BL Special Report

BL Special Report: Families on the edge

Lower income families can’t juggle COVID-19 state demands with day to day needs.

When the pandemic hit, Noe Homero Zurita, a local farmworker, lost almost half his work hours. Since then, his wife Fabiola Ramirez, 33, has had difficulty meeting their family’s basic needs while paying $1,900 a month for their rented RV at the farm. The winter ahead looks bleak as her husband’s seasonal work typically slows down at this time of year.

“What worries me the most is how I would take care of my children—I would be fine going without warm food in the day,” Ramirez said. “We don’t have any savings, so if my husband gets ill and was not able to go to work, we would not be able to afford rent. We do not have any family members or relatives for support, so we would have nowhere to go in this area.”

The pandemic has put many families like the Zurita-Ramirez household under severe financial pressure, leaving them on the edge and struggling to stay in their homes. That pressure is increasing this winter as COVID-19 surges, more businesses shut down under the new stay-at-home order, and government aid protections expire.

Ramirez has had difficulty balancing her family’s monthly budget since the pandemic began. “We really struggled due to reduced hours at my husband’s work,” she said. “There were a lot of days he had to take off because of COVID.” 

New poverty

Marni Friedman, a family physician in Hollister, has witnessed families’ struggles firsthand. 

“I have seen patients who have had to move because they can’t afford housing and move in with family or friends, patients who have lost their jobs. Patients who are accessing public benefits for the first time, I am recommending go to food banks they have never gone to before. So I am seeing an increase in levels of financial hardship and new poverty that reminds me of the economic downturn after the crash of 2008.”

On top of staying safe from COVID-19, dealing with job loss or reduced work hours, food costs have risen, and many parents have been forced to take on more child care responsibilities. 

In 2020, California saw seven years of job growth wiped out over the course of a single month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In April, the number of employees in California dropped to 15 million, down 2.4 million from the month before. These losses were more sudden and severe than the 2008 crash. 

Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show how the number of non-farm employees in California changed through the 2008 recession and the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.
Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show how the number of non-farm employees in California changed through the 2008 recession and the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

By October, the economy regained a million jobs, back to 2015 levels, but down almost 1.4 million compared to a year before. The current COVID-19 resurgence could slow or reverse this recovery. The state’s new stay-at-home order is again closing many different businesses—including restaurants, bars, cinemas and salons. Retail stores are limited to 20% capacity. It’s unclear when regional ICU availability will rise above the 15% threshold, thus allowing the order to be lifted and jobs to return.

In the first months of the pandemic, the federal government did roll out comprehensive unemployment benefits, but this safety net was whittled away during the last half of 2020 and is set to expire at the end of the year. The stimulus package recently passed by Congress restores some limited relief.

Help for many, but not all

Under Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), the CARES Act allotted up to $450 per week for 46 weeks of 2020, ending Dec. 26, supplemented by $600 per week during April, May, June and July. $300 a week supplemental payments continued until early September under the Lost Wages Assistance Program, with the last payments going out Oct. 12. The new stimulus will restore PUA and $300 a week supplements for 11 weeks in 2021, up to March 14.

This year, severe backlogs at California’s Employment Development Department (EDD) slowed or stopped the funds from reaching families. Overwhelmed by a flood of applications, the department had to stop processing claims for two weeks in September while it upgraded its fraud detection systems. According to EDD figures, a backlog of almost 1.75 million applications at the end of September was reduced to about 500,000 in mid-November, but it has risen again to between 600,000 and 750,000 in mid-December.

However, this safety net isn’t available at all to undocumented families. Ramirez said of her husband, “He’s not able to apply [for unemployment] because we are not permanent residents.”

Prospects for Ramirez’s family over the next few months look bleak. In winter, Zurita’s work hours usually tail off, which could worsen their situation. “I do worry about how we are going to pay our rent, and how we can make my husband’s income last for the rent and for the food on the table,” she said.

Amanda Hernandez with her children. Photo courtesy of Amanda Hernandez.
Amanda Hernandez with her children. Photo courtesy of Amanda Hernandez.

Amanda Hernandez, 44, a single mother of three from Hollister, also experienced a sudden job loss back in March. 

“I worked with the school district until the pandemic hit and the schools closed. It’s overwhelming to try to do work and get help for the children, so I stay at home with the children until the pandemic is over and they are going back to school, then I can look for work,” Hernandez said.

Public schools in Hollister remain closed for in-person instruction, with the exception of Spring Grove School and most rural schools, which have now reopened for in-person or hybrid classes.  

Child care in the pandemic

Parents with children at home have had to make some hard choices. 

Lisa Faulkner is executive director of First 5 San Benito, a local nonprofit dedicated to supporting prenatal to five-year-old children’s well-being. “If parents do have an opportunity to work, that means leaving their kids home and having a sibling take care of them,” she said. “That’s being put between a rock and a hard place—for a parent to go to work and secure food and housing, or to leave their child at home without a caregiver.

