The current situation reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon where a dog chides a cat saying, “Who are you kidding? You’re all about small government until you get stuck in a tree.”
Since the Governor’s lockdown order in mid-March, islanders have received approximately $17 million in unemployment benefits from big government. Think of it as your taxes at work to alleviate the sudden loss of income for you or your friends and neighbors.
Last time, I focused on the numbers and dollars. This time I want to put a human face on it, but carefully. Several hundred islanders have trusted me with their most important confidential information: the identity trifecta of name, birth date and Social Security number, plus their height and weight from the photo of their driver’s licenses and some very revealing passwords (a hacker with a database of names on pet licenses could wreak havoc here).
Following are a few anonymized glimpses of islanders on unemployment:
- Government forms anxiety: I had no idea how many people (including engineers and university professors) were so anxious about filling out government forms. Then again, the process was daunting. One mistake and you were stuck down a rabbit hole for months.
- The double whammy: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for the self-employed hinged on submitting a copy of one’s 2019 tax return. Many people had to scramble to get their tax returns done before they could even apply.
- Under the table: Several Islanders who had been working “under the table” for years had to file tax returns to get back into the system. Bottom line: If you want government benefits, you have to report your income to the government.
- Homeless with only a phone: Several islanders became homeless and have had great difficulty filing weekly claims without a computer or internet. Unemployment benefits have been a lifeline to food, shelter, and safety.
- Living paycheck-to-paycheck: Many wage-earning and self-employed Islanders were just barely making it before COVID. The sudden loss of income (sometimes for several household members at once) meant no money for rent, mortgage/car payments, medications, or food until unemployment benefits kicked in. A few lucky ones started getting benefits within a week of filing; most took five to six weeks to start; others are still waiting.
- Personal services shutdown: Who knew there were so many bodyworkers and hairdressers and house cleaners somehow making a living before COVID? By their very nature, these businesses could not make the pivot to a take-out or a Zoom model (remote coaching for massaging or hair cutting or vacuuming just isn’t the same).
- The high-risk dilemma: Many islanders are still working in their 60s and 70s and hesitate to return to a public-facing workplace. Many younger people live with older or other high-risk family members and do not want to expose them to COVID risks from the outside world. Fortunately, these high-risk scenarios are considered “good cause” for refusing to return to work at this time and unemployment benefits continue.
It has been so gratifying to use my number/writing skills and government experience to help fellow islanders through this daunting process. I declined hundreds of generous offers of produce, meals, gift certificates, bodywork, house cleaning, artwork, and services in exchange for my assistance. Instead, I asked people to pay it forward, using their skills to help someone who needed it someday.
Hopefully, Employment Security Department (ESD) will have enough time to clear out the backlog of claims in adjudication (review) and on appeal before a potential next wave hits and there is another surge in claims. Of course, ESD can only distribute whatever federal add-on Congress negotiates. At this point, the cat is still stuck up the tree.
Deborah Diamond is a retired IRS Governmental Liaison who has provided over 800 free telephone consultations with islanders regarding stimulus payments, unemployment benefits, and PPP loans through Vashon Be Prepared and the Vashon Chamber of Commerce “Ask An Expert” program. For assistance or to sign up for weekly unemployment tips, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Diamond’s portrait was painted by Pam Ingalls for her “Local Heroes” exhibit at The Hardware Store in July.