By Marcy Stamper
When times are rough, it can seem that all the hardships pile up at once — for some people, toppling an already fragile balance. So, beyond the usual seasonal difficulties — less work, high heating costs, extra expenses like holiday gifts and special meals — Rob Hood was trying to absorb a series of costly mishaps.
“I pick up odd jobs to make extra money, but something always takes it away,” said Hood, who was at The Cove last week for lunch and groceries. Hood has been working at a fruit plant in Omak but was just notified that he will be laid off on Christmas Eve. He hit a deer on the way to a doctor’s appointment in Wenatchee. Then the muffler fell off his truck. “I was out of work for a year and a half — I’m still playing catch-up,” said Hood.
Billy and Jennifer Smith came to The Cove last week from Carlton. Although housing is cheaper there, it increases their transportation costs, said Billy. “It’s rough — I have no money for Christmas. I paid my last $10 for gas,” he said. Their food stamp benefits were cut from $200 to $189.
As a painter and a mechanic for more than 15 years, Billy was used to seasonal fluctuations in work, but this year it has dried up. “In the past, I’d get about six weeks off, but work would pick up by February,” he said.
At The Cove, the Smiths were relieved to find warm clothing in addition to the food. Jennifer got a jacket there a few weeks ago and, after surviving two weeks of sub-zero temperatures in a hooded sweatshirt and sneakers, Billy was visibly pleased when he was handed a brand-new jacket, donated by Zumiez.
Hood came to The Cove with his friend Cheri Corriel, who can no longer work and relies on disability for her basic expenses. It’s a long trip from her home in the lower Methow Valley, but Corriel prefers The Cove to the food bank in Pateros. “People are friendly here — they help any way they can,” she said. “I try to come when I run out of food — every little bit helps.”
The Cove had its highest number of participants in its 15-year history the week before Thanksgiving, when the nonprofit organization provided lunch and bags of food to 112 households, said Glenn Schmekel, executive director of The Cove.
The Cove expects 100 households each week through this holiday season, 20 more than they usually have, said Schmekel. Even this summer, the number of people coming to The Cove was higher than normal, about 75 households a week instead of 60. The recent spike comes after an overall increase of 20 percent over the past few years.
“We see a great need — all different kinds,” said Pearl Ramcke, who has volunteered at The Cove since it opened. “The need is constant, but there is a turnover of people as they go through a rough spell. Then someone gets a good job.”
Many people clearly have no cushion. “There’s a big impact when Sun Mountain closes for a break — we see it immediately,” said Ramcke. Sun Mountain reopened Friday (Dec. 13) after a six-week hiatus. The lodge will close again for another six weeks in March and April. The Duck Brand Hotel & Cantina also took a six-week break, and even places that stay open see a big drop in business, which affects employees’ hours.
Sometimes it’s the local economy, but many jobs are increasingly affected by global factors. Hood said the reduced hours at the fruit-plant job are connected with labor issues at the Panama Canal that affected fruit shipments from Chile.
“We’re not talking lazy people — we are talking unemployment, disability, seasonal layoffs,” said Schmekel.
“We definitely have people coming in who are having a hard time with bills for water, electricity and heat,” said Room One Client Services Coordinator Lori Valentine. Room One has no funding to help directly with these needs, so they refer people to The Cove, to Okanogan County Community Action Council, and to the Salvation Army.
In addition to food, The Cove helps connect people with other needs, including furniture and appliances. The list of available items last week included beds, an electric typewriter, an exercise machine and a TV.
Seemingly small things can make a big difference. “People are very excited when they get something like toilet paper, since you can’t buy that with food stamps,” said Cove volunteer Lois Chavey.
Benefit amounts cut again
Food banks have become more important to people who are trying to make it to the end of the month after federal food stamp benefits were cut by 10 percent in November. On top of that, extended unemployment benefits for those out of work for more than a year expire at the end of this month.
For the past five years, emergency unemployment compensation has provided up to 43 weeks of additional benefits in states where the overall jobless rate was above a certain threshold. Since it was passed by Congress in 2008, the program has been extended 11 times, although the duration and dollar amounts have been cut. While Congress has been debating the program, there is currently no indication it will be reauthorized this time, according to Washington’s Employment Security Department.
While the unemployment rate in Okanogan County has been falling — to 6.4 percent in October — so has the labor force. “A shrinking labor force is just about never good economic news,” said the regional labor economist in his most recent report.
“On an annual average basis, nonfarm employment in Okanogan County increased by only 10 jobs. … Still, this was a step in the right direction for a local labor market that had been battered for three consecutive years during the recent recession,” he said.
While unemployment in the county has either held steady or dropped for 28 consecutive months, it follows an annual pattern where the jobless rate has peaked at more than 12 percent in December and January for the past three years.
“The Cove has come in very handy — it’s helped me get through,” said a long-time valley resident whose disability allows him to work only occasionally. “I only take what I can use.”
“We’re happy we’re here for them, but not happy they need help,” said Chavey.