Food bank workers know who their first-time clients are; they’re the ones who say “sorry.”
The coronavirus pandemic and the economic shutdown that has come with it have left thousands or people in Yakima County suddenly jobless. These aren’t all seasonal workers or workers in volatile industries who might have been prepared for unemployment or underemployment. A lot of them are people who two months ago felt pretty secure, people who maybe didn’t have two months’ rent saved up but figured they didn’t need to; they could cover it with the paychecks they’d be getting from the stable jobs they’d held for years or even decades.
Now they’re filing for unemployment and lining up at drive-through food banks. Haydee Barbosa, director of the food bank run by the Yakima-based Opportunities Industrialization Center of Washington, said she and the volunteers who staff the twice-weekly service are seeing about 100 more families per day than they were prior to the coronavirus outbreak.
“They’re coming embarrassed, like ‘Oh my gosh. I’m so sorry. I just lost my job,’ or ‘I don’t have enough hours,’” she said. “So there’s a lot of people coming like that. New families. They have never been in the food bank before, and now they have the need.”
Nearly 800,000 people in Washington state have filed for unemployment insurance since the beginning of March, according to state Employment Security Department statistics. And only about 500,000 of those people have been paid so far as the system deals with the stress of an unprecedented influx of claims.
The social-safety-net bureaucracy, not exactly known for being user-friendly, has become even harder to navigate as agency staffers and systems have been pushed to their limits.
“While the team at the Employment Security Department has helped hundreds of thousands of people get unemployment benefits since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, we know that there are still many who are awaiting their payments,” ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine said in a statement last week. “It is beyond frustrating for these individuals and we will continue to work night and day until everyone receives their benefits.”
The sudden surge in people who’ve never before had to lean on things like food banks or unemployment insurance has created a bottleneck and pointed up the fact that large segments of the population just don’t really know how that stuff works.
“It can be complicated for people, especially when your emotions are high and you’re trying to figure out something,” said Lisa Kime, a career development counselor and head of the dislocated worker program for the Yakima office of People for People. “And if you’re not a person with technical skills, it’s going to be even harder.”
Discrepancies between information provided by filers and their employers has led to about 80,000 unemployment claims stuck in adjudication right now statewide.
“Under normal circumstances, cases are adjudicated within 21 days,” LeVine said in her statement. “That means additional information is requested and reviewed by a trained adjudicator and a decision is made in about three weeks. However, right now is anything but normal. We’ve had more claims in the past 7 weeks than we had in the prior 3.5 years combined.”
But there are resources available to make it easier, if not always faster. The Employment Security Department has videos and written tutorials to help people file claims. While WorkSource Washington offices are closed because of the pandemic, their services are still available online at www.worksourcewa.com. And People for People programs are available for those who meet eligibility requirements, including having qualified for unemployment insurance.
“The other thing that’s really important, and I think our program does a great job with it, is that emotional support,” Kime said. “Most of the people that I meet with are really grief-stricken. When you lose your job these days, you have lost your job — what you do — you’ve lost your income, you’ve probably lost your health benefits, you’ve lost your work family. And, in a sense, you’re completely lost, especially if you’ve been working for a very long time.
“You know, we all just get into our mode of working, so people come in and they’re very grief-stricken, and when you have emotions that are running high, it’s really hard to think clearly. Oftentimes, they’re just really caught up. They don’t know how to move forward. They don’t know what to do. So we have classes where we help people with the emotional parts of this, and goal-setting. And I love that.”
Meanwhile, food banks remain up and running throughout the Yakima Valley. Eligibility requirements vary but some, including the OIC food bank, are available to anyone who self-declares need.
“It is pretty simple,” Barbosa said. “It’s same-day, so you don’t need to do anything before you come. If you’re new to the food bank, you come still and get in line. And if you’re new, you fill out an application right there in the moment. And you still get your box to go.”
No apologies necessary.
“Apologizing, that’s the first thing they do,” Barbosa said. “It is sad. What we do is to make them feel comfortable. If you need, this is not something you can control. So if they need food we make sure they feel comfortable. We don’t judge here. This is just to feed you and your family.”