Keizer unemployment might be worse than we expected

A private data firm is trying to develop a more precise look at how COVID-19 related unemployment is affecting specific neighborhoods. Its findings might surprise you.

Daisy’s family has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On a single day in June, her 60-year-old grandfather tested positive for the novel coronavirus and her 66-year-old grandmother was rushed to the emergency room because she was having trouble breathing. From there she went to the intensive care unit where she fell into a coma and passed from complications roiled by COVID-19. 

“We believe she got it first,” Daisy said. “She worked at a cannery in west Salem.”

It was just the beginning. 

In rapid succession, the Keizer 19-year-old, her father, 49, her mother, 40, her sister, 16, and her brother, 11, all tested positive. Keizertimes is not using Daisy’s real name for this story. 

Daisy only experienced allergy-like symptoms, but she was put on leave from her job working with elderly individuals for a month. Her aunt had to take a two-month leave of absence to care for her grandfather during his recovery.

Everyone in the family has since recovered, but Daisy now talks about the disease with deadly seriousness. 

“I’ve been telling all my co-workers that it’s not a joke and we have to take care of one another. That’s been helping,” she said. 

While it’s hard to think of anyone having survived such an ordeal as lucky, she and her family members were fortunate in at least one way. They had understanding employers.

“My work was really understanding and they kept in touch to make sure we had what we needed. My dad is a painter and his boss was really understanding, too. He reached out and asked if we needed groceries or anything at all,” she said. 

She was also moved through the rigamarole of unemployment claims relatively smoothly. 

“It was confusing filing at first, but [the check] came about a month later. It wasn’t much of a delay,” she said. 

As the employment picture throughout the United States continues to evolve, a Washington, D.C.-based data firm is trying to provide a clearer picture of what is happening right down to neighborhoods.

For the average Keizerite, the picture it presents could be eye-popping. (See map on Page A1.)

According to data provided by Catalyst, unemployment is likely highest (16%) south of Glynbrook Street and Candlewood Drive. Unemployment is estimated at 14% in southeast Keizer, east of River Road North between Dearborn Avenue Northeast Candlewood Drive and the Salem-Keizer Parkway.

In the area bordered by the Willamette River to the west, River Road North to the east, the Staats Lake neighborhood to the north and Chemawa Road to the south unemployment is estimated to be 13%. 

Data for the Palma Ciea, Gubser, Hidden Creek and the Meadows neighborhoods are roughly 8-9%.

Using Census estimates for the number of women in a given tract, the number of Black residents and the number of residents who work in food service, Catalyst is trying to estimate how unemployment is affecting communities throughout the nation. With those datapoints as a backdrop, researchers created an educated guess as to how many Black female food services workers live in each neighborhood and matched it with national employment statistics and demographics to build neighborhood impact maps.

Catalyst warns however, that its information should be viewed in conjunction with other data as the economic picture evolves. 

The most recent local data from the Oregon Employment Department estimated the Salem area’s unemployment rate was 10.3%, down from 13% in May. Statewide unemployment was 11.2%.

Amid the turmoil, the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency (CAA) established programs to help families whose employment has been affected by COVID-19.

Between state and federal money put into the program, CAA has $5.2 million to support families struggling to pay rent. More than $1.5 million has already been disbursed since the program’s inception in June, but only 43 Keizer families of 289 total have tapped into the program. CAA typically only provides rent assistance services in rural areas, but the pandemic funds are open to anyone in the CAA’s coverage area, which includes Marion and Polk counties. 

In some ways, that’s not surprising, said Ashley Hamilton, program director at CAA. The need is so great at the moment that it can be difficult to know where to turn, she said. 

“We ran a homelessness prevention tool using local unemployment figures for March. Just for March, we estimated it would take $6.3 million to meet 30% of the need,” she said. “And we know claims went up in April and up again in May before leveling out in June.” 

The money can only be used for rent expenses – not mortgages – and households must to fall below certain income levels depending on the size of the household. 

Aside from those requirements, there are relatively few strings attached to the support. Those living in manufactured homes can lean on the program to pay for their space rents. Even citizenship is not a requirement. 

With federal unemployment assistance drying up, Hamilton urged those in need not to wait until they fall further in arrears to their landlords. Those interested in applying for rental assistance should contact the ARCHES Project directly by calling 503-399-9080, ext. 4003. CAA hired 18 people and formed a call center dedicated to disbursing the funds. 

“We can help you catch up all the way, but we also have a housing stabilization package that we can use to frontload your account with additional months of rent moving forward,” she said. 

Separate programs are available for those having trouble meeting energy bills. Call Energy Services directly at 503-588-9016 to access that support. 

To reach deeper into individual communities, CAA is partnering with a variety of other support services they call “micro” community leaders. The United Way, Mano A Mano, Family Building Blocks and Island Boy Camp are a few of the community partners. 

As someone who works in poverty services and outreach, Hamilton said the pandemic has given new meaning to something that once sounded like a sales pitch: that many in our community are one paycheck away from homelessness. “We suddenly had all this emerging need and people who had difficulty asking for help or not knowing where to turn to find it. We had to ask ourselves if our support net was strong enough and how we could be more supportive in this space with an added layer of fear,” she said.