It will be almost a month before state-gathered unemployment figures reflect the extent of damage the coronavirus has inflicted on Brazoria County workers, but the impact already is apparent to local nonprofits.
“Unreal,” said Terri Willis, executive director of the Brazoria County Dream Center. “It’s unreal how many people … are out of work or have a reduction in hours.”
The Dream Center usually sees about 10 families or 100 people per day, but the center is seeing dozens of new families each day requesting assistance, Willis said. More than 800 families have come through in the past week, she said, which is more than double what the Dream Center usually sees.
“The new people, they’ve just gotten laid off,” she said. “It’s recent layoffs, recent reduction in hours. That’s what we’re hearing from everybody.”
They come to the Dream Center requesting assistance with food, because if they can pay their rent they will and they’ll put what money is left toward essential utilities, she said.
“If they were struggling already, this crisis just put them over the edge,” Willis said. “They were one life crisis away from being in despair and so they are at that — this was their one life crisis away.”
The turnaround is start from just two months ago, when the state’s unemployment rate hit a record low. The number of people unemployed in Brazoria County hovered around 8,500 in a population of more than 360,000, according to a data spreadsheet from Principal Economist Parker Harvey with the Workforce Solutions Gulf Coast Workforce Board.
The newest set of numbers will be released Friday, but those will only show the status of things as of Feb. 12, Harvey said.
“We’ve only been getting (COVID-19) cases here in Texas now for just a little over two weeks ago, so I’m not optimistic that this status report for the region on Friday will give any indication in a surge of unemployment,” he said.
Harvey imagines March’s report, which will be released April 17, will be the first real indication of any major fluctuations, he said.
Like the Dream Center, United Way of Brazoria County can see the effect of the virus and business restrictions in its own numbers.
“We’ve gotten an influx of phone calls asking for rent and utility assistance either due to loss of hours or they’ve been laid off because of COVID-19,” Executive Director Jenna Haviland-Alesna said. “It’s only been two days since we’ve been in the office, but people are calling and are requesting help.”
As long as there’s no news from the federal government regarding assistance, people are going to be stuck in limbo waiting to see whether they’ll receive any type of government assistance, and they’ll be needing to pay their bills, Haviland-Alesna said.
Haviland-Alesna expects more requests as time passes, she said.
“We will continue to see the rise as the weeks go on and people are unable to go back to work,” she said. “Kind of like the calm before the storm.”
However, United Way is prepared for that storm, with an online application and disaster case managers to assist COVID-19 clients, she said.
“To date we don’t have a backlog (of online applications) and we usually don’t ever; we usually stay pretty much on top of that,” she said. “Right now we are on top of it and we are staffed to address those needs.”
Data related to the number of unemployment applications being submitted won’t be made public until they’re officially released to the Department of Labor, said Cisco Gamez, a media and public relations specialist for the Texas Workforce Commission.
One applicant is waiting to receive benefits, having been unable to find any work.
“Nobody’s doing any hiring, nobody’s processing, nobody’s testing — I’m a welder, so everything’s been put on hold or on a freeze for at least five weeks to five months to next year,” said Brent Hopper, who works for Chem Fabrication in Clute.
Hopper applied for unemployment online but ran into problems with his PIN number and was trying to contact Workforce Solutions in order to get it straightened out, he said.
“I’ve been trying to contact them for at least two days,” he said. “Pretty much a mess right now.”
Hopper is worried about being able to pay his bills and take care of his family until he gets the unemployment process rolling, he said. Once he receives jobless benefits, it will keep him stable, he said.
“I just wish they had more staff on duty so we could communicate, because this is making it real difficult,” Hopper said of Workforce Solutions. “And I understand, they weren’t expecting this just like we weren’t, but you know, you gotta have a course of action. They’ve got to be ahead of the game — that’s what America’s all about … and we’re definitely not doing a good job when it comes to this virus.”
Beyond frustration, people are scared, wondering when it will all just stop, Willis said.
“Usually I see hope in my families’ eyes that come through here,” she said. “Now I just see fear and the unknown.”