As business halts, workers brace for unemployment

CASPER — The phones at the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services office have been ringing off the hook. 

Busy signals and hour wait times greet callers, even as 37 agency employees frantically answer desperate caller after desperate caller. Each is eager to work but restricted from doing so, looking for relief in a time of economic uncertainty brought on by a global pandemic. 

Calls to the agency are only expected to rise, after Gov. Mark Gordon and state health officer Dr. Alexia Harrist ordered restaurants, bars, gyms, theaters and many other public spaces closed Thursday afternoon. 

The order was deemed “necessary to public health” by Harrist, an infectious disease specialist and the state epidemiologist. The measure is intended to “flatten the curve,” or slow the spread of new cases. Early data says COVID-19 has a hospitalization rate 10 times higher than the flu, threatening to overwhelm a health care system unprepared for an outbreak of this scale. 

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scenario modeling various levels of intervention says 1.7 million people in the U.S. could die if governments took no action to limit the spread of the virus. 

The figure doesn’t account for interventions already in place, like states closing businesses and, in some cases, limiting residents to their homes. Health experts say flattening the curve is the only way to prevent these deaths. 

But many forced jobless by these public health measures worry what this virus will do not to their bodies but to their livelihoods.

Jaxson Heyrend is at the beginning of everything. He’s a student, enrolled at the University of Wyoming, studying communication sciences. 

Heyrend’s situation was already tenuous. He had expected to have a tuition reimbursement large enough to cover his living expenses for the semester. He usually did. 

When things didn’t pan out that way, he started driving for Uber and Lyft to make enough to keep a roof over his head, but business has been bad in the midst of a global pandemic. 

But national health emergency or not, he needed a place to live. 

He started looking around for more part-time work — a task now made nearly impossible with the statewide public health order closing a wide variety of establishments. 

“(The governor) has essentially told every Wyoming worker they’ve been laid off for two weeks,” Heyrend said. “I might get evicted from my house.” 

Laura Thomas has similar fears. Thomas is an apprentice electrician currently on a job-attached layoff. This means her employer doesn’t want to lose her but can’t provide any work at the moment. 

Under this arrangement she at least qualifies for unemployment insurance, which she’s positive about, but worries won’t be enough for her and her family if the virus’ spread isn’t adequately controlled and businesses are forced to hibernate longer. 

It’s not just the closure order that affects Thomas. 

Her employer is an independent contractor, doing electrical work for industrial companies, including those in the oil and gas industry. But the spread of coronavirus is impacting nearly every sector of the economy — especially oil. If those would-be customers needing electrical work are facing financial uncertainty themselves, they won’t spend on anything not immediately essential. 

“Companies started putting a hold on their spending,” she said. “So they pulled us back.” 

Thomas worries about paying rent and doesn’t think it’s realistic to ask her landlord to suspend her payments, either. 

“Our renting this house pays their mortgage; they’re older and both retired,” she said. “They need an income too.” 

 And as the outbreak persists, it’s unlikely to leave any sector of the economy untouched. 

The Nicolaysen Art Museum has furloughed staff, too. Full-time employees are using sick days and vacation time, while part-time employees will be unpaid. 

“As a nonprofit, we can’t afford to pay people,” said Ann Ruble, executive director of the museum. “I hope people realize the kind of strain this is putting on the nonprofit sector.” 

Indeed, nonprofit agencies have been taking on a larger volume of need amid the economic stress the pandemic has caused. Local food pantries have been overloaded with requests. 

Joshua’s Storehouse has served more than 1,000 people this week, according to CEO Kim Perez. Poverty Resistance Food Pantry has served more than 700. 

Locally, businesses are feeling the weight of these measures, too. 

Restaurants throughout town have been laying off employees or closing altogether, with takeout not making up enough of their losses to be worth the cost. Bars are closed. Venues too. No shows means the 360 part-time employees of the Casper Events Center can’t work. 

No dine-in eating means most of the more than 28,000 people in the food service industry are out of jobs as well. The ramifications of these closures could affect municipal and state services, as state and city budgets depend on sales tax revenue for a litany of projects. 

The city is also facing a workforce dilemma. Napier said the city hasn’t had to lay anybody off, but part-time employees who staffed recreation facilities and Hogadon Basin Ski Area, which have all been closed, will be unpaid for that time. 

Napier said the city is hoping to fill any vacancies with part-time workers, though no jobs to that effect had opened up as of Friday. 

“This has been thrust upon the community,” Napier said. “I expect this is going to have ramifications we deal with for quite some time.” 

The picture is similar nationwide. 

The U.S. Department of Labor reported Thursday it received 280,000 new unemployment claims the prior week, amid cancellations, closures and the institution of work-from-home policies, and as state governments escalated responses to the outbreak. 

“The increase in initial claims are clearly attributable to impacts from the COVID-19 virus,” the news release from the Department of Labor reads. 

Now, just a week later, those claims are expected to have skyrocketed again, this time by millions, after a whirlwind week in which multiple states ordered comprehensive closures of public gathering places, like those in Wyoming. Goldman Sachs projects 2.5 million people will have filed for unemployment benefits this week. Bank of America projects 3 million. 

What this means for the American workforce could be bleak. Economists say stock market declines driven by the coronavirus pandemic could be the start of a national recession. 

Oil prices, based on the West Texas Intermediate, fell below $20 per barrel as markets closed Friday, down from roughly $60 at the start of the year. 

There’s some relief coming from the federal government. Already small business loans have been expanded to allow any small business in Wyoming that’s seen substantial losses because of the coronavirus to apply for up to $2 million in federal economic disaster loans. 

And Congress is currently debating a bill with bipartisan support to issue direct checks to all Americans amid the near-economic halt imposed by the pandemic. 

But despite the much needed aid, people are wary and just waiting for things to end. 

John Schmidt, who owns Butch’s Bar in Evansville, said he thinks the public health order was a good decision and necessary to protect those most vulnerable to the virus. 

But he’s worried what it could mean for his business if the situation continues past the April 3 date on the state’s order. 

“My only concern,” he said, “is that April 3 turns into April 30, turns into May 30, turns into June 30.”