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Thousands of Sonoma County residents lose their jobs as pandemic takes economic toll

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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.”

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

For the week ending March 21, new unemployment filings in California soared 224% from the week before to almost 186,000 claims. On Wednesday, Governor Gavin Newsom said there have been over 1 million claims filed over the past two weeks. State labor officials do not break down county-by-county new weekly claims for jobless benefits. Because of the surge of laid-off workers applying for benefits, state labor officials are working overtime to process claims and encourage people to make jobless claims online.

At the federal level, Congress is negotiating a $2 trillion aid package — the Senate passed it late Wednesday and the House is expected to vote on it Friday — that’s expected to include hundreds of billions to boost unemployment benefits, $1,200 of direct individual payments to workers earning up to $75,000 a year and loans and financial assistance to small businesses.

Mike Holbrook, co-owner of The Batcave Comics and Toys in downtown Santa Rosa, urgently needs emergency relief. He and his girlfriend Amanda Barlow, who run the shop themselves, started selling entirely online after the county’s stay home order went into effect. Their commercial insurance isn’t covering the business interruption, he said, so the federal stimulus may be necessary to keep the store afloat.

“If something like that happens, we could probably stay alive, but if this goes on much longer we’re probably sunk,” Holbrook said of the massive federal assistance.

Allo Gilinsky is trying to make the best of his situation by helping local businesses. While his job as a tour guide at the Russian River Brewing Co. is on hold, he plans to highlight people in the North Bay beer industry on his blog The Craft Beer Concierge.

“I love to find those breweries with a unique story attached,” he said. “I love to drink in those stories and explore that through my blogging. I want to band people together in the blogging community, as well as avid beers, as a way to support small breweries.”

Brandi Caufield, a 23-year-old city planning major at Sonoma State University, hopes to soon make a career out of helping small businesses and communities. She has an internship with the city of San Rafeal and a part-time gig at Superburger, both of which have been interrupted by the regional shutdown of business and industry. With the campus closed for the rest of the spring semester, she’s now taking classes remotely from her family’s Santa Rosa home.

“I’m planning on going to grad school, but my focus isn’t really present,” she said. “Students working full-time, those are the ones I’m really worried about.”

Meanwhile, Alex Morrow, 67, is still paying off her student loans. Because of her age and a chronic heart condition, her doctor advised her not to go to work, and her managers at Oliver’s Market in Cotati told her to stay home indefinitely. But without a steady paycheck, she’s worried her bills will mount.

Morrow is spending days at home cuddling her 7-year-old pit bull, Brooklyn, and watching too much MSNBC newscasts. She has another part-time job as a caregiver and expects to receive 35 hours of sick pay, but hasn’t been able to get an answer as to whether she can apply for disability or unemployment, too.

“I’m luckier than a lot of people, but it’s one of those things where I don’t know where I stand,” she said.

Kristin Gummer of Santa Rosa lost her two massage therapy jobs. Her daughter, Mackenzie, lives at a state medical home in Vacaville and is considered high-risk with health conditions. Even though the extraordinary measures taken to stop the spread of the virus are crushing her financially, she, like most people interviewed for this story think they are necessary.

“I haven’t seen my daughter or my parents since this started,” she said. “I want them to be safe and healthy.”

Gummer is now applying for a job at Whole Foods. While pausing the massage therapy career she worked so hard to establish can feel defeating, she’s doing her best to remain optimistic.

“Having something to do and some place to be will be good for me,” she said.

Staff Writer Kevin Fixler contributed reporting. You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian.

The Press Democrat wants to know what stories you see emerging and what you're experiencing locally during the shelter-in-place order. Reach out to us at coronavirus@pressdemocrat.com.

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