‘Just making it by’: Unemployment hits home for many in Southern Utah

ST. GEORGE — Some of the unemployed in Southern Utah are beginning to feel the pinch of finding gainful employment opportunities in an ever-shrinking job market.

A canvas of St. George unemployed and those on the edge of unemployment is teetering on pessimism after the expiration of weekly $600 enhanced unemployment payments on July 31.

Local residents shared their stories with the St. George News.

That includes spending a few hours at Town Square Park trying to figure out a plan to find a job. Another considers moving from Southern Utah to a hope pinned on a friend that might offer help. Life “seems to be on a knife-edge,” said Brent Wilson, an out of work hotel maintenance worker.

“When all this started, I was making enough to pay the bills and put food on the table. I wasn’t rich but I made enough to live,” Wilson said. “Now, I’m living off very little, just making it by and I’m not sure who to trust if more unemployment payments might be available or if I might be protected from eviction.”

An increasing number of Washington and Iron county residents are growing worried about rising unemployment data. | Stock image, St. George News

According to Utah’s Department of Workforce Services, the local hospitality industry has been hit hard by COVID-19.

Washington County COVID-19 Economic Impact

  • Lost an estimated $3 million per week in hotel revenue in the first eight weeks of the crisis
  • Hotels running at 10-20% occupancy – normally 80-90%
  • Nearly 5,000 rooms unoccupied – normally 1,000 per night
  • Lost $3 million per week in room revenue
  • Lost $127,000 per week in room tax
  • Lost $27 million in room revenue

Year-over-year (through April), the county has experienced a $985,000 loss in Transnet Room Tax funds. Annual losses are anticipated/projected to be $2.3 million for 2020.

“Yes, I am unemployed but I don’t want to remain unemployed. I like to work, well I don’t like getting up so early in the morning, but I like to think I have a purpose,” Wilson said. “If things don’t get better, I am seriously looking at moving somewhere, anywhere where things will be better.”

Between May 17 and July 11, nearly 2,000 residents in Washington and Iron counties filed for new unemployment claims, with a peak of 286 reported between June 21-27. During that eight-week period, Washington County reported an average of approximately 177 new claims weekly, with Iron County just shy of 54 new claims weekly.

More than 30 million Americans are out of work. Some are finding themselves standing in food pantry lines, living in community shelters or living on the streets. | Stock image, St. George News

Across the nation, there are an estimated 30 million people out of work.

In Utah – between July 26 and Aug. 1 – there were 5,080 new claims filed with 81,439 continued claims file.

During the same period, there were 116 new claims in Washington County and 33 in Iron County reported.

With the number of new claims continuing to grow and existing claims filed at “historic” levels during such a short period, according to Workforce Services officials, some unemployed are now turning to government services they never thought they would ever have to apply to receive.

When asked about her future, Kathleen Simpson, working as a less than part-time retail laborer in St. George said, “Wow are you kidding me? Look at me. I’m not out of work, but I might as well be. I’m relying on SNAP (Supplemental  Nutritional Assistance Program – formerly food stamps) to feed my family. It sounds like a great thing but it never seems to be enough food (for a family of three).”

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, despite the program’s success, roughly half of all households participating in SNAP are still food insecure and lack consistent access to enough food to support an active, healthy life. That’s  millions of Americans.

“Even those who achieve food security often find it hard to stretch their limited resources far enough to purchase and consume a healthy diet,” the Center noted in a recent report. “These facts suggest that SNAP’s relatively modest benefits – which average less than $1.40 per person per meal – may not be enough to meet the needs of America’s poor.”

SNAP assistance also has limits.

In Utah, qualifying for SNAP is considered on a case-to-case basis that considers income, size of household, assets and other criteria. If eligible, most people qualify for six months of food assistance with the opportunity to apply for an additional six months.

The elderly or disabled initially qualify for 12 months of assistance before reapplying.

“SNAP benefits are intended to supplement other income that households can use to purchase food, but as food expenditures and consumption fall – and food insecurity increase – families use up their benefits and other resources,” reported the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“Right now, if it weren’t for my family I’d be dead broke, living on someone’s couch – which still might happen – and hungry,” Simpson said.

Stock image, St. George News

Richard Tate knows these realities all too well.

“A few years ago, I had to rely on unemployment to get by,” Tate said. “There were no additional payments, government services were limited to me and when employers looked at my resume with more than 15 years in public relations, but out of work for more than a year, nobody took the chance on me.”

Tate retrained and is now a long-haul truck driver.

“When the coronavirus hit and manufacturers slowed down production, I did notice a big drop in how busy I was in delivering freight. I thought oh s**t not again, but in the past few weeks, I’m on the road a lot more. It’s not the job I want, but it’s a good job that pays the bills.”

The decision to retrain in another profession worked out for Tate. Several state, national and academic reports suggest the at-risk unemployed COVID-19 workforce – those older than 65 or with underlying health conditions – being out of work with gaps in employment history and a lack of jobs that meet wage requirements may make it hard to find employment.

The battle in Washington D.C. continues on who to help, how to help and by how much as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

According to Tate, Simpson and Wilson, things might get worse before they get better.

“Who really is listening?” Simpson asks.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!