Home for the holidays, sadly

All they want for Christmas is a job.

Photo by David Blanchette
Breanna Hurst at her Springfield home with her son Nixxon.

All they want for Christmas is a job.

As our COVID-19 guest stretches its uninvited stay into the end-of-the-year holidays, continuing pandemic restrictions and shutdowns have kept many Springfield area residents from the paychecks they desperately need.

That means Christmas stockings may go empty in many households this year, the unemployment assistance system will remain overburdened and the perfect winter storm of illness and joblessness is poised to blanket much of the region's holiday cheer.

It's a far cry from Christmas 2019, when Springfield resident Vincent Reed finally received his massage therapist license and embarked on a new career which was soon cut short by the pandemic.

"I picked the worst time in the world to become a massage therapist," said the 27-year-old Reed.

Reed had a full-time vending machine job plus two part-time massage therapy jobs and was so busy that he had no days off for a month and a half. He made the decision to quit the vending machine job in March and transition into his new full-time career, which happened to be just a few days before the COVID shutdown.

"When the pandemic shutdown happened I signed up for unemployment but they denied me any funds because I had quit my job," Reed said. "I appealed that and had a hearing and got a letter two weeks later saying that I was still denied."

Reed feels he is due unemployment benefits because it was the state's decision, not his, to shut down his source of income. He's been back to work on a COVID-restricted basis since June, but has spent a considerable amount of time attempting to plead his case with the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES).

"There were two weeks during this whole time that I was just calling every day and I couldn't get through, and it was maddening," Reed said. "I was such an asshole because I was so pissed off. I didn't make any money at all during those two and a half months that I couldn't work. I'm due money from them, but it's impossible to reach them."

Reed said the IDES system has since been changed, and allows people to leave a message for a return call from staff. Meanwhile, Reed was informed that he might be able to qualify for Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds, so he faxed a letter to the program as directed in June, but has heard nothing since.

"Luckily I got a good tax return so I was pretty much living just on that," Reed said. "My parents were helping me out too, so I haven't fallen behind on bills. But it's going to be a lean holiday this year, that's for sure."

"I can't catch a break"

"I am struggling to buy household goods, let alone a present for my kid," said 32-year-old Breanna Hurst of Springfield, an unemployed food service industry employee who had been working three separate jobs until the second round of COVID shutdowns hit in November.

"I can't catch a break. I am currently without a single job with no reopening day in sight," Hurst said. "We are approaching the holidays and this second shutdown is ruining small businesses where all of my jobs are. The amount I am going to receive in unemployment barely covers half of my house payment."

Hurst said she received unemployment benefits for the first shutdown period in the spring and is receiving payments for the current shutdown as well, but her benefit is approximately $100 every two weeks and she has yet to receive her COVID stimulus check. Hurst has left messages with IDES to ask about the low biweekly benefit, but as of press time had been waiting several weeks for a call back.

"Now that I am unemployed I don't qualify for child care assistance so I still have to pay for my son's schooling out of pocket," Hurst said. "But I am also in a couple of groups on Facebook that are helping each other out.

"Our food industry jobs were keeping a house over our heads. I was living a little more than paycheck to paycheck but I was making ends meet," Hurst said. "Something needs to happen to help those of us who have worked for years and are now displaced employees."

Springfield resident Jeff Sutzer nearly died from the Coronavirus and it's killed his employment opportunities as well.

The 45-year-old Sutzer lost his bartending job at a local food service establishment during the March COVID shutdown. He returned to work there in July but soon became seriously ill with COVID, which caused him to suffer a debilitating stroke.

Sutzer spent a month in the hospital and two months recovering from the stroke, including numerous doctor, physical therapy and speech therapy appointments. He was finally able to return to work in November, only to see his place of employment shut down again due to pandemic restrictions.

