Loudoun’s Unemployed Have Options in Slowing Economy

The coronavirus outbreak has kept millions of Americans indoors, away from their typical public outings, like strolling along main street for a day of shopping or visiting wineries, breweries and restaurants for a drink and meal with friends. That’s devastating Loudoun’s economy and leading many business owners to take drastic action—by temporarily or permanently closing their doors and laying employees off.

Now, many residents who already struggle with Loudoun’s high cost of living are finding themselves in dire straits. But there are options available to help.

Kamaia Gaylen is among those who have seen a sudden decline in her bank account after her hours were cut back when Wicked Door Pub in Ashburn was forced to move to carry-out service only. Gaylen said that although she’s still scheduled to work each week—for about 15 hours—she’s making hardly any money.

“It’s been quite tragic to my finances,” she said. “I’m pinching pennies right now.”

Gaylen said her plan is to continue pursuing a job with the federal government. If that doesn’t work out, she said she’d have to move back home with her dad in Georgia, where the rent for a one-bedroom apartment, she said, goes for about $400, as opposed to the $1,400 she’s spending on the same size apartment here in Loudoun.

She said she hasn’t yet considered filing for unemployment.

“I’m just going to see how this quarantine goes,” she said. “Every penny counts at this moment for me. … Right now, I’m just surviving.”

Call the Help Hotline

Loudoun County government in December launched a phone hotline to serve as a single point of referral for people who need help with everything ranging from finding a job, to finding food, filing for unemployment, health and dental care, housing and homeless services, utility assistance and the services of the  Department of Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Developmental Services.

But a person doesn’t have to be homeless to call the hotline at 703-777-0420, or to visit loudoun.gov/humanservices.

“Our goal with the [information and referral] program is to more quickly and effectively get Loudoun County residents connected to the critical services they need, exactly when they need it,” stated Department of Family Services Director Glenda Blake when the hotline launched.

The line is staffed Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with free language interpretation available.

Filing for Unemployment in Virginia

To be eligible to file for unemployment in Virginia, applicants must be able to perform work and have no availability restrictions, must actively seek work and report any job offers and refusals to the state. Specifically, applicants must personally apply for work with several prospective employers each week and provide the state with the full name of each employer.

Applicants must be unemployed, but that doesn’t mean they lack a job. Applicants are also considered unemployed if, in any given week, they work less than full time.

To qualify for benefits, workers must have earned at least $3,000 in two quarters of a base period—the first four of the past five completed calendar quarters prior to the date of the claim. That means, for those who file this week, the state will look at the wages they earned in Q4 2018 and Q1-3 2019. For those who apply in the next quarter, which begins April 1, the state will look at wages earned in Q1-4 2019.

An applicant’s weekly benefit amount, which is subject to federal income tax, is determined by the two highest-earning quarters in their base period, while the total wages reported during the base period determines the applicant’s maximum benefit amount. Once approved for benefits, an applicant qualifies to receive state money every week. That money is available to the applicant for 12 to 26 weeks and is paid out until the applicant’s benefit amount or benefit year is exhausted, whichever comes first.

The minimum weekly benefit amount is currently set at $60. The maximum weekly benefit amount is set at $378. To receive that amount, applicants must have earned at least $18,900.01 in two quarters during the base period.

But that weekly maximum amount could soon change. The Senate Wednesday night passed a coronavirus relief package that, if passed by the House and signed into law by the president, would provide those who receive unemployment benefits with an extra $600 on top of their weekly checks for four months.

To file for unemployment, residents can call the Virginia Employment Commission from 8:15 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday at 1-866-832-2363. They can alternatively complete an online application at vec.virginia.gov, where they’ll be asked to furnish a name, address and telephone number of their last employer, along with their dates of employment and reason for separation—in this case, layoffs related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The nearest VEC Workforce Centers to Loudoun are in Alexandria, Arlington and Winchester. Find more at vec.virginia.gov.

Small Business Administration Helps Renters, Homeowners

If unemployment checks aren’t enough, renters, homeowners and businesses located in regions affected by declared disasters, like Loudoun, may apply for low-interest economic injury disaster loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Those provide up to $2 million of working capital.

