Shutdowns impose extreme hardship on workers

The economic hardship from COVID-19 has continued to mount as lockdowns and closures drag onward and no immediate end is in sight. Although stimulus programs are rolled out by the City of Nome and maybe the federal government in the coming weeks, the hardship on many people in Nome remains immense.
Angela Smith was working at Anchor Tavern when the City shut down in-person service in bars and restaurants a month ago, responding to a steep spike in COVID-19 cases in Nome.
 “It’s been very rough,” she said. Her husband, who worked at Soap and Suds, has been out of work, too. She’s been able to collect unemployment checks, but his had already run out. “So, I’m the only one getting unemployment. And it’s very hard when you only have one income coming in,” she said.  “I’m making $238 a week. That’s all I’m making. And, you know, I have a $400 electric bill,” she said. “A lot of people think we want the bars open because we want to go drinking, but it’s like no, that’s my job, that’s my paycheck.”
This shutdown stands in sharp contrast to the last one back in March, she added. Back then she was also furloughed from her job, which was at Polar Bar at the time, but she was able to get a utility credit from the City through the first phase of the City’s CARES Act funding to help pay her electric and water bills, which she said made a huge difference.
She was also able to take advantage of the federal government’s $600 weekly boost to unemployment. “So, I was making more on unemployment than I could working,” she explained. The extra funds kept her afloat for the duration of the shutdown, but she knew it would be temporary, and was still eager to get off unemployment. “When by boss Pat called me when I could go back to work at Polar, of course I chose to go back to work.”
This time around, the landscape looks very different. For the last month, Smith has been able to get no credit or economic stimulus beyond the normal unemployment rate, which has been woefully inadequate. She said she considered trying to get a job somewhere else in town, but nobody is hiring. The surge of jobless restaurant and bar workers has filled up any other openings that may have existed.
The cancellation of Iditarod is another blow. “That was our big time of year,” she said. That, combined with the complete lack of cruise ships and tourism this summer, has put the restaurant and bar industry on shaky ground to begin with, and it’s employees like Smith that often end up paying the price.
Some help for Smith and other service workers in Nome may be on the way, though. Last Monday, the Nome City Council approved another round of economic stimulus, labeled Phase VI, aimed specifically at bar and restaurant employees and taxicab drivers affected by the past month’s shutdowns.
The plan offers $600 per week for those who were working at least 20 hours per week but are now out of a job, and $300 per week for those who were working less than 20 hours per week. The application deadline to apply for the funds has been pushed to December 30.
City Manager Glenn Steckman said the application form is posted on the City’s website and was advertised on social media. He said the City was anticipating disbursing $150,000 to $200,000 through the program. He added that the City was also still busy sending out Phase V checks, which were one-time stimulus checks available to all Nomeites. Last week, the City sent out $600,000 as part of Phase V and there is yet more to come. “We still haven’t gotten all the checks out yet,” he said.
About 20 to 25 percent of the Phase V applications were faulty for some reason, and Steckman said City staff has been busy following up with applicants to work out missing or incomplete information. He said they would have a better idea of just how much they were sending out sometime next week.
Congress also passed a new $900 billion stimulus package, which awaits President Trump’s signature. It includes one-time payments of $600 for individuals, another round of the Payroll Protection Program and extended unemployment benefits for the unemployed, including a $300 per week boost to unemployment checks. While it’s a welcome breakthrough after months of legislative deadlock, the plan contains significantly fewer benefits for unemployed workers than the original CARES Act.
It also extends the deadline for previous CARES recipients to use their funds “well into 2021,” Steckman said. That allowed the City to extend the Phase VI deadline to December 30, and continue sending out checks into the new year.
The extension also means the City of Nome may be able to use some CARES money for a new ventilation system at the Rec Center, which was its original plan, but Steckman said it was unlikely that there would be funds remaining for that.
Instead, the money that was earmarked for the Rec Center is being distributed into the community in the form of economic stimulus. “The Council wants the money injected into the community, and we’re doing what the Council wants,” Steckman said.
The new federal bill does not, however, include additional funding for state or local governments, meaning that the City of Nome is not likely to have additional support once its existing CARES funds are depleted.
Instead, Steckman urged local businesses to take advantage of new small business loans and grants from the federal government, both to keep themselves afloat and to continue paying their employees. “We want to make sure businesses also look to that new federal funding as the city’s funding runs out,” he said.
Smith said her boss dropped off her Phase VI application at City Hall late last week, and that she hopes the support starts coming in soon. She appreciates the efforts to help workers like her, but said she was also frustrated, since she felt like she was paying the price for a crime she didn’t commit. “We still had our tables six feet apart, we didn’t add more tables, we had a limit of 22 people in the restaurant. We never went full bore,” she said. “We were doing what we were supposed to do.”
Then, when a cluster of cases appeared at another, unrelated bar, all the bars and restaurants in the whole town were shut down, leaving workers like her out to dry, despite their best efforts to slow the spread of the virus. In hindsight, she said she wished the City had been stricter on incoming travelers, requiring permits to enter the city more strictly enforcing travel quarantines. That would have kept Nome’s case numbers down, and potentially allowed bars and restaurants to stay open.
She also felt it was important that Nomeites recognize and empathize with the extreme economic hardships that she and many of her coworkers are facing right now. “People think, oh, you just want the bars open so you can go in and party. But that’s my job, that’s my paycheck, that’s my life,” she said. “And they don’t seem to understand that we’re human beings too, we have families, we have kids, we have bills. We’re people, too.”
On Monday, the City issued an emergency order that allows restaurants and cafes to open again at 50 percent occupancy. Food offered onsite shall be offered to only one person or members of the same household. Masks may only be removed for eating and drinking (non-alcoholic beverages.)  Public gatherings are also limited to 50 percent of the building occupancy except for grocery stores.
Cabs still must transport only one person at a time, or members of the same household. In the cab, all except for children under 3-years-old must wear a face mask. The order remains in effect until midnight, January 3, 2021.

 

Funding for this coverage provided in part by a grant from the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism.

 

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