Locals tighten their belts or seek work as federal unemployment benefits end

PRESIDIO COUNTY — Marfa resident Dione Acosta has been reading the news every day lately. Since the expiration this weekend of the CARES Act unemployment benefit, which added $600 in federal assistance to millions of unemployed workers’ checks, Acosta has been hoping Congress would come to an agreement on extending benefits for those put out of work during COVID-19.

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, The Big Bend Sentinel spoke with workers who lost their livelihoods during Texas’ stay-at-home order. Over four months later, many are still out of work and struggling to make ends meet. A $600 weekly supplement to their state unemployment claims provided a safety net that helped cover rent or mortgage payments, bills and groceries. As that additional income disappears, residents are grappling with a drop in income and continuing expenses.

Acosta lost her front desk manager job on March 19, when El Cosmico hotel and campground laid off staff during coronavirus closures. Since then, she’s been staying at home with her children and her partner who is disabled with underlying health issues.

Hundreds of tri-county residents, along with millions of Americans, will start seeing smaller unemployment checks since federal unemployment benefits expired at the end of July. As the expiration date came and went, Acosta knew she would struggle to make ends meet.

“It’s a little nerve wracking, due to the fact that I haven’t been rehired back at El Cosmico,” Acosta said this week, more than four months after her layoff.

“Without that extra, I can’t survive on just the unemployment. I have a car payment, cell phone bills, utilities, my kids, so I was forced to…,” she trailed off in thought. “I was hoping they would extend it and I knew they were debating it.”

Acosta’s state unemployment benefits were smaller than what she was paid at her job, especially because it was calculated based on a time in 2019 when she had cut back her work hours for health issues. “That’s why that extra bonus was so helpful. I could stay home and be healthy with my family. We could just quarantine and we were able to manage with that bonus. Now that it’s gone, it’s very nerve wracking, so it pushed me to find any kind of job.”

Natalie Melendez, another local laid off from her jobs due to the virus said the $600 was “super super helpful” but that she is not “in dire straits without it.” Melendez, also a city council member, worked at Stellina and Chinati Foundation before the pandemic; the former has not reopened and the latter is open for outdoor self-guided walking tours only.

At press time, United States representatives and senators are still debating COVID-19 aid packages but have been unable to agree on any new federal relief legislation for those unemployed during COVID-19, even as cases continue to grow and many businesses struggle to safely stay open.

Melendez is hopeful for some sort of package from the federal government. “I can’t imagine that they’re not going to do something, considering how bad off the U.S. is in terms of cases being on the rise and everything,” she said. “And it’s not totally breaking my back. I’m not supporting a family, kids, paying mortgage, etcetera, but I am helping to support one member of my family.”

For Acosta, as she watched that financial assistance dry up, it “lit a fire underneath me, so to speak.”

She interviewed for a job at a local hotel restaurant and took the subsequent job offer that arrived Tuesday. While it’s still in the hospitality industry, the restaurant aspect is “something totally different, outside of what I’m used to,” she said.

Melendez, and another local, Ian Lewis, both said they were making more on unemployment than they did at their jobs pre-pandemic. That’s one concern that politicians like Senator Ted Cruz have pointed to, suggesting people won’t go back to work if they can make more staying at home. Meanwhile, the senior senator from Texas, John Cornyn, has advocated for some federal benefit, though he has yet to define an amount.

Without the federal supplement, both Melendez and Lewis are making closer to their former income. After looking at what jobs are available to apply for in the area, Melendez and Lewis both remarked on the lack of openings and lack of jobs in their industry.

For Lewis, returning to his still-shuttered job at Stellina is not an option, but applying for other roles is off the table, too. “I’ve got health issues and they’ve been pretty bad the last few months,” Lewis said. Because of it, he’s not planning to go back to work until there is a vaccine, which could still be a year or more away.

Acosta is still feeling out how many shifts she will take at her new job, trying to balance the upcoming school year where her older daughter will be starting out with online classes at home and her younger daughter will still be at home. “The job is in the evening, which is also something I’m not used to,” said Acosta. “I’ll be very busy basically. I’ll be doing school with my daughter during the day and then going to work in the evening.”

She does feel like safety precautions are in place for the new role, which will handle to-go orders only. “You do come into contact with guests, which is kind of nerve wracking, but I’ll be sure to wear a mask and keep sanitizer,” she said. “It’s risky, but there’s nothing else in Marfa, and I will have to do something.” Still, Acosta said, “If we had that bonus I’d definitely not be working.”

Faced with the new reduction in unemployment, Melendez said of her circumstances, “It’s making each week and each money transaction very calculated, I’ll say that.”