Kayleigh* and her partner were on a working holiday in Canada when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Both lost their jobs, and decided to return home to Bulli in March.
"Everyone just lost their jobs there because of COVID, so we thought it was just safer to cut it short," the 26-year-old said.
"When I got back, it was just so hard to find anything, and I applied for maybe 40 jobs. I was applying everywhere, up in Sydney as well as in Wollongong."
The Illawarra's unemployment rate is now almost two percentage points above the state average.
Annually adjusted regional labour force statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that the region's unemployment rate is now 6.7 per cent, compared with the NSW unemployment rate of 4.8 per cent.
I've worked full-time my whole life and I've studied, so it was quite a shock to not be getting interviews.
There were 12,500 people unemployed in the Illawarra in May, the ABS's raw unadjusted data showed.
While male unemployment within the region falls close to the state average, more Illawarra females are unemployed compared to the NSW average.
The female unemployment rate for the Illawarra is now 9.7 per cent (NSW: six per cent), while the male unemployment rate in the Illawarra is 6.2 per cent (NSW: 6.2 per cent).
Kayleigh said being unemployed and searching for work had been even more difficult given she had enjoyed stable employment up until that time.
"I've worked full-time my whole life and I've studied, so it was quite a shock to not be getting interviews," she told the Mercury.
After her months of searching, Kayleigh recently gained employment, landing a full-time job in recruitment in Wollongong.
"Working in the recruitment industry, I'm seeing so many skilled people coming through who have never had a period of unemployment," she said.
"Everyone's just so confused and uncertain about what's going to happen."
Kayleigh said she felt for others who have had long-time, stable employment but now found themselves without a job for the first time due to the pandemic.
"My advice would be that anyone out there, make sure they're following up on every application they put in," she said.
"I've applied for jobs in April and they're still writing back to me now, saying I've not been successful."
Davide Greig is a member of the operations team at employment agency MBC Employment Services, who have offices in the Illawarra.
Mr Greig said many people they were encountering were new to the JobSeeker payment process.
"A lot of them are almost embarrassed to be taking money like this because they've never been in this situation before," he said.
"They're very keen to get back into the workforce when it opens up again.
"Certain industries have been more affected than others. Tourism is decimated, the hospitality industry is slowly coming back.
"The more we're opening up, the more we're going to get back to normal. Obviously international tourism is going to be suffering, but you're going to get a lot more domestic tourism, so hopefully that fills the gap."
Mr Greig also offered some advice for Illawarra jobseekers.
"People seem to get down when they get rejected - they need to brush it off and just keep trying," he said.
"Things will come good, I'd say, very soon."
The Illawarra has also fared worse than its northern counterpart, Newcastle, which has an unemployment rate of 5.5 per cent.
According to a Mercury analysis of ABS figures, it has mostly been the loss of women's jobs (like those in retail, hospitality, and casual and temporary jobs in general) that have contributed to the region's growing unemployment rate.
When the bushfires started in November 2019, women's employment rate was rising, but still pretty low at about four per cent.
Since summer, and with COVID-19 shutdowns kicking in, it has risen to be the same as men's.
For men, while their unemployment rate has been generally higher (which may be because there are usually more men in the labour force) COVID has had relatively little impact, with the unemployment rate staying steady.
Looking at the ABS's raw unadjusted data, also released on Thursday, comparing April to May also shows a significant shift in job numbers as the pandemic has worn on.
These figures show there were 2900 more people in jobs in the Illawarra in May than the previous month, but the region's unemployment rate also grew from 6.5 per cent in April to 7.8 per cent in May
During this time, jobseekers flooded back into the market. with the region's labour force growing by more than 5000.
This is likely to have been because a lot of people weren't looking for work in April due to the lockdown, but would have been looking to get back to work in May.