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Outbreak Voices: Former Politician Contends With Unemployment, COVID-19 Struggles

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This last year has been deeply challenging for Araceli Gonzalez-Burkle of Walnut, Calif.

ARACELI GONZALEZ-BURKLE: You know, I've always had a job. I've never had to seek out any of the state assistance programs that are available to low-income families.

SIMON: But that's exactly what she's had to do. We read about her in the Los Angeles Times and asked her to talk about what she's had to contend with in a year that would have been hard enough without the pandemic. She's in the middle of a divorce and is raising a young son. But she's found navigating public assistance to be difficult, despite the fact that she's a former California government official who also happens to be a Republican.

GONZALEZ-BURKLE: My political career started when I was 19 years old. I was appointed to the planning commission. I served there for eight years. And I became the youngest and first Latina elected to the city council for Cudahy, Calif.

SIMON: Gonzalez-Burkle went on to serve as vice mayor of Cudahy, and she worked for other Republican politicians.

GONZALEZ-BURKLE: I have a servant's heart, and I do really well in those kinds of positions. I have always served as an executive assistant to, you know, CEOs and CFOs. And I never really had a hard time finding a job.

SIMON: Until May, she worked in the office of a manufacturing company. But when business dropped dramatically, she was let go.

GONZALEZ-BURKLE: I had some savings, but those quickly ran out. And after that, I had to figure out what I'm going to do for myself. So unemployment was available, applied for that, was getting unemployment. My mom helps me pay the rent, so it balances things out. I'm OK. And then I got COVID.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: That was in December. Araceli Gonzalez-Burkle became so ill, she had to call 911. The paramedics arrived. As they got her ready to go to the hospital, her heart stopped. She was rushed to intensive care barely able to breathe, blood clotting and her organs failing.

GONZALEZ-BURKLE: By day four, I called my mom, and I said, make arrangements with the attorney to take care of my son. And, you know, send someone so I can sign the power of attorney because I don't think I'm going to make it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GONZALEZ-BURKLE: Day 5, I got a blood transfusion. And that's when everything started to turn around. I didn't have to bring oxygen home. I still didn't have a sense of smell or a sense of taste. And I came home. I came home weak (laughter) certainly able to walk in with a walker. But I was happy that I had gone through the worst part of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GONZALEZ-BURKLE: The day I came home and I had no food in the house - feeling weak, knowing I'm not going to go back to work anytime soon. Unemployment had already been suspended because it's after December 26. At this time, I have no savings, I have no food, and I have an 8-year-old child. When I went to the food bank, they were running out of food. I mean, the lines were around the corner. And there's thousands - not hundreds - thousands of people going through the food bank line. And I said, this is good that we have this. But wow, you know, I hope people see that the best way to help others and help them in a really quick way is to donate to food banks because that gets to people a lot quicker than the federal and state aids that's coming. And that's how we basically have been surviving now.

SIMON: Araceli Gonzalez-Burkle is still recovering from COVID. She gets pretty fatigued. She's had a few job interviews. And she has advice for others who've struggled to get public assistance.

GONZALEZ-BURKLE: You're not going to get anyone on the phone. And you can't show up in person to any state agency. And so find someone to help you with the computer, and don't get frustrated. They're going to ask you for a million, gazillion documents. Scan them. Upload them. Don't give up even though it seems overwhelming because it does when you're like, oh, my goodness, and where's the link? And what do they want now? And they ask you lots and lots of questions. Answer them all. Just stick to it, and don't give up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GONZALEZ-BURKLE: I haven't lost faith in government because I served, and I know that there's a way to serve where you're still helping people. So I know that the potential is there because I did it. So have I thought about going into politics again? Absolutely. This servant's heart is ready to serve again.

SIMON: Araceli Gonzalez-Burkle of Walnut, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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