Good news about the federal coronaviris stimulus came to Paul Pontillo on Dec. 28, the day he turned 36.

President Donald Trump had signed the $900 billion aid package the night before. It brought the promise of unemployment checks for Pontillo — a wedding and food photographer — and the rest of the 40,103 self-employed Connecticut residents whose benefits had run out.

“On my birthday my whole news feed was him signing the bill,” Pontillo said later in the week. “It will definitely save the mortgage for the next couple of months.”

Beyond that, it’s a matter of hope and hard work. The new stimulus dollars will help, but Pontillo isn’t in the clear yet after a disastrous year of business, forced by the shutdown last March — just as his peak season was gearing up.

Without that added unemployment coverage into this coming March, including $300 a week for 11 weeks on top of regular payments, Pontillo isn’t sure how he’d make it. “Winter time is really tough, especially in my business,” he said. “My weddings start in March and April and hopefully when that kicks back we’ll be okay.”

Though he’s thankful everyone in his family has stayed healthy, 2020 was a nightmare year for Pontillo and his family financially. And it started out great.

On Feb. 1, the Bridgeport native moved with his wife, Stephanie, and three children to a house they bought in Oxford. From a cramped, 2-bedroom apartment — the couple shared a bedroom with their two toddler boys — they upsized to a 3,400-square-foot raised ranch in the Naugatuck Valley town, with low property taxes and sweeping views across from a tree farm.

After seven years on his own as At First Click Photography, he had dozens of bookings lined up. He even employed three part-time shooters to help with events, and Stephanie also worked in the business as she prepared for a real estate license.

On top of that, about half of Pontillo’s work was shooting pictures of food for Uber Eats and Grub Hub.

Most of it came to a sudden halt. “About 20 weddings out of the 30 we had were rescheduled to ‘21 and ’22,” he said. And even the food work shut down because they couldn’t work inside the restaurants.

Pontillo worked at his father’s large landscaping firm before he went into phoography, but that business closed. Now, as a freelancer in the gig economy, Pontillo has no access to regular state unemployment. Federal benefits didn’t kick in until mid-May for self-employed people but those checks came much later for Pontillo, as for many others, as applications were held up in the springtime crush after the first federal CARES Act.

“It was like a college course just to do the paperwork,” said Pontillo, who studied graphic design in college and does his own accounting. “I can deal with that, but this was crazy. The stuff that they needed to know and the way they worded it just didn’t make sense.”

He eventually collected weekly payments of $190 under the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program – which the new stimulus, known as the Cares Act 2, now continues for a total of 50 weeks of benefits.

Why so low a weekly benefit? It’s hard to say. We’ve seen that among many gig workers, as their incomes tend to be less regular.

Even with the temporary $600 weekly federal add-on payments, later $300 a week in the summer, Pontillo made nowhere near his 2019 pay of about $75,000, he said. All in, with the unemployment, he pulled in about half what he had made the year before, and that was with some serious scrambling.

He made wooden Jenga toys and sold them on Facebook Marketplace ,and did other wood work. “I’ve been blessed since I was little, my grandfather showed me how to do a lot of things, I’ve always been handy,” he said.

He did “front porch sessions” when he could find people who needed photos. He did five or six “elopement packages” for wedding clients who canceled receptions.

“I was just trying to do everything I could to bring money in,” Pontillo said.

He and Stephanie had bought the Oxford house out of foreclosure. Naturally, it needed a lot of work — which they did, but that didn’t pay the mortgage. For that, they dipped way more deeply into savings than they had planned.

They didn’t skip mortgage payments, a move that’s available for some homeowners but comes at a cost, Pontillo said, including large payments due later or damage to his credit rating.

“We’re just pumping through it,” he said. “I didn’t want to have an $8,000 bill.”

As the vaccine courses through the state and nation, as COVID-19 shows signs of slowing in Connecticut, Paul Pontillo is in many ways like a million economic survivors. He’s doing whatever he can with whatever help the government can muster, probably with more resourcefulness than most.

That’s the nature of people who cobble together a freelance career to begin with.

In all, the state Department of Labor has seen 1.2 million applications for unemployment benefits, spokeswoman Juliet Manalan said. Employees there, like front-line workers in other industries, have endured nonstop mayhem for the whole ten months, using a central computer system that was apparently installed by Eli Whitney around the time he invented the cotton gin.

The department has not been able to say how many people the 1.2 million applications represents; many had to file multiple times. At the peak in mid-May, a total of 391,301 people received benefits under five or six different programs.

As of mid-December, the latest figures available, the total was 181,514 Connecticut residents receiving benefits, including thr roughly 40,000 self-employed workers under the PUA.

Looking ahead, we can’t predict how quickly that 181,000 will fall to the 43,000 or so people who were collecting jobless benefits when the pandemic started. Like Pontillo, every name, every face, every worker behind those numbers has a story of struggle that won’t end when the latest stimulus finally winds down.

Some, like Pontillo’s mother, who grew up in Bridgeport’s Marina Village public housing project and now works as a server in a Fairfield diner, are back at work but making less money than before.

“When she was getting unemployment she was making way more than she was getting at the diner,” he said, with the $600 “true-up.” But of course, that ended and the partial shutdown continues.

As for himself, Pontillo wasn’t able to spend any money on marketing in 2020 and that may hurt him for a long time, though a local radio station auctioned off a wedding photography package in exchange for advertising.

Lessons from 2020: “If it taught me anything it’s how to plan ahead; 2021 looks good as long as we could get back to having normalized weddings,” he said.

That’s a big if, for now. But Pontillo knows how to count his blessings. He’s thinking about his two pre-school boys and his 12-year-old daughter, the only girl in a regional baseball league.

And he’s thinking about a childhood friend from Bridgeport, whose business failed and who had COVID-19, along with his father, so severely that both were on ventilators in April. The friend’s father didn’t make it.

dhaar@hearstmediact.com



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