When rent's due in Wine Country and you're laid off and broke due to coronavirus
For Aaron Smith, the phone call came March 19, four days after Gov. Gavin Newsom had called for the closure of every winery tasting room in California to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Smith, who worked in the tasting room at Tank Garage Winery in Calistoga, was officially laid off.
“You always know when three of your bosses are on the phone at 9 a.m. what the situation really is,” the Cloverdale resident said.
Smith had expected the news after Newsom’s order, and he understands the reasons behind his severance. But that doesn’t lessen the blow for him, or any of the thousands of people in Sonoma County who have recently been laid off or furloughed.
All over the region, nail salon workers, hotel cleaning crews, bartenders, gym employees and many others working in the retail and service industries suddenly find themselves without an income. Mass layoffs have overwhelmed the state agency that provides unemployment benefits, leading to frustration for many seeking help.
Living in Wine Country has never been easy on the pocketbook. Now, with no job prospects in sight and no clear idea of when businesses might be able to reopen, the margin has become much narrower.
“Next month’s gonna be tight,” Smith said, “and it’s coming quick.”
Community Action Partnership, which works with low-income Sonoma County residents on a number of fronts, has been swamped with requests for assistance. More than 200 people called seeking financial aid over a three-day period last weekend, said Kathy Kane, the nonprofit’s assistant director.
CAP’s clients, Kane said, “generally don’t have any kind of safety net or savings. They’re living paycheck to paycheck, so any kind of interruption puts them at high risk of losing everything.”
Groceries on credit card
For some, the timing of the layoffs was especially cruel. Noelle and Curtis McCoy, who have sons aged 4 and 1, have been through hard economic times. By December, when they moved into a rented townhouse in Santa Rosa, they had finally gotten their heads above water. But in mid March, both were laid off from jobs at Rosso Pizzeria and Wine Bar - she was a server, he a line cook - and they are hurting again.
“We have a new landlord, then all of a sudden I’m this tenant who can’t make rent,” Noelle McCoy, 29, said.
Everyone is making accommodations. The McCoys are trying to work with their landlord to postpone rent payments; they have little beyond money for groceries right now. Smith, whose partner has been furloughed from her job as a glass blower, knows the end of the rope will come for him, too.
“There’s not a lot left in the kitty,” he said. “We’re using credit cards and stuff. But you can’t just keep buying groceries on credit card forever.”
At least Smith thought he’d be eligible for an unemployment claim. That brought its own headaches.
Before moving to California last summer, Smith was a sommelier at a high-end restaurant in Florida for 13 years. Because he had worked out of state within the past 18 months, he had to download, print and fax a supplemental form to the California Employment Development Department, which administers unemployment insurance in this state. He found a UPS store in Cloverdale and faxed the information. Then he waited. And waited. He wasn’t sure the EDD had even received his paperwork.
Smith, 40, found it impossible to get a live representative on the phone. Every time he called, a recorded voice instructed him to apply online, then hung up. He went so far as to email his local legislator, state Sen. Mike McGuire, whose staff suggested Smith apply for unemployment online.
Last Wednesday, 17 days after he had filed online, the EDD informed Smith it was processing his claim. Finally, the wheels appeared to be turning.
But five days later, on Monday, he received a letter from the department showing $0.00 in earned wages in 2018-19. His girlfriend received an identical notice.
They don’t know if it’s a minor complication or glitch, because the couple still can’t reach a representative.
“Yeah, it’s every dystopian sci-fi fantasy I’ve ever read,” Smith said. “It’s like they took every aspect of all those and combined them into one terrible story.”
Their story is not unusual.
“We’re definitely hearing it’s hard to reach somebody,” Kane said. “Maybe the passwords they’ve been given don’t work. Then if you add on to that anybody for who English is not their primary language, that can also create barriers to accessing assistance.”
Loree Levy, the EDD’s deputy director of public affairs, said her department is working overtime to sort through unemployment claims.