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Unemployment, welfare claims soar as pandemic continues

Area social services are seeing a spike in welfare applications and unemployment claims are skyrocketing as the novel coronavirus has limited or shuttered business throughout the state.

Nearly 9,000 people in Central Virginia have filed new unemployment claims in the past three weeks, according to the Virginia Employment Commission.

That number makes up nearly 6% of the area’s estimated labor force in February. Virginia’s unemployment rate hasn’t been that high since 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Charlottesville has been hit the hardest with nearly 9% of its labor force, or 2,391 people, filing unemployment claims. Nelson County is second with 7.2%, or 551 people, followed by Albemarle County with 5.3% or 3,120 people.

For comparison, 3,348 people were unemployed in Charlottesville and Albemarle, Nelson, Greene, Madison, Louisa, Fluvanna and Buckingham counties combined in February. At that time, Charlottesville and Albemarle County boasted unemployment rates of 2.1% and 2.2%, respectively, for a total of about 1,800 people without a job and looking for work.

In the week of March 14, those localities had 53 combined new employment claims.

To keep the virus at bay, many businesses have shut their doors or significantly reduced staff, which has impacted the role of employment services like Network2Work. The program helps job seekers gain skills and resources needed to find quality jobs.

Executive Director Frank Squillace said that many of the people the program works with in service, construction and trade fields have been furloughed or laid off. However, he’s been contacted directly by seven to 10 employers, including the University of Virginia, looking for people to work in housekeeping services and grocery stores that are struggling to keep up with demand.

“There are actually jobs [available] in logistics food service like groceries and delivery as well as health care obviously, but they’re not necessarily where our folks originally intended to work and had work,” he said.

Some people are also considering whether they should access unemployment benefits during the duration of the pandemic rather than take temporary employment.

“There are folks weighing, ‘do I take a cut from my $15-an-hour full-time job to take a $10-hour part-time job or should I just file for unemployment?’” Squillace said.

Network2Work has taken a hit as well in opportunities, Squillace said. The program typically works with about 100 employers offering 120 jobs, and that’s been cut to 70 employers and 85 jobs.

Squillace said the program has helped about 50 people who are out of work from the virus find new or temporary jobs. But, he said, the program now has halted new applications to focus on the people it already works with.

“It’s tough and it’s sad for our team to say we have to pause those enrollments,” he said. “We’re a different program and not trying to dangle false hope out there for people.”

At the same time, the Charlottesville and Albemarle departments of social services have seen huge spikes in applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) programs.

In Albemarle County, SNAP applications have jumped 382% since March 6 from 36 to a peak of 131. The program, formerly known as food stamps, offers varying levels of assistance to people depending on their income. TANF applications have increased 56% from five to 16.

In the city, SNAP applications in March grew 115% over the same period last year, to 256, and TANF applications were up 150% to 45.

Albemarle Social Services Director Phyllis Savides and Charlottesville Social Services Director Diane Kuknyo said workloads have increased dramatically, but local staff have been helped by federal guidance to waive the typical six-month renewal review for people who were already receiving benefits.

“Not having to do those renewals is the big thing that’s off people’s backs right now,” Kuknyo said.

Savides and Kuknyo said that the waiver also ensures people don’t lose benefits.

“The customer doesn’t get dinged just because the department hasn’t had time to focus on the renewal,” Savides said.

Savides said that the department had been required to give some employment services to certain people on SNAP benefits, but due to the current state of the economy that has also been paused.

Kuknyo said the department will review benefits that were up for renewal after the virus ends, but can now focus on new applications and the people who have been impacted by containment measures.

“A lot of people were working class people who were paying their bills before and a lot of these new applications are people who’ve never applied for benefits before and it wasn’t something they ever thought they’d have to do,” she said. “Right now we’re accomplishing it. We’re getting things done timely. If this went on for four or five or six months it would be a whole different story.”


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