"Not Having Any Income Is Difficult": Unemployment Surges 800 Percent In Wyoming

Apr 10, 2020

Back in mid-March, Governor Mark Gordon shut down all public spaces to stop the spread of coronavirus. At the time, Destiny Irwin was plugging away on a political science degree at the University of Wyoming and working at two Laramie restaurants to pay her bills. Both went to curbside delivery, and Irwin got laid off.

"Not having any income is difficult," said Irwin. "And I just paid for April's rent, and until I really get unemployment money coming through, I am broke."

Irwin said her employers have been good to her, promising she'd have her jobs back when this is all over, giving her groceries to take home and even helping her apply for unemployment. And that application process was way easier than she expected.

"For me, it was within about two days that I got the email notification back [that] I had been accepted for unemployment," she said.

Destiny Irwin is a server at a Laramie restaurant t was recently laid off.
Credit Destiny Irwin

Irwin said her parents have helped a little by paying her utilities, but they can't afford to help for long.

"Between unemployment and the stimulus check, I think I'll be okay for a little while," Irwin said. "I don't think that it's sustainable for me for six or eight months."

Irwin said she's been approved to receive $284 a week in state unemployment.

Sean Francis owns a music story in Lander, and he's thinking of applying for unemployment, too, even though he's self-employed. Congress made it possible for small business owners like him to get some assistance in response to the pandemic. Meanwhile, Francis is doing everything he can to keep his music store open for business. He said people have been getting curbside delivery of some of his music supplies.

"It's mostly been guitar strings and picks, things like that for maybe guitars they've had at home for a long time that haven't gotten much playtime at all," said Francis. "That's one of the things that's been interesting is seeing a lot of these old instruments coming out of the closets and stuff like that, where somebody's like, 'Oh, yeah, you know, I've had this around for a long time, and I've always meant to get it fixed up and just never had time.'" Francis chuckles. "Well, guess what?"

Francis is getting proactive in other ways, too. He's been teaching music lessons over Zoom and paying his employee to help him use this down time to put in a recording studio. He also started a GoFundMe campaign to raise $1,000 to cover payroll and overhead. He gave people 60 days to commit.

"And we were expecting that it would probably kind of trickle in over maybe the next 15, 16 days or something like that. And about 12 hours later, when we checked it again, it was overfunded even."

Francis said Lander has always been supportive of its small businesses. But $1,000 won't help if the quarantine keeps him closed for too long. At some point, he said, he'll definitely need some additional help from the government to survive, he said.

Francis isn't the only one. Wyoming has a lot of unemployed workers and many of them are self-employed like him. Ty Stockton is with Wyoming's Workforce Services, and he admitted there's a lot of unanswered questions.

"We're waiting on that guidance from the Department of Labor," Stockton said. "I really can't give you a timeframe on it. I'm hoping it will be soon, as soon as possible. There's a lot of people out there who are looking for help and the quicker we can get them help, the better off everybody will be."

Stockton said he's never seen anything like this before, not even when so many coal miners were laid off a few years back.

"It's all hands-on deck," he said with an amazed laugh. "The Unemployment Insurance Division is working as fast as they can, putting in quite a bit of time on weekends and after hours. Almost doubled the size of the call desk for folks to call in. Yet, we're still seeing long hold times on the phone."

That's why Stockton recommends people apply online.

According to a Wyoming Workforce Service's report, back in early March only about 500 people were filing brand new unemployment claims. Then by March 21, it quadrupled to over 3,700. The week after that, 4,700. It's now up 800 percent since the beginning of March. At first, it was mostly service industry workers getting laid off, especially in Teton County. But now the state is seeing unemployment claims from across its industries: construction, education, even healthcare.

Julia Wolfe with the Economic Policy Institute, a national organization, said Wyoming is especially vulnerable because it's a tourist destination and a lot of the state's economy relies on the leisure and hospitality industry. She said these unprecedented numbers might actually under-represent the reality.

"You're only counted as unemployed if you're actively searching for a job, and if your entire industry is closed down, you're not going to be actively searching for a job," said Wolfe.

She said by July, Wyoming could have 37,000 people laid off.

But this data also doesn't count Wyoming's undocumented workers who are getting disproportionately laid off in the state, especially in Teton County, because they're not eligible for unemployment. Wolfe said, it's for families in all these heavily impacted groups that policy leaders need to act and act swiftly.

"They should also absolutely be protecting all these vulnerable communities who are already vulnerable, just by beefing up spending on benefit amounts for SNAP and TANF," said Wolfe. "And governors can also be taking important steps to make sure that people aren't overburdened by their rent and utility payments."

Wolfe calls this investing in a public debt and said the government needs to pay that debt to keep as many Wyomingites on the payroll as possible. That way there's an economy waiting for them when the pandemic is over.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Melodie Edwards, at medward9@uwyo.edu.