighborhood. He anticipated rebuilding his gym and buying new equipment will cost between $10,000 and $20,000. So far, he's received at least $8,000 in gifts. And he plans to rebuild his business as soon as he can.
"I have been telling people I have been through 30 fights in the ring," he said. "When you're knocked down, once you’re ready, you go right back at it."