Firms, workers wait for system to catch up
Since the beginning of March, 1,711 people in Okanogan County have filed claims for unemployment. While new claims statewide started to fall last week, Okanogan County saw its biggest increase so far — 1,041% — compared to last year.
“I think what’s raising eyebrows now is that it’s much greater than during the recent great recession [from 2007 through 2009],” said Don Meseck, a Regional Labor Economist for the state Employment Security Department (ESD).
Last week, Okanogan County had the unenviable status of making the list of the five counties in Washington with the biggest spikes in initial claims. And while other counties on the list saw a relatively small increase from the previous week (between 1% and 8%), Okanogan County’s claims skyrocketed by 26%, according to the ESD.
Still, statewide unemployment claims are up 2,627% from last year, seven times higher than during the great recession, according to the ESD. Job losses are hitting all industries, from management and wholesale sales, to the arts and recreation.
Initial claims count the number of people who’ve applied for unemployment, not the number who’ve been approved for benefits, Meseck said.
Things were actually looking relatively good in Okanogan County before the coronavirus shutdown walloped the economy. In February, the unemployment rate was 8.9% which, while higher than the state and national levels, was the lowest rate in the county since 1990, Meseck said. Most industries had been adding jobs, although the leisure and hospitality sector was having a downturn, he said.
Waiting for benefits
Unemployment filings are likely to rise more this month, since the ESD has asked people who qualify under new federal rules (like sole proprietors, the self-employed, and contractors) to wait until mid- or late April to apply, when the system is expected to be updated.
Massage therapist Arijana Moon is waiting for that update to kick in. She mailed her unemployment application a few weeks ago. “Now, it’s a waiting game to see if they call me back,” she said.
Massage therapists aren’t on the list of businesses closed by Gov. Jay Inslee, since some people receive massage as part of medical treatment. “But it’s hands-on, for sure. Everyone’s been canceling,” Moon said.
Moon is getting by — watching her expenses and appreciating the meals from the school district for her daughter. Still, if the government stimulus check doesn’t arrive in time, Moon is afraid her savings will start running out. “There’s no harm in trying for unemployment — I’m not making any money. Everyone’s quarantined and not wanting to come in,” she said.
Moon doesn’t want to be in debt when she starts working again, which makes her reluctant to pursue a business loan.
After the last recession, it took two years before business bounced back, and this time it’s even scarier, Moon said. It’s not only that people may not have money for a massage — Moon is also worried that people may have phobias about physical contact after being schooled in the importance of social distancing.
After 23 years as a massage therapist, Moon doesn’t want to think about another career. “It’s a really weird place to be in. I love my job, and love what I do,” she said.
Guides who lead ski and trekking trips in the mountains don’t fit neatly within the parameters of the unemployment system. Most guides work for several companies, are paid by the day, and work seasonally, said Josh Cole, co-owner of North Cascades Mountain Guides (NCMG), and a guide himself.
Although this is typically a quiet time of year for NCMG, the company canceled six trips to Europe and have closed at least through June 1. Those trips constitute a significant portion of the company’s yearly revenue, Cole said.
While the canceled trips mean a loss of income, at least NCMG hadn’t prepaid for expenses such as lodging. But the company is still paying its office manager. NCMG’s insurance broker is negotiating a reduced premium since they’re not leading trips. “But, luckily, as our income has ground to a halt, our expenses have also reduced,” Cole said.
Cole’s own unemployment application — for as a self-employed business owner — was denied. “I’m hopeful that, as the legislation makes its way into the system, that will change,” he said. Because Cole’s wife is a teacher, his family has some income and health insurance.
Cole has also applied for a loan through the Small Business Association, and is researching other options like the Paycheck Protection Program. “I’m going through all the hoops,” he said.
The company’s bookkeeper, accountant, and a professional association for mountain guides have been a big help in navigating the legislation, Cole said. “That’s been the thing that has reduced the stress the most — having professional people wade through the materials,” he said.
Clients on hold
Devin Barnhart, owner of Trimline & Co. Salon, is still waiting for unemployment benefits to work out. She’s been cutting hair for 23 years and has never been unemployed. “Thirteen days is the longest I’ve ever had off from work — 10 years ago, when I had my daughter,” Barnhart said.
Her husband has a construction business and is also self-employed, so they’ve applied for loans and are awaiting a decision. Barnhart has a mortgage on the salon building, which she purchased last year for stability.
At least Barnhart is confident that she’ll have clients when she’s allowed to cut hair again. She cringes when she gets photos from clients of their husbands cutting their hair. “People want to be first on the list — they keep rescheduling,” she said.
Susan Finn worked just one day in March at her new job at a local inn before everything shut down. Then everything was put on hold until the stay-at-home order is lifted, she said.
Finn was fortunate that she’d already been collecting unemployment when she got the new job, so her claim continued without interruption. But she’s waiting to find out if she’s been approved for standby status, since her employer has certified that her work will resume when the inn reopens fully. Standby status would mean she doesn’t have to look for a job while collecting benefits.
Meanwhile, Finn continues to look for work — not an easy task with so few employers looking to fill jobs. Finn has also filled the requirement by doing online training through WorkSource Okanogan, although many of those classes are full.
It’s been impossible to find out the status of her standby claim. “You literally cannot get through on a line — you call and it says they’re too busy, before it hangs up,” Finn said.
“With unemployment, I’ll be OK financially. I’m careful not to be maxed out,” Finn said.
Still, she thinks about the uncertainty in the tourism industry. “Who knows what’s going to happen with our summer? Are people going to go on vacation? Are they going to have money for motels?” Finn said.