Seattle, here’s a glimpse of what it’s starting to look like at the bottom of the pandemic, an informal portrait drawn from some of your stories:
A maintenance manager for an apartment complex is laid off, applies for unemployment but can’t get his claim through the bureaucracy (it’s been pending — for 10 weeks).
“I’m owed over $8,000 now in unemployment, but I can’t get it,” he says. “I’ve got only 40 bucks left in savings, and 10 bucks in my checking.”
He starts living in his truck (“I’m a Marine, I can tough it,” he says). But alone in his truck his phone rings incessantly. It isn’t the government calling to resolve his claim. It’s the bill collectors.
Recently he’s stopped answering.
“I’m hiding from the bank so they don’t repo my truck,” he said.
A woman is furloughed from an apparel store in Edmonds. She too can’t seem to get the state to process the federal government’s special pandemic response payments.
“Literally no income in eight weeks,” she says. “Every bill is late and in the red, I’m freaking scared.”
She notices a news item about how women are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the shutdown. Women lost 2 million more jobs than men through the first week of May, led by huge cuts in female-dominated fields such as education and her sector, retail.
The female unemployment rate was lower than it was for men before the pandemic; now it’s 3 percentage points higher. She can’t stop thinking about these statistics, and how she’s become one of them.
“This thing might be setting women back decades,” she says.
An Amazon picker in Pierce County hasn’t been able to work because her kids have been out of school since it was closed. Nevertheless there was a glitch that caused weeks of delays in getting any disaster assistance benefits. So every day she takes the kids to free lunch at the school district, and has started living off the heavily depleted food banks.
“I’m seriously going to cry, I’m down to my last dollar,” she says. “I’ve got no gas, the rent is due, please by the grace of God we need to get some help.”
At an online support group, the tips for staying afloat roll in. How to apply for emergency food stamps. What time of day to call to have any hope of piercing the state bureaucracy (“very, very early a.m.,” one says, while another insists “late afternoon, after everyone else gives up”).
It’s palpable how thin the safety net has been stretched.
“Try a payday loan,” someone suggests. “You can get one for your unemployment, better than nothing.”
A U-Haul rep south of Seattle has been without income for nine weeks because of — you guessed it — delays in the state unemployment system. He says he kept his family off the street only by moving into a mobile home owned by his mom.
“I’ve been selling everything that has value, I’m trying to sell my second vehicle for $150 so I can at least make it another week,” he says. “My accounts are all in the red, my credit has dumped hard below 500.”
On Monday he got an update from the state that though he’s yet to receive any money on his claim for pandemic-related assistance, he now owes the state $82 in “overpayment” (he sent along screenshots of the account to prove it).
So the Nigerian scammers got hundreds of millions of dollars, but the guy living in his mom’s spare mobile home owes the state money.
“It’s probably just another glitch,” he said. “But I think I’m going to have to file for bankruptcy no matter what now.”
Plenty of people are doing fine in the pandemic, but these are just a few of the stories I’ve looked into from those who aren’t. There are hundreds more, or thousands, being told in online help sessions such as the Washington State Unemployment Support Group, on Facebook, which has more than 6,000 members. Last week, the state reported that more than 300,000 people have filed assistance claims and gotten no money, at least not yet. About 768,000 have gotten paid.
Making everyone stay home was done for solid public health reasons, but it’s only going to work if the safety net is broad and strong. Listening to their stories, you can sense something far worse has started to happen than the state getting scammed out of some money.
It’s the bottom starting to fall out from the pandemic response. More than two months in, the state’s urgently got to get it together with the economic relief side, or the fight against the virus is going to start to unravel.