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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.

The state has redirected at least 850 staff members, most from within other EDD departments (for example, state disability insurance), to help process requests for jobless benefits. It has also streamlined the process by allowing applicants to move forward without waiting to receive their EDD customer account numbers in the mail.

It just isn’t enough to meet an unprecedented deluge of unemployment claims - more than 925,400 statewide for the week that ended April 4, on top of the 1.06 million for the week that ended March 28. Either figure exceeds the entire number of claims for all of 2019.

Even among those local residents who have been approved for EDD payments, few have received a check yet. Meanwhile, the bills keep coming.

“The job I have is basically shift to shift,” Noelle McCoy said. “The money we had saved up was supposed to be for bills and rent. When it came down to working half a month (in March), we can’t use it for anything but groceries. By the end of the month, our funds were completely drained.”

Tense wait for help

There is reason for hope. The CARES Act, which President Donald Trump signed into federal law on March 27, promised an extra $600 weekly unemployment benefit from April 5 through July 31, and extends eligibility from 26 weeks to 39, all at the national level. Levy said the EDD was prioritizing the $600 payments first, and Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Thursday that Californians would begin to receive that supplement this week.

The McCoys’ restaurant has promised to rehire her whenever it opens in full again; Rosso is currently doing takeout orders only, with a skeleton crew. Smith recently had a job interview and believes he’s in line for the position, though the employer isn’t looking to hire anyone until July.

Migrants’ woes worsen

Yet for some of these displaced workers, the COVID-19 crisis - on the heels of seemingly annual wildfires, floods and rolling power outages - reinforces what they have known for a while: this is both a beautiful place to live, and an acutely challenging one.

That’s especially true for undocumented workers.

“We’re having a hard time to get to sleep at night,” said a Sonoma man who was laid off from his job at a catering company in March, when the coronavirus pandemic put an immediate halt to weddings and other large gatherings. Same for his wife, who worked for a different catering service. Both are undocumented immigrants from Mexico. He spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing deportation if he was identified.

“It’s worse than the fires. When the fires were going, it was like, is this real? It was like a movie. Now this is like a movie. Like a horror movie,” he said.

Unlike many local workers caught up in the economic shutdown, the Sonoma couple cannot apply for unemployment benefits because they are not citizens and were not authorized to work in the United States.

“We are very worried,” the 48-year-old husband said. “Every night we go to bed expecting and hoping the day after we’ll get up, and there will be good news like a vaccine or something. But all we see when we get up is more people infected, more dead people, and it’s getting worse and worse.”

The couple has arranged to delay some of their utility bills and things like car and cellphone payments. Fortunately, the husband secured a $4,500 loan a month ago, as soon as the crisis hit.

“Thank god, but now it’s gone,” he said. “Now we have more debt.”

Five years ago, the couple had a combined credit card balance of $48,000. They had arduously dug their way out, consolidating their debt and making $600-plus monthly payments to inch toward solvency. They calculated they would break even this July. Then the virus swept through California - in March, no less, precisely when the catering business normally begins to emerge from winter hibernation.

The Sonoma man admits that he and his wife recently discussed moving back to Mexico. That’s easier said than done. Right now, Mexico isn’t allowing many people over the border, and is quarantining those who do get across.

The man has lived in California for 25 years, more than half his life. Their children ­- their daughter is 20, their son 16 - grew up here. This is home.

Smith knows he’s among the fortunate cases. He’s white, middle class and young enough to be rehired, if and when that’s realistic. But even a connoisseur must reassess his choice to move from Florida to the capital of food and wine when facing the greatest economic collapse in two generations.

“It’s a reality,” Smith said. “This California thing might not have worked out the way we thought it was.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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