"I had unemployment for a couple of months but in July I was getting a bunch of error messages from the website that wouldn't allow me to certify any more," Sutzer said. "At the beginning of September I re-filed for unemployment so I started getting it again. I am in the process of appealing, trying to get back the payments I should have received when I wasn't able to certify.

I need to get back to work soon," Sutzer said. "I've got a daughter and Christmas is going to be slim this year. Luckily I had some savings and money that was raised for me to help get me through."

John Goodman of Springfield finally received a call back from IDES about his unemployment benefits, which were approved, and is anxiously waiting for the resulting debit card to arrive in the mail.

The 54-year-old Goodman is unemployed because his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), that he contracted while working on a previous job, made it too risky for him to service customers at his most recent job in retail sales.

"I let them know when they hired me that I had COPD and because of that I couldn't be around people, because if I got COVID it might kill me," Goodman said. "So they put me in the back to stock things in the warehouse away from the customers."

"Later they told me they were taking me off the schedule, they just let me go, because I couldn't deal with customers at the register," Goodman said. "I told them they should put me somewhere else, but they said they couldn't because they needed everybody at the register. If I couldn't work directly with customers, they didn't want me at all."

"Claimants needed something better"

The State of Illinois quickly found itself in over its head with the COVID-caused unemployment situation that began in March. During a Nov. 23 COVID briefing, Kristin Richards, the acting director of the state unemployment security department, acknowledged that "this pandemic is inflicting an unprecedented economic toll on working families across the state," and said the agency handled more unemployment claims during the first three weeks of the pandemic than it did for all of 2019.

"During our peak week in May, IDES received over 1.8 million incoming calls. That's three calls every second with less than a two percent chance of connecting," Richards said. "Claimants would call hundreds of times a day to win the lottery and speak with an agent. The system was unfair and unsustainable and claimants needed something better."

Richards said IDES had already been "reeling from years of disinvestment" before the pandemic that had caused agency headcount to decline by half prior to 2020. Gov. JB Pritzker sought, and the Illinois General Assembly approved, a fiscal year 2021 IDES budget that allows the agency to add 226 people, but Richards said it has still been "an uphill battle" to try to keep pace with new and existing unemployment claims.

Richards said the new IDES callback system, where claimants leave a message rather than trying repeatedly to reach an agent on the phone, has resulted in more than one million returned calls and that response times are continuing to improve, with calls typically returned within seven to ten days.

During the Nov. 23 briefing, which focused on unemployment issues, Gov. Pritzker reiterated that "the financial shockwaves of this virus continue to ripple through the United States and here in Illinois, often causing the most harm to those least able to afford it." He noted that as of the date of the briefing, IDES had processed more than $17 billion in benefits to more than 1.3 million individuals, which was more than 16 times the amount of benefits paid during the same period in 2019.

All Illinoisans, whether employed or not, also face the added risk of unemployment fraud. Attorney General Kwame Raoul warned Illinoisans to watch out for evidence that something isn't right.

"If you have received a debit card or a letter approving you to receive unemployment insurance benefits that you did not apply for, it likely means that an identity thief applied for benefits using your name or your Social Security number," Raoul said. "Always be vigilant and keep a close eye on your financial account statements and credit reports. That is extra critical right now."

"We are seeing a lot of people that we have never assisted before."

Local organizations have stepped up to meet the needs of people who have found themselves unemployed due to the pandemic.

The Everyday Hope Project at Springfield's South Side Christian Church allows its members to request up to $250 to help people that they know who are facing tough circumstances. The program has been in operation for several years, but it's taken on more significance in 2020.

"Almost all of the requests that we are getting now are people requesting to use it for someone who maybe has lost their job or is in a tough position" due to COVID, said South Side Pastor Hope Van Ravenswaay. "In prior years it may have been used for a variety of different things."

Pastor Adam Lanter stressed that the Everyday Hope Project is not a resource for which people can apply, but it allows individual church members to make a difference.

