Many in Summit County’s Hispanic community have fallen through the pandemic safety net
FRISCO — The novel coronavirus pandemic hit the Summit County economy harder and faster than most other places in Colorado.
After the first confirmed case in the state March 5 at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis ordered all ski resorts to close March 14, and Summit County public health officials ordered widespread business closures two days later.
As businesses shut down and the ski industry screeched to a halt, hundreds of Summit residents made a mad rush for stimulus money, unemployment insurance and rental assistance to keep their homes and survive a frozen spring economy.
One out of five Summit workers filed for unemployment.
As basic staples of life — such as food, shelter and child care — suddenly became luxuries, it was the Hispanic and Latino population in Summit County that felt the hardest economic crunch.
Before the pandemic, unemployment among America’s Hispanic and Latino population dropped to a record low of 4.4% in February, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The latest unemployment report shows that rate shot up to 17.6% in May, the highest among America’s major ethnic groups.
Compounding the already dire employment situation for many Latinos is the lack of legal status in the United States for some, making them ineligible for most forms of federal government assistance, including the $1,200 stimulus payment, unemployment insurance and additional pandemic recovery allowances from the $2 trillion federal CARES Act.
That left many without a job along with no safety net to help get through the shutdown.
Some legal residents also have been wary of accepting federal assistance. Michel Infante, program manager for the Family & Intercultural Resource Center, said a family applying for citizenship or other status through the immigration system might not be willing to risk their application being denied. They fear taking public funds could negatively affect the chances of application approval, Infante said.
That reluctance to apply for unemployment insurance or any other type of aid was reflected in the applications for rental assistance at the resource center, Summit County’s key point of contact with working families struggling to survive the pandemic. Infante pointed out that of all English-language applicants, 98% had applied for unemployment insurance. Less than 10% of the applicants who chose to use the Spanish-language form applied for unemployment.
“I think that people, regardless of status, are concerned about applying for aid or programs that benefit them now if they think it could hurt them in future immigration issues …” Infante said.
After the shutdown went into effect in mid-March, the nonprofit organization was flooded with a year’s worth of requests for aid in just two months. Executive Director Brianne Snow said most of the assistance requests initially came from white Summit residents. But more recently, after eligible workers received some form of assistance from the federal government or the resource center, Snow said about half of the 30-50 daily calls for assistance come from Hispanic and Latino families, even though they make up less than one-third of the workforce.
On their own
Adding to the woes of this vulnerable community was the shutdown of the county’s schools. That left parents who could work scrambling to find safe, affordable child care during the day while already struggling to keep a roof over their heads at night. Parents who have children with special needs were left with none of the therapy or education resources that are critical for their development and well-being.
One such parent is 22-year-old Dillon resident Neyra Lopez. Lopez has a 5-year-old son with autism attending Lake Dillon Preschool, which shut down March 16. After losing her job as a cleaner when the hotel where she worked closed, Lopez has been battling to keep her small family afloat and healthy while tending to her son with special needs.
“He receives therapy there for his autism, and he hasn’t been getting those therapies, since he can’t go to school,” Lopez said through interpreter April Kemp, a parent educator at the family resource center. “So instead of advancing, he’s been regressing. It’s really hard to be with him all the time, because even though I am his mother, I am not a specialist for his condition.”
Lopez added that trying to find another job during the pandemic was made harder by the fact that she has nobody to take care of her child while she’s at work, aside from occasionally trusting the other three adults, with whom she shares an apartment, to look after him.
Relying on friends and neighbors for a helping hand is an important part of Hispanic and Latino culture, but the pandemic also robbed that aspect of community togetherness when physical distancing guidelines went into effect.
Kemp, who has lived in Argentina, is familiar with how important family and community is to the culture.
“The separation absolutely has an impact on the families and their mental health,” Kemp said. “It has an impact, not seeing friends, not being able to visit other people. I had families who couldn’t comprehend the idea of staying at home, not being able to visit their family or share dinner. When there’s a time of crisis in their own countries, their culture has people getting together pooling their resources, and to take that away from them on top of the financial and health issues is a bit of a triple-whammy in a way.”
While Lopez is facing the economic fallout of the pandemic as a single mother, the burdens can be just as daunting for larger Hispanic families. Jacqueline Cabrera de Reyes, a 46-year-old mother of two, also lost her housekeeping job after the shutdown. She has not had a source of income since then, and her husband also has been struggling to find work.
Originally from the war-torn nation of El Salvador, Reyes said she never expected something this dramatic and cataclysmic to happen in the United States. Before the pandemic, her family of four was able to get by, paying $1,700 for rent and up to $800 a month for food. Now, those numbers seem insurmountable, even with stimulus assistance Reyes said her family qualified for.
Reyes said that since the shutdown has started to lift, the situation has not improved much for her. Hotels have reopened at reduced capacity, and the few housekeeping jobs and hours that have been made available were prioritized for staff members with seniority, which she does not have. As a result, Reyes has been able to work only part-time three days a week, making an amount that barely puts a dent in her family’s costs.
Aside from the finances, Reyes said her family also has struggled with the school closures.
“It’s just another thing that is stressful right now, is not being able to find child care facilities or other programs out there because I don’t know the requirements or how much it would cost,” Reyes said through Infante, who was acting as an interpreter. “I have a friend of mine willing to look after her children for $15 per child per day plus food. Even that is really tough to handle right now, because I’m going to work three days a week, maybe making $200. That’s almost $100 in child care, half my income.”
Fortunately, Reyes said she has been able to find resources and social support through her church community, which has helped her family out with making rent last month as well as with food supplies. She credited her faith as one of the pillars keeping her family above water during these hard times, along with members of the Summit County community who stepped up to help her.
“Thanks to God, we live in a country that is very helpful to its residents,” Reyes said. “Through the school, they provide bagged lunches for kids, while the FIRC also offers fresh food, including dairy. These resources have really helped us bring our food costs down, which is definitely helping keep my family fed and less afraid.”
But Reyes does wish communication with Spanish-speaking residents had been better from the start of the pandemic. She said she and others were confused and unsure about how to go about life as information about COVID-19 and how to get through the economic crisis was confusing or nonexistent.
“Knowledge is power,” Reyes said. “If the message was wider and more amplified to reach all of us, we could have used it as a tool to prepare for the pandemic. It would been helpful to know if I was eligible for certain programs, while trying to get information was hard because public assistance phone lines were jammed.”
Looking forward, even with the economy reopening, there will be a long road to recovering from the damage done to the fortunes of Summit’s Hispanic and Latino community.
Resource center Director Brianne Snow said the pandemic has exposed and enhanced vulnerabilities in Summit County’s economic system, hurting the people who have already been struggling the most to keep up with the area’s extraordinary cost of living
“There are huge disparities in quality of living in Summit County for Hispanic and Latino families,” Snow said. “If anything, COVID shed a light on how vulnerable this population is and how they don’t have access or understanding of resources available to them. As we go forward, they are going to continue be the people most affected by the pandemic.”
Editor’s note: This is part two of a three-part series about the impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic on the Hispanic community in Summit County.
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KEYSTONE — Summit County reported 196 new cases of the novel coronavirus over the week, according to the county’s coronavirus webpage.