“Before the pandemic,” she continued, “they could take the children to grandparents or some community family members, but due to COVID, that’s another hard decision. Do you expose your vulnerable loved ones, your grandparents, uncles and aunts to the virus?”

With the Go Kids child care center closed during the early months of the pandemic, Hernandez was unable to go back to work, this time as a caregiver.

“When we’re being stuck quarantined at home, it’s very challenging,” she said. “I was really excited because my second son was about ready to be potty trained, and I was going to have that time to go back to work. Then COVID hit, and Go Kids closed.”

Food support

School closures also mean families need to provide lunches and snacks for their kids at home. Fortunately, many schools have stepped in to fill the gap. Sunnyslope Elementary School in Hollister, for example, gives out five days’ worth of food to families every Monday. Excluding North County, over 663,000 meals were distributed by San Benito County schools between Aug.1 and mid-November, according to Krystal Lomanto, San Benito County Office of Education superintendent. 

With their income halved, Ramirez had to scramble to secure food for her family while covering the rent. She found food support from CalFresh and WIC, as well as First 5.

“[First 5] have been providing me with emergency supplies—wipes, hand sanitizer, food,” she said. “They pick up our supplies from the community food bank and then they deliver it to our home.”

During the first months of the pandemic, First 5 saw families in distress and stepped in to help, expanding on their usual role.

“We have had a front row seat in people losing their homes, so instead of asking us for those [child care] activities, they are asking for food,” Faulkner said. “They are reaching out to us to keep the family in their home.” 

Between March and June, First 5’s Family Impact Center worked with almost 40 other community partners to give out 255,750 meals and other essential supplies, including diapers and formula, to hundreds of San Benito County families, according to its evaluation report

The program is now limited to a few families who aren’t able to pick up supplies, due to child care or work responsibilities.

Families feel food price increases

My Father’s House is a Hollister nonprofit which typically supports homeless people, but expanded its services to assist at-risk families during the pandemic. Although COVID-19 forced their shelter to close, the organization is also supporting families’ food needs.  

Linda Lampe, who operates My Father’s House with her husband Patrick, said, “I am providing hot meals, hygiene kits and wellness checks to our homeless community, but I have also expanded the food service to another group of people dear to my heart: the migrant farmworkers and the working poor.” 

Lampe said her food boxes are “literally helping people from becoming homeless.”

“We are giving out anywhere from $125 to $160 every week,” she continued. “A family is saving $500 a month on groceries. If you have children, you are going to feed your children before you pay your rent. We are saving people from being evicted from their homes by providing them nutritional groceries that they need each week.” 

Despite the help from local nonprofits, Ramirez still has to spend $400 per week on supplies for herself, her husband and their four children, covering additional food, clothing, toiletries, gas and other expenses. 

Food prices have risen more sharply during the pandemic than in previous years, according to the latest Consumer Price Index (CPI) update for the western United States. This November’s food prices are almost 5% higher than the year before, caused by COVID-related disruptions to supply chains. In 2019, before the pandemic, the annual increase was 2.4%. These price hikes were offset by falls in gasoline prices, as well as clothing and vehicle insurance, meaning the overall cost of living rose less (1.4%) than in the previous year (2.8%). Even so, large families that need to put more food on the table are likely to feel the pinch.

Friedman sees the toll this takes on families every day. One of her patients is an elderly man who recently had a stroke and is unable to work. When he visits the clinic with his wife, Friedman said, “They are very hostile sometimes, when I make a suggestion of changing a medication dose, because they don’t want to pay one more copay for one more pill. They won’t even pay $30 to change a medication dose, because they are worried about meeting their bills, they feel that they are just one bill away from losing everything.”

The combined pressures brought on by the pandemic have made it difficult for families to cope and make ends meet, Friedman said. These include sudden job losses, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, increased food costs evidenced by the Consumer Price Index and the increased pressure on parents caused by school closure and observed by local front-line case workers at First 5. 

The new stay-at-home order risks amplifying these economic pressures once again. 

For Ramirez’s family, the risks are real. Facing an income shortfall this winter, she may have to grapple with whether to feed her kids or be evicted from their rental. 

 

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Kirti Bassendine

Kirti Bassendine is a photographer, storyteller and journalist. She graduated with BA Honors in Fine Art Photography from Derby University, England. Following several exhibitions focusing on cultural identity that toured the United Kingdom, she settled in the United States and spent 30+ years combining professional photography with fine art projects. Over the last six years, her artwork has focused on cultural storytelling through still photography and videography. As an artist she has always been intrigued by human relationships and how they interweave within social and cultural contexts – especially women's sense of identity and belonging within their culture and the wider world; how homelessness and nomadic ways of life are perceived; and how its subcultures integrate or conflict with modern society.