According to its website, the administration works directly with state governors to provide those loans to those whose insurance, or funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, doesn’t fully cover the disaster assistance they need.

Local Financial Relief Options Available

On a local level, financial relief has presented itself in different ways, other than by simply offering individuals and businesses large sums of money to cope with temporarily struggling finances.

The Board of Supervisors last week approved Treasurer Roger Zurn’s request to move the personal property tax deadline from May 5 to June 5.

Many utility companies are not charging late fees and keeping services on for customers who are unable to pay their bills. AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and Loudoun Water are just a few of the many companies doing that.

All Loudoun towns have also followed, or will soon follow, suit—offering extensions and payment plans on water and sewer payments for affected residents.

Many banks and credit unions are also offering their members financial flexibility. For instance, Bank of Charles Town, which operates three Loudoun branches, is providing assistance in the forms of payment deferral options for home equity, mortgages or personal, small business or commercial loans; modifications of loan repayment terms; and access to capital and continued use of existing lines of credit, among other options.

Getting Creative with Finances, Ideas and Jobs

The perspective on the coronavirus crisis is different among those employees who have lost hours and jobs.

Leesburg resident Sammi Eisdorfer typically works as a server at River Creek Club’s restaurant and at the nonprofit OAR—or Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources—which helps inmates better cope with their return into the community. But recently, River Creek closed its restaurant and OAR cut Eisdorfer’s hours to 20 a week. She said the situation at the nonprofit is “creatively evolving,” as the team works to sort work out among its homebound employees.

But Eisdorfer said she’s not too worried about finances yet, since she has always lived below her means and has some money saved up that she was planning to use for a down payment on a house.

“I feel cautiously confident,” she said, noting that she’s always been a “hardcore optimistic person.” “I think that I will be able to get by pretty OK—I’m incredibly fortunate to be where I am.”

Eisdorfer said that if worse comes to worst, she could sell the crafts she’s been making while sequestered at home.

“I’m really confident in my ability to meet my needs even if it means I have to adjust just a bit,” she said.

Positive thinking like that is something everyone might be able to benefit from in these times.

Licensed professional counselor Neil McNerney said he’s helping his clients focus on the aspects of their lives they can control—their thoughts. He said the more people think that situations aren’t going to get better or that they’ll never find work again, the worse they’re going to deal with those situations.

“We can choose whether we’re going to catastrophize, or whether we’re going to focus on the things that we can do right now,” he said. “We are still so uncertain on how this is going to be affecting us long term, there’s not much benefit for any of us to focus on things that we can’t control, such as how long this is going to go on.”

And like Eisdorfer’s resolve to eventually focus on a new source of income, other unemployed or minimally-employed residents can consider doing the same, seeing that some large companies are actually still hiring, according to a March 18 online post by the Glassdoor job recruitment website.

Giant Food, one of Loudoun’s more prominent regional grocery stores, made that list. Giant is hiring hourly positions at all of its Loudoun locations—in Ashburn, Leesburg, Purcellville, South Riding and Sterling.

It’s also no surprise that Amazon is hiring for warehouse team members to continue its online order fulfillments, that Quest Diagnostics is hiring for all sorts of positions to assist in the increasingly burdened healthcare world, and Uber Eats is hiring food delivery drivers.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Food Pantry

“People say, ‘Well, there are people who are worse off than me,’” said Loudoun Hunger Relief Executive Director Jennifer Montgomery. “And my response to that is, don’t worry about anybody else. Worry about what you need for your family.”

Loudoun Hunger Relief is Loudoun’s largest food pantry, but there are many others where people are always working hard to try to let no one go hungry in a trying time.  They can also be found through the county’s human services information and referral hotline at 703-777-0420.

“There’s no shame in coming to get what you need,” Montgomery said. “This is the most abnormal experience that anyone’s gone through. This is not normal, this is not what anyone anticipated, and these resources are here for a reason.”

pszabo@loudounnow.com

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