'It's like group therapy:' Workers find community in digital unemployment groups

The past five months have been lonely for Taylor Clifford. 

The 29-year-old moved to Phoenix a few years ago for work. Most of the friends she'd made in the area, she says, were her coworkers, which suited her just fine. But in March, like tens of millions of other Americans, Clifford was furloughed from her job as an events planner and confined to her apartment, where she lives alone.

Without coworkers to talk to in person and with no work to keep her occupied, the months of isolation have been difficult, Clifford says. 

"I've been trying to stay positive, but it does start to wear on you after a while," she tells CNBC Make It. While most of her furloughed coworkers have families to lean on during tough times, she does not. "If I can't pay my rent, it's my fault. I can't reach out to people and ask for help."

Adding to her stress is the fact that Congress has not extended the enhanced unemployment benefits that were helping her stay afloat. Receiving the extra $600 per week in federal aid at the beginning of the pandemic was a "saving grace," she says. Now, she's used up her savings and is worried about how she will pay her bills going forward.

A Facebook group for unemployed workers has helped keep her sane. The group, Unemployed Action, which has over 15,000 members, is one of dozens that have sprung up in recent months to help members make sense of states' antiquated UI systems and keep up with news on whether the benefits will or won't be extended.

A general unemployment support group on Facebook boasts over 8,000 members and more than 40 posts a day; the unemployment insurance subreddit has close to 40,000 members, with dozens of daily posts. There are groups and threads for individual states on both platforms. Clifford is also a member of Hospitality Family, which is a hub for hospitality essential workers, as well as furloughed and unemployed workers.

As tens of millions of Americans face joblessness, many, like Clifford, are interacting with their state unemployment offices for the first time. Even in the best of times, these systems can be difficult to use. Add a global pandemic and historically high number of people applying for benefits all at the same time, and payments have lagged for potentially millions of workers.

Most posts in the Facebook groups and subreddits deal directly with unemployment: Members help each other work out technicalities on unemployment applications, encourage each other when morale is low and celebrate when someone lands a new job or receives back pay.

They also help members like Marcel Videla, 46, who was laid off from his job in human resources in March, feel less alone in their daily pandemic struggles. Members use them as outlets to vent about their circumstances to thousands of others who understand exactly what they're going through.

"It's like group therapy," says Videla, who is also a member of Unemployed Action. "It's great for the support, everyone encouraging everyone."

Clifford tries to keep her unemployment woes off of her main Facebook page because she is unsure how friends and acquaintances will react. But a recent post in the group, in which she lamented not being able to find work and wondered how people with children were faring, received over 500 likes and an outpouring of supportive comments, which made a particularly rough day applying for jobs more bearable.

Her story isn't an outlier either: Other posts regularly receive similar positive reinforcement.

"It was just a really low day for me, I wasn't hearing back from anyone," says Clifford. "Just everything being so up in the air, it was bogging down on me. But I didn't read one negative comment on the post."

Some groups, like Unemployed Action, are explicitly political. Members encourage each other to contact their elected officials to agitate for an extension of the $600-per-week enhanced benefit. They are also organizing marches, protests and other actions in favor of extending the benefit.

Clifford registered to vote for the first time this year because of the way the government has responded to the pandemic. While she has generally felt apathetic toward policy, the encouragement she's received from members of the unemployment group helped her realize her voice matters.

"I think it's genuinely a community of people trying to help each other out," says Clifford. "It's nice to know that I'm helping people out, too."

Don't miss: 

  • 'We will lose everything:' Americans express frustration at Congress recessing with no stimulus deal
  • You can still get the extra $600 unemployment insurance payments retroactively—here's what to know

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