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Many metro Atlantans on the edge as pandemic aid threatens to dry up

Kendall McGovern poses for photographs in her Forest Park apartment Monday, July 20, 2020.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Kendall McGovern poses for photographs in her Forest Park apartment Monday, July 20, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Single mom Kendall McGovern has started calling around to homeless shelters, just in case.

She’s lost two low-paying warehouse jobs due to the pandemic. Eviction notices from her apartment complex’s property manager are piling up. Job applications have gone unanswered. The bank warns her account keeps falling below the minimum required balance: $5.

“I am trying to show my kid you can come back from this,” the 49-year-old Forest Park resident said, swiping away tears when talking about her 13-year-old son.

Money woes have burrowed into the lives of many people in metro Atlanta, and plenty worry about what lies ahead.

Four months in, the virus’s reign has outlasted trillions of dollars in nationwide federal stimulus programs. The $600-a-week supplement to unemployment benefits was set to expire Saturday for most unemployed Georgians. Money from a $660 billion loan program for small businesses, aimed at curbing layoffs, also is running out. Congress hasn’t decided on a new relief plan, including whether to offer a second round of up to $1,200 in one-time payments to most adults.

Low-wage, hourly workers are the most exposed. They have been among the most likely to lose their jobs as the coronavirus squeezes the economy. They also tend to have smaller savings, giving them less of a cushion as virus cases rise again, threatening to stall the business recovery.

While some worry the boosted unemployment benefits have kept some people from looking for work, federal relief money has been a lifeline for metro Atlantans like Juanita Eason. She said she is one of dozens of housekeepers at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta who remain idled.

After five years at the hotel, she had been making $12 an hour. Without the $600 weekly federal supplement, she said her unemployment benefits would be just a fourth of what she made as a housekeeper.

Juanita Eason was grateful for her $12-an-hour housekeeping jobs at a big downtown Atlanta hotel. But she's been unemployed since March after the hotel cut staff. While Eason of Forest Park received unemployment benefits, she's been cutting expenses and looking unsuccessfully for other work. The federal government's $600-a-week supplements to unemployment benefits are set to expire, leaving Eason concerned about how she'll make ends meet until she gets another job. One option: help with her boyfriend's auto detailing business. MATT KEMPNER / AJC
Juanita Eason was grateful for her $12-an-hour housekeeping jobs at a big downtown Atlanta hotel. But she's been unemployed since March after the hotel cut staff. While Eason of Forest Park received unemployment benefits, she's been cutting expenses and looking unsuccessfully for other work. The federal government's $600-a-week supplements to unemployment benefits are set to expire, leaving Eason concerned about how she'll make ends meet until she gets another job. One option: help with her boyfriend's auto detailing business. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

Credit: Matt Kempner

Credit: Matt Kempner

“That’s really going to hurt us because they don’t know when we are going to come back,” the 55-year-old Forest Park resident said.

Eason has been cutting expenses and looking for other housekeeping jobs. Nothing has panned out, she said. She’d also like to work in retail, maybe at a department store. But she is concerned about risking her health being near customers who don’t wear masks.

Others, like McGovern, the unemployed single mom, are in an even worse position. While hundreds of thousands have received unemployment benefits in Georgia, she is among the tens of thousands still waiting, some for months, to receive payments, even as the federal supplements expire.

Eason and McGovern both live in Clayton County, where the unemployment rate in June was 12.6%, the highest in metro Atlanta and the second highest in Georgia. Forest Park, the county’s biggest city, also has one of the lowest per capita incomes of any zip code in the metro region.

Low-wage workers often faced tenuous financial circumstances even before the pandemic, said Kim Addie, a senior director of place-based initiatives for the United Way of Greater Atlanta.

Rent tends to consume a big chunk of their take-home pay and they are more likely to share living quarters with more family members, making social distancing more difficult, she said. And many hold frontline jobs that put them around more people, which could increase their risk during a pandemic. They also are less likely to have health insurance.

“When you have something like a pandemic, it kind of rips the band-aid off. It exacerbates the existing conditions,” Addie said.

In metro Atlanta, United Way’s 2-1-1 service logged a 34% jump in requests for rent assistance in the April-through-June period from a year earlier. In Forest Park, rent assistance requests increased by 50%.

Forest Park Mayor Angelyne Butler recently volunteered at a local food giveaway for citizens in need. Everything was distributed within hours, instead of weeks as it would have been before the coronavirus upended lives, she said.

When the extra unemployment dollars come through, they can be more than what people made when they worked in low-paying jobs.

Cheryl Lewis, who manages a local branch of Labor Finders, a temporary staffing company that fills janitorial, warehouse, construction and other jobs, said she suspects that has kept some unemployed people from accepting new positions. While seeing a growing number of people seeking work in recent weeks, she said she still faces a situation she hasn’t witnessed in her 13 years in the industry: an extended period where she has more jobs than people to fill them.

“I’m looking very forward to when the stimulus package ends,” said Lewis, whose 22-year-old son lost an entry level job at Delta Air Lines due to the pandemic and now picks up night jobs through the staffing firm.

Thomas Williams, a manager at a local cold-storage warehouse, said the business is wrestling with similar struggles to fill chilly jobs with starting pay of $10.50 an hour. Along Forest Parkway, local food processor Filet of Chicken advertises it is taking applications. And a flashing sign farther down the parkway advertises jobs as city of Forest Park police officers, promising “Great Benefits.”

