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Unemployment claims soar in Flagstaff as the COVID-19 crisis continues

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Nary a customer could be seen on Aspen Street, across from Heritage Square, during lunch hour on Wednesday, a testament to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on downtown Flagstaff businesses.

Although she was expecting it, the email Hannah Trageton received from her boss last week was not an easy one to read.

“The subject line just said ‘Company-wide layoffs and cease of normal operations,’ and my heart just kind of sunk,” said Trageton, who up until then had worked as a baker at The Tourist Home.

Even as her boss had originally told the staff he hoped to keep as many employees working as possible, Trageton said she had seen how the crisis had affected other businesses around them and heard from friends in other cities who had also been laid off.

Kevin Heinonen, who owns The Annex, Tinderbox and The Tourist Home, said between the three restaurants, they were forced to lay off about 70 employees, although they have been able to rehire some of their cooks and a few other staff members.

“It was probably the worst decision I’ve ever had to make in my life,” Heinonen said, adding the alternative was furloughing employees, which may have prevented them from filing for unemployment insurance.

But Heinonen said he thinks it was the right decision to make in order to keep the business operating and hopefully able to reopen once the crisis ends. And his businesses are by no means the only ones seeing layoffs.

Employees across the city and the state have seen layoffs or cuts in hours as businesses are either forced to close by government orders or voluntarily limit activities, all in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

According to the Arizona Department of Economic Security, applications for unemployment insurance exploded last week.

Before the crisis, the department received about 3,500 applications for unemployment insurance per week, but that jumped to nearly 30,000 last week, said DES Deputy Press Secretary Brett Bezio.

By applying for unemployment, Arizonans may be able to receive a weekly stipend of up to $240 for up to 26 weeks in order to supplement lost income.

“DES is doing everything possible to get Arizonans benefits as soon as possible, including adding staff in response to increased application volume, approving overtime (including working on the weekends), and expanding the capacity to take applications over the phone,” Bezio said in an email.

Trageton isn’t among that group. Trageton said on Tuesday she was able to find a new job, this time in the bakery of a Phoenix grocery store, but the job loss did speed up the process of moving back to the Valley in search of a lower cost of living.

But for Angi Christiansen and Lexi Ramirez, who work for Bookmans Entertainment Exchange, things are different and both said they plan to file for unemployment with the state.

According to a post on the store’s website, the store originally closed for two weeks beginning on March 17 but that closure now appears to have been extended into next month.

Christiansen, who has worked at Bookmans for 30 years, said she is preparing to be unemployed until May just in case. Christiansen’s husband also works for Bookmans and thus is not able to work.

And with two adult children they are supporting, one of whom is in college, that’s a long time to go without a paycheck.

“I mean I’m afraid, I’m scared,” Christiansen said. “I know it sounds lame, but I’m just trying not to think about it and just seeing what happens because that’s the only thing I can do. Otherwise, I panic.”

Still, Christiansen said they should be able to pay next month's mortgage and she is fairly confident they will be able to get through the crisis -- although it might leave them with no savings and potentially asking her dad if he can lend them something.

“We’re used to living frugally and we buy the things we need when they’re on sale. Also, I’m from Utah where keeping a supply of food is the norm and I’ve never been able to break that, so I have cans of beans and peanut butter,” Christiansen said. “We don’t have credit card debt because I’m afraid of that, but we might have to start having some credit card debt.”

Ramirez, a junior theater major at Northern Arizona University, said she is hoping to get a temporary job until Bookmans can reopen, potentially at a grocery store.

But in a city as small as Flagstaff and with so many people looking for work, Remirez said finding a new job will be challenging. She said she also signed up to be a driver for several food delivery services and between those, and either a temporary job or unemployment, she hopes to make enough to pay her rent, utilities and car payment, as well as groceries.

“I never thought I’d be in this position, honestly. I never thought something like this would ever happen," Remirez said. "But I understand that things happen and it’s unfortunate, and I just take it day to day and keep my faith."

A collection of the Daily Sun's coronavirus coverage

With the outbreak of COVID-19 changing nearly everyone's routine, here's a look back through the Arizona Daily Sun's coverage of the virus.

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