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'The hits keep coming': Financially struggling Nebraskans ready for more COVID-19 relief
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'The hits keep coming': Financially struggling Nebraskans ready for more COVID-19 relief

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Ralston resident Rebecca Brickner hasn’t caught COVID-19. But the coronavirus still upended the “little independent life” she had built for herself after spending more than 25 years as a wife and a stay-at-home mom.

In February, Brickner was a healthy independent contractor who delivered auto parts. Like a lot of Nebraskans, she lived paycheck to paycheck, but she was still able to scrimp and save enough by last winter to replace her vehicle.

Then came March and the months that followed. Twice, she had to quarantine — losing weeks of pay — after being exposed to sick people.

By mid-September, Brickner was out of a job, buried in bills and hurting after a four-day hospital stay for a kidney infection and sepsis that she blames partly on stress.

“You just get hit, and the hits keep coming,” she said.

Brickner is one of thousands of working Nebraskans who’ve seen the pandemic wreck their personal finances. She and several other Nebraskans spoke with The World-Herald about the personal financial toll of the virus, which is sometimes obscured by Nebraska’s nation-best 3% unemployment rate.

They say they hope that Congress remembers them during its continuing negotiations on the next COVID-19 relief bill because, as Brickner said, most people don’t understand “how close to poverty we all are.”

She said every family living in her 18-unit apartment building has told her that they know at least one person who is losing hours, losing pay or has been laid off.

Today, Brickner has found another job, though at half the pay, and she’s grateful. She’s also received help with her rent from the Metro Area Continuum of Care — charity she never thought she would need. Her finances are still catching up.

Local housing advocates say they fear an avalanche of evictions if Congress does nothing. Last week, Moody’s Analytics warned that almost 12 million American renters will owe almost $6,000 in back rent and utilities come January.

Closer to home, nonprofits that help with housing, including Nebraska Appleseed, point to national studies of homelessness that suggest that as many as 71,000 Nebraskans could end up homeless in 2021 because of coronavirus-related economic losses.

Nicky Sullivan of Habitat for Humanity of Omaha said her organization has given out about $330,000 in mortgage assistance to about 259 families with Habitat homes this year. That’s more than half of the 515 Habitat homeowners locally, including many families with multiple generations under one roof, she said.

One Habitat homeowner who’s grateful for the help is Victoria Ford, 56, of Omaha. She said she got behind during the pandemic’s early days, when she tried to stock up with what she would need to stay at home.

She answers the phone at a heating and air conditioning company that cut her hours when demand for its services dropped in March and April. Things have since bounced back, she said, but the hole in her budget is still there.

Ford said she’s grateful that Habitat helped her with her mortgage, but she wants Congress and state lawmakers to consider making temporary assistance programs more accessible to working people who need them.

“I’m not a person who uses the system for help like that,” she said. “I’ve worked. It’s just a shame they can’t be more flexible.”

Leaders in the House and Senate, along with President Donald Trump, have debated for months about what should be included in the next round of COVID-19 relief from the federal government.

Members of the Nebraska delegation wouldn’t quantify the feedback they have received from constituents because, they said, mass mail and email campaigns can make those numbers misleading.

But they say they have heard a lot about the need for small-business relief, agricultural relief and education funds, including more money to help school districts hire substitute teachers.

Some are also receiving requests for federal funding from medical providers who lost revenue when hospital systems shut down elective surgeries and other procedures to save space for COVID-19 patients.

The entire delegation — Reps. Don Bacon, Jeff Fortenberry and Adrian Smith and Sens. Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse, all Republicans — said they are willing to consider a “targeted” COVID-19 relief package.

Most, including Fischer and Sasse, agree on the need to extend the Paycheck Protection Program, a loan and loan forgiveness program intended to help small businesses make payroll.

Smith and Bacon said they would like to see businesses receive some legal protection from coronavirus-related lawsuits. Bacon and Fortenberry also said they want to help people in need.

None have committed to a new round of stimulus checks.

“I’m proud to say that we’re very close to an agreement,” Bacon said of the $908 billion package he and a bipartisan group proposed during a conference call on Thursday. “I’d say we’re like at 90%.”

Brickner and other Nebraskans who have fallen behind on their rent and mortgage payments could benefit from the inclusion of $25 billion in rent and mortgage assistance in the Bacon-backed proposal.

Kasey Ogle, staff attorney for Collective Impact Lincoln at Appleseed, said extending and improving the eviction moratorium and adding more housing assistance is key. She said people are falling through the cracks.

Brickner said she would welcome another stimulus check before or just after the holidays, if the feds can figure out how to get one to her this time.

“I didn’t get the last one,” she said.

People also need utility assistance, advocates say, especially as winter weather drives up heating costs.

The Omaha Public Power District has received 24,311 requests for utility assistance through the end of this November. It received 19,072 requests for help paying utility bills in all of 2019, said Jodi Baker, an OPPD spokeswoman.

Much of the supplemental safety net Congress passed this spring will go away at year’s end without new legislation, Ogle said. She suggested that Nebraskans contact their elected officials and tell them what they need.

“I think part of the reason that we haven’t seen a tsunami of evictions yet is because of all this sort of patchwork assistance that has been given to folks,” she said.

Not even health care workers have been immune from coronavirus-related financial stress. Amy Ummel, 46, stewards the union representing American Red Cross workers in Grand Island.

She said she’s lucky. Her husband runs a small business, and they have found ways to cope with a month of lost pay after close contacts with some sick people trying to donate blood.

About 25 of her 40 Red Cross co-workers have lost as much work as she has, and many are hurting, including one who lost their home and another who had a vehicle repossessed.

She said several have turned to 211, a phone number operated by the United Way, to find help for their financial stress.

“Some of my co-workers on overnight shifts can’t afford to eat,” she said.

Ummel hopes that Congress will help businesses and nonprofits of all sizes find a way to pay people to quarantine or stay home when they are sick so employees can do the right thing without going broke.

Essential workers are still getting sick in the state’s meatpacking plants, transportation companies, dairies and bakeries, said Kim Quick of Teamsters Local 544 in Omaha.

“The ones who are working are carrying heavier loads,” he said. “Those who aren’t able are financially hammered. It’s really stressing the workforce and the employers.”

Hip trouble and a bum knee forced Veronica Sutton, 50, of Omaha to step back in September from her work as a certified medication aide and nursing assistant at a nursing home.

She said she could barely walk, and her doctor scheduled the first of her surgeries for Nov. 9. The day she was supposed to go in, she started showing the symptoms of COVID-19, and her doctor rescheduled the operation for this month.

Sutton, meanwhile, toughed out the chills, lost appetite, swelling, sweats and bad headaches; got better; and tried to go back to work as a temp. But she couldn’t work without debilitating pain. Then the recent coronavirus spike spurred many hospitals, including hers, to postpone elective surgeries.

“I’m supposed to be having surgery,” she said, sighing. “I’m not even getting better.”

Sutton said she’s done her best without income by dipping into savings and receiving some help from her 19-year-old daughter, who found a job paying $10 an hour.

She said she worries constantly about paying the electric and gas bills, her cellphone bill, her car payment and her car insurance premium. She’s filed for disability insurance, but that takes time.

So she’s sought temporary help, including assistance for her gas bill and a GoFundMe appeal.

The federal government’s extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits expired at the end of July, before Sutton needed it. She said she would like to see Congress do something for people COVID-19 is keeping out of work.

“They need to worry about us, working families who are struggling,” she said. “We ain’t going to have no businesses if we can’t buy anything from them.”

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