But unemployed workers who previously held jobs at warehouses, restaurants and hotels say jobs have been difficult to land. Some companies brought workers back temporarily, only to lay off many again after business didn’t bounce back enough.

Randy Daniels and his 29-year-old daughter Shakirah said for months they applied for work unsuccessfully. They rattled off a list of employers, from warehouses to Walmart, McDonald’s, Burger King and Family Dollar. The elder Daniels served in the military and was a tractor trailer driver for 20 years before a medical issue parked him. The 58-year-old said he briefly landed a gig during the pandemic hefting heavy loads at a commercial tire business, but the morning after his first shift he couldn’t move.

Shakirah Daniels, left, and her father, Randy Daniels, live in Forest Park in northern Clayton County. For months they had difficulty finding work after the pandemic killed their previous jobs. Many low-wage hourly workers in metro Atlanta were helped by extra federal aid, but boosted federal unemployment benefits are set to expire soon, sparking uncertainty about what's ahead for them. The Daniels recently landed warehouse jobs. MATT KEMPNER / AJC
Shakirah Daniels, left, and her father, Randy Daniels, live in Forest Park in northern Clayton County. For months they had difficulty finding work after the pandemic killed their previous jobs. Many low-wage hourly workers in metro Atlanta were helped by extra federal aid, but boosted federal unemployment benefits are set to expire soon, sparking uncertainty about what's ahead for them. The Daniels recently landed warehouse jobs. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

Credit: Matt Kempner

Credit: Matt Kempner

In the last week, the father and daughter landed warehouse jobs: He as a forklift operator making $14 an hour, a buck less than he made pre-pandemic; She as a line worker starting at $9 an hour, significantly less than her previous job as an assistant manager at an Atlanta airport restaurant. They can make more money if they meet production targets.

Getting jobs is a relief, they said. Federal aid and benefits have been spotty and delayed. It took well over a month for the daughter to get her first unemployment benefits. They fell behind on rent and other bills.

“We had to ask other relatives to help feed us,” Shakirah said.

But eventually the federal stimulus money helped them cover delinquent bills and afford a used freezer to store more food during the pandemic.

Catching up isn’t easy. José Muñoz is back as a line cook at a local restaurant, which had closed for two months due to the coronavirus. But so far he has had no luck scouring for painting work or other side jobs to help him pay bills he’s behind on because of the break in work. He said he didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits.

Christina Clements, who grew up in Forest Park and still visits her mom there to take her shopping, said the warehouse where her husband worked closed for more than a month because of the pandemic. Federal stimulus money and boosted unemployment benefits helped pay bills and keep her family’s savings intact.

“It would have been much harder without it,” said Clements, who lives in nearby Lovejoy and is an hourly contract office worker at a private school.

Her husband is back at work. Still, she remains nervous about what’s ahead as the pandemic lingers and she worries about the security of her own job if the school shifts classes online later this summer.

Concerned about people falling behind on rent, Butler, Forest Park’s mayor, said the city sent “compassion letters” to landlords of local apartments and extended stay hotels, urging them “to not try to put people out at this time because it is not anyone’s fault that we are in this situation.”

 Kendall McGovern and her son pose for photographs in their Forest Park apartment.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Kendall McGovern and her son pose for photographs in their Forest Park apartment. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

McGovern, the single mother, said doesn’t know at what point she might be forced out. She said her property manager added a $250 late fee after she didn’t pay her rent earlier this month and indicated there will be another $300 in fees if the eviction process continues. She said she was slow in paying rent earlier.

“As a business goes, I understand that,” McGovern said. “As humanity goes....”

Work has been a stop-and-go undertaking. One warehouse closed during the pandemic, reopened later and brought her back on, then cut worker hours and stopped bringing her in, she said. She landed another warehouse job that paid about $10 an hour before it, too, cut workers, she said.

McGovern said she never received a federal stimulus check but believes she qualifies and has been trying to get it. She said her unemployment benefits claim was caught in a cycle of her former employer insisting it had properly filed her paperwork and the Georgia Department of Labor saying it hadn’t. The labor department, contacted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said it did not have a claim for her in its system and was addressing the situation.

Money was tight before the pandemic. She said her savings were depleted as she took care of her ailing parents, who have since passed away. Her son receives medical coverage through Medicaid, and they get food stamps. But it takes care to make even inexpensive food last. “I thank God ‘cause we have pasta.”

She said she has a car that is paid off, and which she used to get to her warehouse jobs, one in Ellenwood on the southside, the other farther away in the Austell/Mableton area.

McGovern and her son sleep on air mattresses, and each have chairs — a yellow fold-up kind and a hard plastic one — in their two-bedroom apartment. A cooler doubles as a table. She said she doesn’t have enough money to retrieve other furniture she has in storage and is wary of putting it in an apartment that has flooded and has pests.

Before, she and her son would occasionally splurge on a Redbox movie or dinner at a restaurant. They don’t any more.

She worries about ending up in a homeless shelter. “That doesn’t get you up and out. Working gets you up and out.”

Some shelters are open only at night or don’t allow minors to be left alone. So where would her son go during the day if she gets a job and local schools only hold classes online?

“I am embarrassed enough. I’m horrified,” McGovern said. “It cannot stay like this.”