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Essential workers grateful for jobs, some worry about catching virus

Essential workers grateful for jobs, some worry about catching virus

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As thousands of workers across the state lose their jobs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Longview resident Mandie Booth recognizes how fortunate she and her husband are to be able to work.

Booth, 37, qualifies as an essential employee because she works in the medical industry. Her husband, 38, is a union plumber working with JH Kelly to build a local school, one of the few construction projects allowed to continue under Gov. Jay Inslee’s “stay-at-home” order.

“I do see people posting on Facebook about how they got laid off and they can’t get anybody on their phone (to file for unemployment benefits). Or their first unemployment (application) was denied. My heart breaks for them,” Booth said. “I couldn’t imagine — on top of everything else we are all dealing with in general hearing about this every day — trying to figure out how to get unemployment.”

Nearly 1,500 Cowlitz County residents filed for unemployment benefits last week, an indicator of the sweeping joblessness spurred by the coronavirus pandemic. Though some industries were hit harder than others, no sector appears to have been spared from the layoffs.

Burgerville announced Monday that it would furlough or partially furlough 1,000 workers, despite continued operation as a food service provider. And unemployment claims in the agriculture industry, an essential sector with the smallest statewide increase of filings last week, rose 175%.

“It was pretty brutal across the board,” said Southwest Washington regional economist Scott Bailey.

Local workers who so far have kept their jobs wonder about how long their luck will last, or whether they are at risk of contracting the virus.

Roger Merrill, a manager at the Dollar Store in the Twin Cities shopping center, said his boss has offered him an extra $2 an hour if he returns to work. The store remains open, most likely because it sells food and other essential supplies, but Merrill has been home sick with a sinus infection for two weeks and “the governor doesn’t want anyone sick going anywhere.”

He still was congested and coughing on Thursday. On Monday he runs out of sick leave and must decide whether to return to work or leave his job, he said.

Merrill knows his job is important to serve customers with food and other resources during the pandemic, but the decision to return to work pits his financial needs against his concern for his own and customers’ health.

“We keep bringing in money (for the company), and we keep risking our lives for $2 extra an hour,” he said. “It really puts us in that situation of asking what our life is worth.”

He could sign up for unemployment, “but that’s only going to last me so long. … I really am up late a lot contemplating the right thing to do. ... When you sign up to work at a store like this, you don’t think of this kind of stuff. (People) think that it’s your job, you have to do it. Well, this is life-threatening.”

Booth, the medical supply worker, said she’s not too worried about getting sick because most people are following the safety precautions. Her husband’s job site requires workers to wear masks and keep a safe distance from one another, she said.

Even if she falls ill, she knows her employer would find a way to support her financially because she’s already tested negative for COVID-19. Her employer gave her 80 hours of extra paid time off while she waited for the all-clear.

But she has worried a little bit about paying for medical insurance if her husband loses his job, a possibility “with how much the situation is changing,” Booth said. The family could potentially face a $900 continuation of coverage “COBRA” payment, she said.

For now he is cleared to work because public schools are one of the limited exceptions to construction prohibited by the stay-home order.

“It’s entirely possible they could shut down the work site. In reality things could get so crazy that everybody has to stay home and nobody can go to work,” Booth said. “It just is what it is.”

“I just think the important message for people to know and get behind is what they are saying, ‘stay home,’ “ Booth added. “Don’t go back unless you have to, so we can get back to regular life. The more people who are going out and about and not following those orders, the more time that will go on that we are having to keep worrying about when we will be able to go back to normal life.”

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