By Chris Bowling
Since the pandemic struck, Jake Greve’s paychecks have been decimated. Even as business at Nite Owl where he works as a bartender crept back from curbside to socially distanced dine in, he said his paycheck is only a third of what it was before.
That was fine when unemployment benefits were coming in. Then the $600 per week federal program ended. Then the state disqualified him from receiving unemployment benefits and has been silent on his appeals.
In all he estimates he’s lost out on thousands of dollars. Add bills from rent, incoming car payments after a fallen tree branch totaled his Jeep and other necessities, Greve said he feels trapped and out of options.
“Essentially three out of four weeks in a month I’d have to not spend any money to make rent and that last paycheck would just be groceries throughout the four weeks,” the 26-year-old said. “It’s not fun. It’s been a really tough cut back.”
Greve is just one of many people still struggling through the Nebraska Department of Labor’s unemployment benefits process. It comes at a time when Nebraska’s reported unemployment is the second-lowest in the United States and many businesses have been allowed to reopen to 100% capacity for months, despite worsening COVID-19 transmission.
After hearing little communication through the Department of Labor’s website, they’ve reported waiting hours on the phone across multiple days only to receive indefinite answers. Greve first lost his benefits in July when his weekly application was denied because he failed to show he’d applied for new jobs.
However, all his coworkers continued receiving benefits and much of the restaurant industry is in the same position as Nite Owl.
With little help from the Department of Labor, many, like Greve, have turned to state senators for help.
Senator Machaela Cavanaugh said hundreds have contacted her office in hopes that she or her aides can grease the wheels on the application processes. One person in particular still hasn’t received any unemployment, which they applied for back in March.
“[The application process] is terribly complicated,” Cavanaugh said. “The website has far more information on it than it ever should, which is really designed to make it harder to find what you really need.”
Early on senators could help shuffle people through. That’s gotten harder as of late.
“We tried a lot of different strategies,” said State Senator Wendy DeBoer. “It was most successful early on. It still usually does work, just not as quickly.”
Greve wrote a short appeal as to why he hadn’t applied for new jobs–Greve loved his job and wanted to continue learning at the Blackstone bar he’d worked at for more than two years.
After submitting the appeal he got an immediate response. They’d reviewed his materials and denied his application. When he waited on the phone with the Department of Labor for five hours, he was told a supervisor would re-evaluate his case.
“I was trying to ask, ‘When can I expect to hear back from anybody?’” he said. “‘Do you have a timeline on that?’ And they just told me ‘No.’ They just said, ‘They’ll get back to you when they get to it. They have to work with what cases are presented to them in order.’ And so it’s been a month and a half and I haven’t heard back from them.”
In that time Greve’s been unable to apply for other types of assistance, like Douglas County’s rental assistance program, which requires applicants owe rent. For Greve, paying rent has always been his top priority and now it feels like he’s being penalized for it.
“I’m still going to work as hard as I can to pay my rent, but then that puts me in a position where I can’t apply for rent relief,” he said. “I don’t have any means to change that situation for myself because I’m not willing to risk it and see if I wouldn’t be evicted.”
Greve doesn’t have to look far to see the obvious solution to his problems. Many bars and restaurants in Blackstone are operating at full capacity and eschewing social distancing. They might need bartenders.
But the solution to his financial problems would require an ethical compromise of putting himself and patrons at increased risk of COVID-19 infection.
Greve likes to think it would never come to that. But that confidence isn’t rock solid.
“I don’t want to give up on my job, and I don’t think I will,” Greve said. “And I was doing very well before any of this happened, so I’d like to see it get back to that point. But as this keeps stretching out longer and longer because of the lack of measures other people are implementing, it makes it harder to be content with that decision.”
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