Unemployment claims surge

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Like many residents of Port Townsend, Monica le Roux normally works a handful of jobs.

On the weekends, she’s at the Rose Theatre’s Starlight Room, greeting guests and introducing each movie with some background and trivia.

During the week, she does bookkeeping at William James Bookstore on Water Street, while also attending the meetings for the Port Townsend Food Co-op, where she works as a board member. In between these, she bookkeeps for individual clients at their homes and for the Rose Theatre.

Her days are typically full of work and human interaction.

But last week, that all came to a screeching halt.

“It’s all happened so fast,” she said. “At the Rose, we had been feeling like it was coming down the pipe. So Rocky arranged for the managers of both the Starlight and the Rose to talk about where we felt things stood.”

At the end of the meeting, Rose Theatre owner Rocky Friedman and the theater’s group of managers had decided: If the state government required all schools to close to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the Rose Theatre would close, too.

“An hour after that meeting, I was working on the books upstairs and Rocky said, ‘We just got the word. Are you sitting down?’” she said.

The schools would be closed for the next six weeks, and with that, Port Townsend’s beloved Rose Theatre shut its doors for the time being.

A few days later, when the closures were expanded to restaurants and bars, and many local shops closed down for prevention measures, le Roux, like many other local workers, suddenly found herself with a lot of time on her hands and a lot of questions about the future.

“We were kind of hit at the worst possible time,” said Mike Howell, owner of Howell’s Sandwich Co.

At the end of tax season, but before the tourist season has ramped back up, restaurants had to close, and many were forced to lay off some employees.

For Howell, it didn’t make financial sense to stay open and serve takeout. So he decided to close up shop for the time being.

“I’d rather close down and wait it out, rather than run through expenses,” he said.

Howell’s employees have applied for unemployment, like le Roux and many other workers across the state.

“I’m absolutely terrified for them,” he said. “You have to log 650 hours to be qualified for unemployment benefits. That’s hard for part-time employees.”

The Employment Security Department reports that 7,900 Jefferson County residents work in the “service-providing” industry. A total of 1,150 employees in Jefferson County work in the “leisure and hospitality,” category, which includes food service and theaters, such as the Rose and many restaurants in Port Townsend that have had to either close entirely or reduce staff, to providing takeout orders only since the governor’s order on March 16.

While the local ESD does not have numbers yet on how many Jefferson County employees have been laid off, the state has seen the number of unemployment insurance claims nearly double in the past week. From March 8 to 14, the ESD has reported 14,154 unemployment insurance claims. The week prior, there were only 6,548 claims.

The ESD has adopted a series of emergency rules to relieve the burden of temporary layoffs for workers, such as allowing part-time employees to apply for “standby” unemployment. But because the governor’s orders went into effect immediately, the application processes still have some wrinkles that need to be worked out.

“It’s been a little scary,” le Roux said. “Unfortunately even though the website itself says part-time employees now qualify for unemployment, when you actually apply, it kicks you back as ‘denied.’ Which is panic-inducing.”

Not only is she unsure the application itself will work, le Roux also has had to adjust to living for the next month on half her normal income.

However, le Roux considers herself lucky: She owns her tiny home and only has to pay land rent and utilities at the port’s Point Hudson RV park.

“That means that yes, I can live on $1,200 a month,” she said. “But for a lot of people, that would be impossible.”

According to the U.S. Housing Development Authority, fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Jefferson County is $781 per month.

The Housing Solutions Network reports that 47% of renters are cost-burdened in Jefferson County. HUD defines cost-burdened households as those spending 30% or more of their income on housing and earning less than 80% of the county median income.

What’s hardest for business owners like Howell is not knowing how long they will need to stay closed. These first few months of the tourism season are critical for local businesses to save revenue and make it through the slower winter months.

Howell hopes people will take the governor’s advice seriously and do their part to prevent the spread of the virus.

“It’s a really hard thing,” he said. “We need everyone to stay home. We need this to be over as soon as possible.”

For employees such as le Roux, staying home is easy now that she doesn’t have a job. But it also means missing out on her favorite part of working: interactions with customers and coworkers.

When she’s at the theater, she sees her “regular” visitors, getting a chance to talk about films and what’s new around town.

“Because I introduce the movies, everyone recognizes me,” she said. “I had an enormous amount of interaction in my day-to-day.”

Spending time keeping her tiny home tidy, going on socially distant walks downtown and taking the occasional trip to the Food Co-op, le Roux has had to find other, virtual ways to stay in touch with those she cares about.

Doing so, she’s noticed the way Port Townsend and Jefferson County residents care for each other.

“Yes, we’re less public about it right now, but I’ve also felt more care and kindness in the last few days,” she said.

Even those who are struggling with the lack of a job or the closure of their business are finding ways to help each other.

For example, one friend bought le Roux an “early birthday gift” of a CSA subscription—meaning she has access to fresh produce for the next few months, which in turn supports a local farm.

Howell’s Sandwich Co. gave out free “PT Special” sandwiches until the last moment before closing the doors. And when they did shut down, Howell said they got a lot of support from the community.

“The community is amazing,” he said. “A lot of people have gone out of their way to reach out to us and other businesses.”

Le Roux plans to help out, too.

“If I’m lucky and my unemployment insurance goes through, I will still have a lot of time on my hands,” she said. “Now I can ask myself: What can I do with it?”

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