"Anecdotally there is greater awareness, people are more attuned to the needs of those around them right now," Lanter said. "We love it as church staff when we can take care of everyday needs for people. Here we have a chance for our church to have boots on the ground and actually make a difference."

Lanter said that South Side is once again doing their holiday toy drive, but instead of randomly passing out the gifts, they will be making the toys available to parents from identified neighborhood families in need.

Sangamon County Community Resources has seen a "dramatic increase" in requests for assistance because of COVID-related unemployment, according to Executive Director Dave MacDonna.

"We are seeing a lot of people that we have never assisted before. Nobody has experienced an event like this before, so we had no idea what to expect," MacDonna said. "As the year continues, we know the need is still there and we are waiting to see what the federal government will do for additional funding."

MacDonna said the largest increases in assistance have gone toward making mortgage and utility payments. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) has provided more than $1.8 million in utility assistance since July 27. Since the beginning of the year through mid-November, 309 Sangamon County households have received more than $360,000 in rent and mortgage assistance compared with 38 families and $38,000 for all of 2019.

"We have received a federal grant to offer these payments and one of the requirements was that it had to be COVID-related," MacDonna said.

"I am very much looking forward to going back to work."

Patrick McPartland of Springfield had been working as a bartender but a fire at one place of employment and COVID shutdowns at another means "my holiday spending is cut down quite a bit, and as far as buying gifts, we've decided not to do that."

The 62-year-old McPartland tested positive for COVID this summer but was asymptomatic. It meant he was off work during a period of time when bars and restaurants were allowed to operate, but McPartland was fortunate in that his employer secured a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan to make sure even quarantined employees could be paid.

McPartland didn't get unemployment benefits during the first shutdown in March, but has been receiving them for the most recent restrictions that began in November.

"I didn't really have trouble getting benefits. A friend who had applied previously walked me through it and I got my benefits within a few weeks." McPartland said. "It's not as much as I'd be making if I was working, not by a longshot, but I'm surviving on it."

"I think things at bars and restaurants will probably be permanently changed, but I think once we are able to go back to work, we'll probably be able to build it back up to where it was almost a year ago," McPartland said. "I have a feeling that once the vaccine is out, customers might come back."

Tracy Woodard is another worker whose food service industry job has been affected by COVID. She was furloughed March 13, returned to work in July, then tested positive for COVID, which caused Woodard to lose her sense of taste and smell.

"Then while I was under quarantine I fell and broke my hand and had to go on disability for three months," said the 57-year-old Woodard. "Now I'm just waiting for food and beverage service to start up again so I can get back to work."

"I received unemployment payments in the spring, then I received disability payments, and now I have to apply again for unemployment," Woodard said. "In the beginning it was really easy because I filed on March 17 and I think I was one of the first ones to apply. I had a little bit of difficulty the second time but I would imagine that's because they have been overwhelmed."

The holidays this year "will probably be kind of bleak," Woodard said. "I am very much looking forward to going back to work."

Claire Dowling would like to get back to work, but Dowling's employer, who received a PPP loan to keep employees on the job, has not contacted her since she was laid off on March 16.

"I saw my job posted on Indeed. They never closed the business I worked at and over the summer they opened a new business," the 51-year-old Dowling said. "Apparently, they called all their employees back to work except me. I never called in and was a loyal, hard worker. Who does this in the middle of a pandemic?"

Dowling also had choice words about the lack of additional stimulus funds for people like her who have been without work for most of 2020.

"The fact that Congress has been unable to accomplish anything for struggling Americans is abhorrent and unspeakable," Dowling said. "They all should be fired!"

Vincent Reed has returned to work as a massage therapist but the money isn't what it once was because of clients' concerns about COVID. He looks forward to the day when things return to normal and he can fully resume his chosen profession.

"I wanted to find a job where I could help people. I'm good with my hands, anatomy fascinates me, so when I can help people out that's what really makes me happy," Reed said. "It's a good calling for me."

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