Kat Johnson killed her plants.

It’s hardly noticeable, just a few wilted daisies and marigolds along the well-kept path leading to her front porch. After a mix-up, she sprayed them with weed killer when she meant to protect them with deer spray.

For Johnson, who has spent the last few months in a constant cycle of cleaning, gardening and trying to contact the unemployment office, her dead plants are just another thing that went wrong despite her best efforts.

Johnson got laid off from her job as a restaurant manager in Roseburg on March 23, as did her husband who worked at the same place. She understands the tough situation her boss was in as COVID-19 safety regulations and revenue loss began to hurt the business.

The day she got laid off, Johnson said she filed for unemployment. Over the next month, bills piled up and she continued to make calls.

“I did four days of just calling. Just busy, busy, hang up, call again,” Johnson said. “And in four days, I made 3,200 dials.”

Within the month it took her to get her unemployment payments, both her sister and her ex-husband got COVID-19, meaning Johnson spent even more time on the phone constantly checking up on them. She said her ex-husband spent time in the ICU, and her sister was the sickest she’d ever been.

Johnson also said she’s sent more than 100 emails to various members of local, state and national government, trying to get information about the future of COVID-19 income support programs. She said she is grateful for the few who have answered her, including a representative of Gov. Kate Brown and Roseburg Mayor Larry Rich, but she still feels largely in the dark about the future.

She’s not the only one.

In Douglas County, the disruption caused by COVID-19 has hit some people’s finances hard. As many struggle to pay bills and stay afloat, they look ahead to an uncertain future.

Johnson said she’s especially concerned with the unemployment extension program, which could help her keep up with her bills. She said she feels like the community has gotten little in return after following instructions from Oregon’s governor to stay home, wear masks and social distance.

“We’ve done all of that,” Johnson said. “So how are you going to help us stay home, so that grandma and grandpa don’t die?”

Johnson, who has asthma, said she thinks the governor’s mandates are essential for safety. She lives with her elderly father, and only allows family to enter the house after donning a mask and using the sanitizer she keeps on her front porch.

As of noon Saturday, the Douglas County COVID-19 Response Team had reported 169 people who have tested positive or were listed as presumptive for the coronavirus.

“I’m scared to death,” Johnson said. “With the uptick right now in Oregon, I don’t know how I’d be able to go back (to work) with my asthma. But I don’t really have a choice. So if I’m called back, I have to go back.”

She looked up from her porch to see a deer stepping through her neighbor’s yard across the street. She sighed and stood at her front steps to watch it. This time, it passed by without bothering her flowers.

In late January, when the first case of COVID-19 arrived in the United States, the unemployment rate in Douglas County was 4.3%, according to the Oregon Employment Department.

By April, as the U.S. approached a million cases, it jumped to 16.2%. In June, it lowered to 10.6%.

In March, to buffer some of the initial impact, the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program provided people getting unemployment benefits with an extra $600 per week. The program expired in late July.

Another bonus came last Wednesday, and hundreds of Douglas County residents lined up at financial institutions for a chance at a one-time emergency COVID-19 relief check from the state. The checks were doled out at $500 each to around 70,000 Oregonians from a $35 million statewide fund that ran out by Friday morning.

Tina Trujillo, a Winston resident, waited in line at the Rogue Credit Union on Northwest Garden Valley Boulevard for several hours on Thursday. She said she was hoping to use the payment to get Chromebooks for her three children to make sure they have access to remote learning when the school year starts.

Trujillo said her plans to work part-time were interrupted when schools closed, and she had to stay home and take care of her youngest child, who is 7 years old and has Cerebral palsy.

“There’s no options for working parents,” Trujillo said.

Before COVID-19, she and her husband had some savings and were preparing to buy their first house. They instead spent those savings on food and necessities. She said she didn’t try for unemployment because she wasn’t sure if she would be eligible, and had heard how much trouble other people were having with it.

“I just want our government to hear us. They’re supposed to be fighting on our behalf, but I think sometimes they’re not really listening to us,” Trujillo said. “It just sucks. We’re angry, we’re scared, we’re frustrated, we’re confused.”

Trujillo said she was approved for the $500 emergency payment before funds ran out, and is currently researching computer options for her kids.

“I just hope that whatever the government does for us, it’s right for us,” Trujillo said. “And hopefully we can get the economy back to where it’s meant to be for everyone.”

The Oregon State Legislature is expected to announce its decision about applying for the $300 weekly unemployment bonus that President Donald Trump authorized this month. The interim director of the Oregon Employment Department, David Gerstenfeld, told the Oregonian newspaper in Portland the assistance — which is expected to last five weeks — may not be adequate.

At the United Community Action Network food bank warehouse in Roseburg, workers are organizing pallets of surplus food onto tall metal shelves to prepare for a potential surge of need in the coming months.

In March, when stay-at-home orders were put in place, UCAN distributed 49% more food than they had in February, with 3,002 boxes going to 8,746 people.

By May, however, that spike in distribution had dropped to 1,807 boxes for 4,879 people. Sarah McGregor, the food bank program manager, said the drop likely came from the unemployment bonus, bill deferments, people instead receiving the maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for their family size and the Pandemic School Meal Replacement Benefits program.

“Once some of those things vanish, we think there will be another surge in need,” McGregor said.

A few of those programs ended in June, and the numbers are already going back up at the food pantry. Last month, they gave away 2,719 boxes for 7,463 people.

“I think for people, it’s a safety net. It is the very last thing, when everything runs out, you can always go there,” McGregor said. “People don’t realize how important it is until you need it.”

One worker, Aaron, who asked not to be identified by his last name for privacy reasons, moved heavy boxes full of donated food onto a wooden palette on the floor as McGregor spoke.

He caught his breath sitting on a low shelf nearby. He started at the warehouse in July after losing his job at a local winery. He said it took him over a month to get unemployment benefits and said he wants more clarity about the future of stimulus checks.

He said he’s grateful for his new job at the food pantry, and is glad it’s helping people in need.

“I think it’s going to be steady work,” Aaron said. “I don’t see the economy getting any better.”

Abbey McDonald is the Charles Snowden intern at The News-Review. She can be reached at amcdonald@nrtoday.com and 541-957-4217.

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(3) comments

Mike

Almost everyone in this article described how they have suffered for months and still had multiple unanswered questions on availability of unemployment money and food for their families. Aren't those EXACTLY the types of problems our County Commissioners should be solving by using their powers to cut through red tape and then publicizing the answers for all residents of the county?

Keepin it Real

Mike, you do realize that unemployment is a state function, and that’s what state reps should help with? I don’t think the county can mandate what is done on the state and federal level.

Mike

Our County Commissioners published an article in the paper telling businesses how to get financial assistance and have published multiple emails for businesses explaining how to get similar assistance. Maybe you can point me to a similar explanation from the Commissioners on how unemployed residents can get similar assistance. The Commissioners are all about protecting and preserving businesses, not so much residents.

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