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'I Stress All the Time': Cape, Coast Workers Struggling with Unemployment

Liz Lerner
Sara Welsh works at LeRoux Kitchen in Falmouth. The store closed its doors in March to comply with state orders but is back open for curbside pickup.

Nearly two months after Massachusetts curtailed business to slow the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Charlie Baker plans to announce the first phase of reopening on Monday. But for many laid-off workers, the shock of unemployment is far from over.

Sara Welsh loves few things better than cooking and baking in her Harwich home kitchen. Part of her relishes being home during the pandemic.

“It's giving me a chance to organize my kitchen and really cook the stuff I wanted to,” she said. “We made homemade sausage yesterday.”

Yet she only has time for this careful spicing of meat courtesy of a layoff.

The kitchen shop where she works, LeRoux Kitchen in Falmouth, closed in March to comply with COVID-19 prevention measures.

She hopes unemployment insurance is on its way.

“I stress all the time because I haven't heard from them yet,” she said in April. “Every day I'm like, ‘It’s almost three weeks. What am I going to do?’ But I can't do anything about it.”

Temporary layoffs like hers have rocketed national unemployment to 17.4 percent, the highest since the Great Depression. April saw more American jobs evaporate than any month on record since the government began tracking it in 1939.

Perhaps the biggest question is, for how long.

Welsh said financially, it’s devastating.

“I definitely pay the bulk of my household,” she said. “And it's not like I make enough money to have money in a bank. So I’m one of the people who's in that really precarious position right now.”

A loss of income can put anyone’s budget off balance fast. For people living in subsidized housing, it’s especially complicated.

“People keep telling me, ‘Oh, you're going to get to go on unemployment, and you’re going to make more money,’” said Amy Blanchette, who lives in a federally subsidized apartment in Fall River.

Bristol Community College laid her off from a part-time job.

With the $600-a-week unemployment boost Congress approved in March, she said she might actually get more in unemployment than she was earning. If she gets too much, she’s afraid she’ll lose her apartment, her food stamps, or both.

“The first thing my landlady said to me when I told her was, ‘I hope it doesn't affect your housing.’ Because the more money I make, the more money I pay in rent. But they cap it at a certain point,” she said.

Blanchette graduated from Bristol as a first-generation college student. She got a job at the college planning events and helping students navigate difficult problems, such as food insecurity and homelessness.

Now she’s staring down the same problems and raising a 15-year-old son on her own.

“He happened to be sitting on the side of me when I got the call,” she said. “And he saw me crying, you know, and he was upset, and he … came over, and he rubbed my back, and he was like, ‘It’s OK, Mom. It’s OK. We’re gonna get through this.’”

When people have trouble navigating the unemployment system, some dial up their state legislator’s office.

Barnstable and Yarmouth Representative William Crocker said hundreds of people have called him with questions.

“It's working now, I think, for the most part,” he said of the unemployment benefits for pandemic-related layoffs. “We are still getting phone calls from people who are having difficulties. But many of those cases are people who have certain circumstances that are not necessarily the norm.”

He said most of the people with whom he’s speaking these days have some connection to the Cape’s restaurants or lodging, either as owners or workers.

“You don’t, number one, even know if you're going to have a job when you go back,” he said. "A lot of businesses are not going to reopen.”

So is reopening coming too soon, or not soon enough? Crocker said he’s getting all different answers.

“We are hearing people are saying that we should open up now, and we're also hearing from people who say they applaud the prudent, calculated moves by the governor, based on the information that he is getting from his advisors,” he said.

Back in Harwich, kitchen-shop worker Sara Welsh finally got her unemployment — but for just two weeks. The shop is reopening with contactless, curbside pickup, and she’ll be able to return to work part-time.

That makes less time for homemade sausage. But she said if it helps the business recover, it’s good to go back.