NEWLAND — Fortunately for Avery County, as of March 23, there are still no confirmed cases of COVID-19, yet the effects of the virus are being felt by many working class residents who are suddenly being forced to choose between going to work or staying home and watching their children.
Since schools have closed and many businesses have either chosen or been mandated to close down, it is becoming increasingly difficult for many families to become accustomed to the changes. For those already living week-to-week, not going to work is not an option.
“It changed a little bit,” Patty Robles, an Avery resident who works at a laundromat, said. “For the person who lives day-by-day and paycheck-to-paycheck it’s going to be harder.”
Robles has two children of her own and her roommate has four. The family, who are immigrants to the U.S., say that working has become more difficult.
“Now [it’s harder to] work because the kids are home and we’re having to babysit them. [The situation] is kind of scary and worrying, especially with the kids,” Robles said.
According to the most recent statistics provided by the U.S. Labor Department, claims for unemployment benefits by Saturday, March 14, had increased to 281,000 nationally, an increase of 70,000 jobless claims from the previous week. In North Carolina, unemployment claims went up by 808 to reach 3,434 for the week ending on March 7 before mandated school and business closings went into effect. During a press conference on Monday, March 23, Gov. Roy Cooper said that state had received 110,000 unemployment insurance claims in the past week.
Newland resident Brock Wright has experienced the effects of these changes firsthand.
A restaurant manager and customer service expert by trade, Wright has recently found himself out of a job due the changes being made by the restaurant industry.
“[Childcare] is an issue but I was recently put in a situation where it was just me and [my son], unfortunately,” Wright said. “Basically, I’ve been living as a single dad for the time being, and I told the bosses what was going on. At first they were willing to work with me but once they closed the schools down [things changed]. I told them I can normally pay a sitter after school but now it’s an all-day thing during the week. I just can’t afford that; it really adds up.”
Wright said that the restaurant he was working for dramatically cut its staff, keeping on only one cook to make delivery orders and a server to take those orders. All other personnel were let go for the time being.
On March 17, Gov. Roy Cooper issued Executive Order 118, which limited the operations of restaurants and expanded unemployment benefits to those affected by COVID-19. The order waived several requirements for unemployment including the one-week waiting period, the ability to work, actively seeking work and the lack of work requirement.
According to the order, employers who pay into unemployment taxes will not receive charges from the Department of Commerce to their accounts for employees who are paid benefits for reasons related to COVID-19. Additionally, the state of North Carolina will then receive reimbursement from the federal government.
Meanwhile, residents who are already receiving government assistance are seeing their budgets tighten as local grocers run out of sanitary supplies and some customers panic-buy by stocking up on food, hand sanitizer and other items.
“Well, I can’t find any toilet paper,” Newland resident Janet Johnson said. “Nothing has really changed for me except that it’s just unbelievable that the grocery shelves are empty, and I don’t go to the store unless I have to. I can’t afford to ride around because I don’t have the money for gas and food.”
Johnson added, “You get what you need for that month and don’t go back until the next month because you can’t afford it. Thank God for the free food place, if it wasn’t for [Feeding Avery Families] and [Reaching Avery Ministries] I wouldn’t make it. Ain’t no way. I’ve always worked two or three jobs my whole life, raising my kids. I draw a little bit more than other people because I worked as an x-ray tech and a nurse and I made good money. I get $16 in food stamps a month. So if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t make it.”