Unemployment Filings, Social Service Demand Skyrocketing

Workers losing jobs and income as businesses close or alter operations, while facing new challenges of caring for kids while balancing work

By Myers Reece
Data from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry. Graphic by Eric Dietrich of the Montana Free Press.

In the wake of sweeping measures to combat COVID-19, businesses have shuttered or altered operations across the state, leaving thousands of employees without jobs and countless others with reduced income while straining social services with increased demand.

Gov. Steve Bullock announced emergency rules last week to make unemployment benefits accessible to workers laid off due to COVID-19 and waive the typical one-week waiting period before receiving benefits. The rules allow claimants directed by their employer to leave work or not report to work due to the virus to qualify as temporarily laid off and eligible for benefits. Workers who are directed to quarantine or need to take care of a family member are also eligible for benefits.

“We will continue to do everything we can to support workers and businesses as we begin to fully understand the impacts of COVID-19 in Montana,” Bullock said on March 17.

According to data from the state Department of Labor and Industry, new unemployment filings averaged about 50 per day between March 3 and March 13, the first day that coronavirus was confirmed in Montana. By March 20, three days after the governor’s announcement of the emergency rules, that figure had exploded to 3,346 new filings in a single day, plus 231 reactivations.

The website to apply for benefits online is www.montanaworks.gov. People who think they are eligible for benefits can also call (406) 444-2545.

The state Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) also shifted additional staff to a dedicated public-assistance helpline — including for SNAP, TANF and health care coverage — following the closure of its offices across the state that require face-to-face interaction, effective March 20. As of last week, the helpline was handling about 1,000 calls a day.

Montanans in need of public assistance can call the helpline at 1-888-706-1535 or go online to apply.mt.gov. By opening an online account, clients can apply for, renew and check benefits, as well as report changes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. People can also submit applications via fax to 1-877-418-4533 or by mail to Field Offices of Public Assistance, P.O. Box 202925, Helena, MT 59620.

Local public-assistance field offices can be reached individually at email addresses found at dphhs.mt.gov/hcsd/OfficeofPublicAssistance.

Many workers who have retained employment are still struggling to juggle their jobs with increased parenting demands created by school and child-care closures. The backup child-care option for families is often grandparents, who tend to be over 60 years old and are advised to practice self-isolation.

The impacts touch everybody across the social spectrum and economic landscape. But for the most vulnerable people already living at the tightest margins, with no ability to dip into financial reserves or stockpile supplies, the repercussions can be particularly severe. And they’re showing up in the form of soaring demand at human-service providers.

Local food banks are reporting a huge surge in demand, while simultaneously struggling with vastly reduced food sources as grocery shelves grow bare. The result is rapidly dwindling food inventories at places such as Flathead Food Bank and North Valley Food Bank, prompting emergency food orders, frantic adaptations and pleas for support from the public.

“We’ve never served more than 40 families on a Wednesday, but yesterday we served 125,” North Valley Food Bank Executive Director Jessy Lee said on March 19. “We’re anticipating 200 families today.”

“At this rate,” she added, “our food is going to run out very quickly … We want people to know that we have food and are going to do everything in our power for that to remain true, but at the same time we’re having a hard time sourcing quantity food.”

Lee reported days later that the community was stepping up, with restaurants donating food and the Whitefish Community Foundation giving $40,000 to local food banks, among other efforts. Still, Jamie Quinn, executive director at Flathead Food Bank, only expected demand to continue increasing.

“This is unprecedented,” Quinn said last week. “There’s nothing in modern history to use as a guideline. And none of us know what we’re going to wind up encountering except the reality of more layoffs and hours cut, and we’re going to be needed even more in the coming weeks.”

The Samaritan House, a homeless shelter and transitional-housing nonprofit in Kalispell, typically puts away its winter-overflow beds when the weather warms. But due to increased demand, the beds are staying put, and Executive Director Chris Krager is asking the public to donate additional rollaway beds. He is also hopeful the community can make financial donations and volunteer. The Samaritan House’s big annual Cowboy Up fundraiser, scheduled in April, has been postponed indefinitely.

Krager noted that the Flathead Warming Center, another homeless shelter in Kalispell, closed its doors out of coronavirus precautionary measures, placing even more strain on his facility.

“We’ve seen an influx in requests for shelter and a drop in volunteers, so it’s getting tight,” Krager said, adding that donations have also slowed. “It’s kind of a perfect storm.”

Krager is expecting renewed acceleration in demand in the coming weeks.

“A lot of people aren’t working right now, and a lot of folks without paychecks will wind up homeless,” he said last week. “That will start in about three weeks, and that’s when we’ll see that wave of people coming in.”

The Whitefish Community Foundation donated money to the Flathead Warming Center to help ensure that its clients have access to a sleeping bag and tent, as well as food and other supplies. In total, the philanthropic foundation had raised $260,000 by March 20 for its COVID-19 emergency response fund, and is issuing grants to a number of local nonprofits in addition to the warming center and food banks.

Tracy Diaz, executive director of Community Action Partnership of Northwest Montana, said her agency hasn’t yet seen an uptick in demand for services but expects to see a spike once the more acute effects of lost jobs and income begin crystalizing. The agency’s services include energy assistance, emergency housing and rental assistance.

“We anticipate that will begin sometime after the first of the month for people who have trouble paying utilities or rent,” Diaz said.

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