First-Timers: Coronavirus Pulls New People Into Social Safety Net | WGLT

First-Timers: Coronavirus Pulls New People Into Social Safety Net

Those helpers on the front lines of the coronavirus economic collapse say they’re seeing more and more people seeking assistance for the first time. People like Doug Johnson.

Johnson, of Normal, is a bartender at TGI Fridays in Bloomington and also works for Twin City Trivia. He’s been out of work since March 15, when Gov. JB Pritzker closed bars and restaurants to slow the spread of COVID-19. For the first time in his life, he applied for unemployment benefits—one of the staggering 5,000 people in McLean County to do so in March.

"This is really a new experience for them."

It’s been a rocky process. After applying, Johnson said the Illinois Department of Employment Security sent him an empty prepaid debit card and then a rejection letter saying he didn’t make enough to qualify. He has appealed. He’s also still waiting for his relief money from the federal government.

“The hardest part is not knowing and not being able to get any answers out of anyone. That’s been really frustrating—not having the ability to actually go and speak with a person, or speak with someone on the telephone,” Johnson told WGLT.

The social safety net can be difficult to navigate, even for repeat clients. First-timers like Johnson are diving in when agencies like IDES are swamped with requests and have limited handholding ability. IDES processed over 755,000 initial unemployment claims from March 1 through April 18. That’s 12 times the number of claims the department processed over the same period last year.

Those seeking assistance for the first time are likely to be discussed Monday night when PATH and United Way of McLean County update the Bloomington City Council.

During a recent McLean County Board meeting, PATH executive director Karen Zangerle said social service groups are now preparing for a flood of calls from people on the verge of losing their home or apartment for the first time.

“This pandemic had created a whole new population that has never been reliant on outside help. They have always been independent and in charge of their affairs,” Zangerle said, adding that several social service groups in McLean County are developing a plan for how to direct people to the help they need.

Postponed Wedding

Doug Johnson didn’t just lose his job. He lost his wedding too.

He and his fiancé were supposed to get married March 21. They’ve postponed it to September. The deposits they got back are now serving as an emergency financial cushion as they live on his fiance’s income.

In addition to appeal his IDES rejection, on Friday Johnson contacted the IRS to find out what happened to his stimulus money. He’s hopeful he’ll get it.

“I’ve been cruising around on Facebook looking at different things, and it looks like a lot of people are having really similar issues. I feel like we’re all in the same boat unfortunately,” Johnson said.

Bloomington City Council member Jeff Crabill cited these first-timers this week when he pitched an idea to provide direct payments to people disadvantaged by the shutdown, via the City of Bloomington Township. The idea did not garner enough support as-is to advance to a vote.

“We have a whole new group of people who’ve lost their jobs and have never relied on outside aid before,” Crabill said. “At some point, moratoriums will end and rent and mortgage payments will become due. We also know from experience that during times of economic recession, charitable giving drops. The city can coordinate with nonprofits, but the city needs to take the lead.”

Some are experiencing food insecurity for the first time. For the three-week period after the coronavirus arrived in McLean County, The Salvation Army’s Food Pantry served nearly 1,000 individuals from 260 families—and 30% of those families were first-time visitors.

Unit 5 school district is providing thousands of meals every week, with some help from the United Way. Dayna Brown, Unit 5’s director of communications and community relations, recently said the need for food has only grown as the weeks wear on.

“Some of the families that are expressing some difficulty and are feeling food insecure are families that have never had to reach out to anyone for help before, so this is really a new experience for them,” Brown said. “We’re seeing the unemployment rate rise in Illinois, and I think Bloomington-Normal is probably no different than that.”

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