Thousands of Sonoma County residents lose their jobs as pandemic takes economic toll
A young mother working the front desk at a luxury hotel. A guide leading tours at Russian River brewery in Windsor. A student at Sonoma State University working two part-time jobs. A 67-year-old cashier checking out shoppers at Oliver’s Market.
These are just a handful of the thousands in Sonoma County who have abruptly lost their jobs as the local economy grinds to a halt in an effort prompted by local public health officials to curb the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.
“It’s depressing at times,” said Violeta Gill, a mother of two in Rohnert Park who was furloughed from her hospitality job in Napa. “It feels like the rug is being pulled out from under us.”
The pandemic, and county health officials’ unprecedented order effective March 18 to largely stay home for three weeks, present formidable challenges for area workers who in the past three years have coped with wildfires, floods and power outages. Businesses, other than those deemed essential, are now shut down.
Nationwide, economists say a worst-case scenario for March would be a jobless rate rocketing as high as 20%. Sonoma County, where a quarter of workers are in the tourism, restaurant and retail industries and often live paycheck-to-paycheck, already is being hit hard. A respected local economist said last week the county labor market could flip in a matter of a few months from full employment of 2.9% in January, to up to 18%, or higher if job losses pile up in other businesses.
“We continue to hear of organizations furloughing and laying off people,” said Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism. “We haven’t experienced anything like this — the fires, the floods, nothing even close.”
Gill, 32, was let go from her job at the River Terrace Inn in Napa not long after her husband Rocco, who works for a private contracting company, had his hours slashed. Their family recently moved into an apartment in Rohnert Park, where she now stays home helping her two children with their schoolwork. Spending time with her kids helps her keep a positive attitude, but the anxiety is mounting.
“We we have no idea how we will pay rent for April,” she said. “I am very scared of not being able to make ends meet next month.”
Reacting to the upended labor market, Sonoma County Board of Supervisors this week provided renters some relief by approving a temporary halt on evictions, but tenants could still be on the hook for missed rent.
Martin Hernandez of western Sonoma County, like many of the nearly 20 people who have been displaced and shared their experiences, is in a similar dire position. He was furloughed from a local cannabis company and worries about supporting his two kids and his wife, who has a weak immune system and relies on Social Security income.
Hernandez has been trying to apply for state unemployment benefits. All of the state employment offices are closed, and the California Economic Development Department’s website keeps crashing due to an influx of new applicants for jobless benefits. The department’s phone lines, meanwhile, are only open during morning hours and constantly slammed.
“It’s been really frustrating not being able to get a hold of anybody and speak to a live person,” Martinez said. “I’ve been calling all morning today and can’t get through.”