The U.S. unemployment rate hit 14.7% in April, the highest rate since the Great Depression, as 20.5 million Americans lost their jobs, according to the Associated Press. In Washington, 500,000 claims are being paid out this week, but some Spokane residents say that, despite earnest efforts, they have been unable to see those benefits.
A housekeeper for the Davenport – and mother to two sons with medical issues – hasn’t received unemployment benefits, nor has a single mother who worked at a Northern Quest Resort & Casino restaurant.
The reasons vary, but an overwhelmed system seems to be the root cause, as many people’s finances come up as “pending.”
These are some of their stories.
‘COVID-19 put us back down again’
James Hook and his fiancee Emako Loran came to Spokane for a better life.
They had been living in Oklahoma, but moved to Spokane in 2019 to have access to better health care facilities for their 4- and 5-year-old sons who have serious medical issues.
At first, they moved in with family, but their family took advantage of what limited savings they had, Hook said. Unsure where to turn, they went to the Salvation Army shelter, which connected them with Supportive Services for Veteran Families, which found them housing.
In November, Loran began working for Davenport Hotels as a housekeeper. That left Hook to take care of his children’s frequent medical treatments and without enough time to work a job of his own.
But when the statewide stay-home order took effect, Davenport closed its hotels and Loran lost her job.
Hook feels like every time they’ve stood back on their feet, they have been knocked down again. Because they recently moved to Washington, state Employment Services Department initially told Loran she did not qualify because she did not have enough hours.
“We tried for unemployment as soon as the Davenport shut down,” Hook said. “We still haven’t heard anything. We call every day, and we wait and we wait to talk to somebody for up to four hours a day.”
Hook said he’s connected a few times to an actual person who said they would transfer him, but then the call disconnects.
The family hasn’t been without help. They are provided housing through Supportive Services for Veteran Families, received a stimulus check and get $569 a month through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The children get their medical care through Washington Apple Health, but surgery to repair their son’s oversized heart has been postponed because it was considered elective.
“We came here for a better life. We thought that would be good,” Hook said. “We got put down, we got picked back up again. And now that COVID-19 put us back down again.”
They’re having trouble covering their basic expenses, and Hook wants to be able to afford simple things, like a lawnmower so he can take care of the lawn at his new house.
‘It was humbling’
Bethany Doud is a single mother of three who has worked as a server at Fai’s Noodle House at Northern Quest. She applied for unemployment March 29, and the system still says her payment is pending.
Doud said her finances have been tight, but she has survived through community support.
“I haven’t gone without, but I very easily could have,” Doud said. “I think that my faith in God has been the one thing that’s really helped me through everything is knowing that no matter what God will provide, and he has, as scary as it’s been. We have food, a roof and shelter, so we’re good.”
Doud said that the assistance she received at the food bank was amazing.
“It was humbling, very humbling, having to go ask for help,” Doud said. “Being a single mom, I’ve grown very independent, and having to humble myself was very hard at first, and then going there and just seeing the people that were just so nonjudgmental, and their hearts were so in it. It really took away that apprehension.”
On Tuesday, Doud will be able to go back to work, but as a bartender’s assistant, which meant a significant pay cut.
“But being that I haven’t gotten any employment, I took it,” Doud said. “And I just had to take whatever I could get at that point.”
‘It’s definitely a shocker’
Amber Malory, who is a stay-at-home mom to a 3-year-old, is used to receiving income through babysitting her nephew.
Since the child’s mother is now unemployed, Malory is no longer doing that. She filed for unemployment a little more than six weeks ago, but still hasn’t received a payment. Her unemployment payment is also classified as “pending.”
“They were very kind,” Malory said. “I know they’re extremely overwhelmed, so I’m trying to be patient.”
Malory’s husband is still working, but “it’s definitely a shocker when you’re expecting a certain income and then you have to kind of make adjustments.”
Still, Malory can’t imagine what people who don’t have that income and haven’t received unemployment are doing.
“I feel really bad for anybody if both parties in their home are out of work, or anything like that,” Malory said.
‘Despite my frustration, I’m grateful’
Michelle Darnell owns Lilac Family Eye Care in Liberty Lake and also works as an independent contractor for LensCrafters at Northtown Mall and Spokane Valley Mall.
Independent contractors were not able to apply for unemployment benefits until the evening of April 18. Darnell waited until the morning after, assuming the website would be overwhelmed when it first opened. The Spokesman-Review first reported Darnell’s journey to get unemployment on April 2.
When Darnell got to the place in the application where she needed to verify her identity by giving her birthdate and Social Security number, the website told her the information she provided did not match in their system. Thinking she had typed incorrectly, she tried again and received the same message.
“I closed out and I figured it’s gonna be buggy, I’ll give them a couple days to figure it out and fix the glitch,” Darnell said.
When she tried again and received the same response, she took a screenshot of the error and emailed them, providing photos of her driver’s license and Social Security card. Four days later, she got an email back.
“It just basically went through and gave me all the standard instructions, so I don’t think that anybody actually read my email,” Darnell said.
Darnell’s major worry is that she’s deferred on paying the rent for her office, which is about $4,000 a month. Once business reopens, she will have to pay back rent.
“The unemployment check would make a really good dent in that because if we’re closed for another month or into June, it’s going to be hard to come up with $8,000 to$12,000 to pay rent,” Darnell said. “But the landlord deserves to be paid, too, because he has expenses as well.”
Darnell has been calling the unemployment office on Mondays. So far she estimates she’s called 150 times.
“I got through to their phone tree 12 times in that 150 times,” Darnell said. “I made it all the way through their phone tree to the option or help option for unemployed or self-employed contractors. And the message I got was, ‘I’m very sorry, our phone system is experiencing higher than normal call volume and we cannot take your phone call at this time,’ and then hung up on me.”
Darnell reached out to U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers through her website, but hasn’t heard a response. She also emailed state Rep. Bob McCaslin. Within 30 minutes, she received an email from McCaslin’s assistant saying they would look into it for her, but in the meantime, she should continue to try the website and phone.
Even with the difficulty, Darnell said she is grateful for the people working for the unemployment department.
“Despite my frustration, I’m grateful to everybody in that department who’s gone over and above what they need to,” Darnell said. “It would just be nice if I was one of the ones that was helped.”
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