As COVID-19 effects ripple, hourly wage-earners hang on


JACKSON — At High Country Linen, giant washing machines slosh, huge dryers tumble their contents and semi-automated ironing contraptions take in clean bedsheets, turning out immaculate linen.

A continuous stream of dirty laundry — towels, rags and service uniforms — feeds the lineup of machines. At the outgoing end, neat piles of pressed placemats, duvet covers and pillow cases fill towering shelves. 

In any normal year, those shelves wouldn’t be full, their contents shipped out to accommodate the thousands of visitors flocking to this resort town for the World Championship Snowmobile Hill Climb, the end-of-ski-season music festival and other events. In the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the bustle is tapering three weeks before the usual shoulder season.

In a community that generates lodging taxes at a rate five times higher than any other Wyoming community, and that has a service industry of similarly large proportions, the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and responses to it are magnified and instructive.

As they are at High Country Linens. Along every step of the laundry line wage earners — many of them paid hourly — try to grasp their uncertain future as they work over assembly line conveyor belts. Their boss, Teton County Commissioner Mark Barron, recently urged fellow leaders to be cautious as they debated what is now a shutdown of many public-space businesses. 

“My concern has always been that so many Americans live paycheck to paycheck,” he told WyoFile. “We should be very, very careful and very compassionate when looking at people who are going to lose their jobs immediately.”

That includes the sign maker who saw work orders pulled when organizers cancelled events, the handyman whose boss told him not to visit the properties he oversees and the Hispanic workers at the laundry who may face a double-barreled impact because of their ethnicity or family’s immigrant status.

A Jackson attorney who supports social justice causes asked a Teton County commissioner and a Jackson Town Council member March 14 to seek an amnesty program “so that our Hispanic citizens will feel free and safe to seek medical relief.” Bob Schuster wrote commissioner Luther Probst and a council member saying he assumed “that the undocumented would feel a risk if they go to the hospital — either for themselves or for their citizen children — because that might target them for exportation.

“A significant part of our community — particularly the Town — is Hispanic,” Schuster wrote. He admitted he does not know what percentage is undocumented.

An amnesty program would be “for their benefit, … their children’s benefit, and for the benefit of the non-Hispanic community,” he wrote. Hispanics make up an estimated 25%-30% of the community’s population.

“Latinos struggle with housing costs, access to healthcare, and limited time for family due to long work hours necessary to cover the high costs of living in Teton County,” a 2015 community assessment states. It lists health care among the top six critical issues facing the Latino community.

Probst responded to Schuster on Wednesday but did not promise to make the sought-for amnesty request to Wyoming’s delegation in Washington, D.C. That same day U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced it would “temporarily adjust its enforcement posture” toward undocumented immigrants.

“Consistent with its sensitive locations policy, during the COVID-19 crisis, ICE will not carry out enforcement operations at or near health care facilities, such as hospitals, doctors’ offices, accredited health clinics, and emergent or urgent care facilities, except in the most extraordinary of circumstances,” the agency stated. “Individuals should not avoid seeking medical care because they fear civil immigration enforcement.”

The ICE statement didn’t assuage the worries of Antonio Serrano, founding member and chairman of Juntos, an all-Wyoming anti-discrimination nonprofit that looks after the needs of immigrants, Latinos and people of color. The name means “together,” or “side-by side.”

“That doesn’t sound like an update,” he said of the ICE proclamation. “They can put out a little statement but that’s no different from what they’ve said from the beginning.

Health care challenges for “the regular working guy” begin with a lack of insurance coverage, he said, citing his own experience. “It made going to the doctor for my family nearly impossible.

There’s many people like that out there,” he said. “They don’t have it for their whole family.”

Even when illness strikes, a trip to an Anglo institution can be daunting, Serrano said. He told of a Latino worker who was injured and taken to an emergency room for treatment. “Then ICE was called on him,” he said.

“This has always been a fear,” he said. With COVID-19, the situation is “doubly dangerous.”

Service, farm, construction and labor jobs, the type of work many immigrants do, can’t be accomplished from home, either, he said. That’s another impact that the pandemic has focused onto the Juntos populace, he said. Aside from One22, a Teton-area nonprofit that aids those who face health, financial and cultural challenges, Serrano said he doesn’t know of other groups helping his cohort.

Meantime assistance has surfaced for One22’s support services. “Fortunately, and quite miraculously we’ve had some donors with incredible vision [give] hundreds of thousands of dollars intended to relieve distress,” said Sharel Lund, executive director of One22. “We worked around the clock this week to redesign our financial aid, streamline and lower the barrier to entry and get it out when it is needed.

The Jackson Hole Community foundation also has activated a $450,000 emergency response fund, part of which went to One22. The Wyoming Community Foundation also launched a special fund drive.

“We help people in various stages of financial distress — all people, all ages, all nationalities,” she said. “Certainly, there is a subset of that group that are immigrant workers. Not everyone is eligible for unemployment. Not everyone is going to get that $1,000 check.” 

One22 quickly prioritized financial aid and “community navigation” when impacts of the pandemic became clear last week. Navigation sets out to answer the statement “I don’t know where to go for this…”

Lund’s job is not as simple as shoveling money out the front door.

“Giving away money is harder than it sounds,” she said. Consistency and fairness are essential.

Staffers, working from home, have fielded hundreds of calls. “We know there’s a group that’s waiting for this,” she said. “I won’t know who they are until the applications come in.”

The awards will consider need and, among other things, the applicant’s access to resources, she said. How many people is an applicant responsible for feeding is an obvious question.

At the laundry, Barron briefed the staff about the virus, how to protect oneself and the implications of the business downturn, said Juan Perez, the company’s human resources administrator. Staff leaders answered questions about how long the virus can live on a plastic surface and whether the state was going to close the highway over Teton Pass between the shop and worker housing in Victor and Driggs, Idaho.

That surprised Barron. “Who would have anticipated that question?” he asked.

Joe Paulson, director of operations, said the workers were concerned, but that he was surprised there wasn’t more worry. “Everyone seems to know we need to be tough and roll with the punches,” he said.

The company has good benefits, Perez said, including a paid-time-off buffer. “My personal thought is a lot of the employees feel somehow some protection,” he said.

Still, the outbreak has forced difficult decisions. About 10%-15% of the workers have been laid off already. More layoffs are coming, Barron said. 

“As compassionate as we’d like to be, we can’t give everybody two weeks paid time off,” he said.

Layoffs have hurt workers in numerous other businesses — the closed coffee shop, the shuttered restaurant and so on. Sign maker Torrey Webster was on the street last week hanging an “open” banner at a corner market near the Jackson Town Square.

“My guy would normally be doing this,” he said. Webster would otherwise be in his shop drumming up more business after filling orders for banners for now-cancelled events.

“This is a trickle-down thing, for sure,” he said. He told his helper to take a long weekend instead of working Friday.

“He understands,” Webster said. Luckily, he has housing “that doesn’t cost him an arm and a leg.”

The plan this week is to clean the shop. But it can only get so clean.

“When that [work] runs out,” Webster said, “he’ll be on unemployment, I’m sure.”

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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