As a union stagehand for many of Houston’s theatre productions, Oak Forest resident Kenn Coplan said he prides himself on always being prepared for the unexpected.
But he’d just as well skip the spectacle that is now unfolding, shuttering Houston’s Theater District as well as thousands of other businesses in the city. Along with 10 million others in the U.S. over the past two weeks, Coplan has filed for unemployment benefits.
His wife, Martha, a wardrobe dresser for the Houston Ballet, is out of work, too. They have a 2-year-old son.
“One half of our income disappeared,” Coplan said.
People all over the city, state, country and world are dealing with the collateral damage caused by COVID-19, the upper-respiratory disease caused by the new strain of coronavirus, and area residents have not been immune. The pandemic has infected more than 1 million people worldwide and had a devastating economic impact on many more.
Coplan said he and his wife hope they can return to their jobs in August or September. He has been trying to get in touch with their health insurance provider to make sure they are covered but hasn’t yet been able to get answers.
When he applied for unemployment benefits, Coplan said there was about a week’s delay to get into the system because of a glitch with the PIN number. Now, he’s just waiting to see when he’ll get his benefits as well as stimulus money from the CARES Act, otherwise known as the coronavirus aid package.
“Right now, we’re OK,” Coplan said. “We’re artists, so we have projects to work on. We’re trying to make masks and find gloves. We can help each other to (reduce) the negative impact.”
While Garden Oaks resident Cat Theriot did not lose her job, she is trying to keep her own company afloat. In 2017, she left her corporate job in IT to launch The House Manager, a one-stop shop that offers home repair, home maintenance and concierge services to busy families.
Now, the two remodel jobs Theriot was working are on hold indefinitely, the administrative assistant she hired has gone from salaried to hourly and her project manager is sitting idle. She’s making enough to cover insurance and pay overhead costs but worries about an ongoing shutdown.
“This was the year I went all in,” Theriot said. “I was going to concentrate on sales and market concierge services in the Galleria area. I worked so hard to get where I am. I’d just like a paycheck right now.”
Her husband also owns his own business, and they both have their eyes and ears open for all the programs that help them. In the meantime, Theriot is promoting outdoor home projects people might want like painting, washing and roof repair as well as an interior virtual remodeling service that would provide virtual quotes so projects can be fast-tracked when normalcy returns.
“I hope this is a blip and we’re back in May,” she said.
Andrea Rafiei, who with husband Omid runs the Houston Sports & Social Club and also purchased The Crowbar last year in a separate business venture, said the uncertainty of the present time is stressful.
The Houston Sports & Social Club is effectively shut down with the exception of a community group on Facebook where it organizes free virtual events, including trivia nights and happy hours. While The Crowbar is still open for takeout, it is limited to weekend brunch service right now.
“We’ve gotten good support, but people are spreading their business around (and) watching expenses,” Andrea Rafiei said.
According to the editors at LinkedIn, hiring in Houston was down 4.3 percent month-over-month in March. That figure is no surprise to Oak Forest’s Kimberly Antley, who has been doing contract public relations and marketing work since 2018. Recently she’d gotten two call-back interviews for promising full-time work.
But the jobs she was applying for have since been eliminated.
“There’s never a good time for a pandemic, but it was really terrible timing,” Antley said.
In real estate, Keller Williams’ Dani Antelo said that since sellers are putting things on hold and listings are sitting, she is planning to offer her skills for free.
Along with Realtor Lily Jang, Antelo is forfeiting commissions on listings in which the seller is forced to sell because of the economic downturn.
“This will affect people for years and years,” Jang said.
Some bright spots
While the hospitality and energy sectors have been hit hard, some industries are still humming along.
Oak Forest’s Rose Mary Cruz is a sales rep for True Value Hardware who works from home anyway. She has 135 accounts in a number of states and part of her job is to make sure the pipelines are filled with products that are needed. Those include – you might have guessed it – paper towels, hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment.
“I’m busy because the goods are still flowing,” Cruz said. “The distribution centers are up and running.”
Recruiter Jennifer Sudduth, who lives in Ella Lee Forest and runs Sudduth Search LLC, said there is still some hiring going on at the executive level, especially for private equity-backed companies that generally don’t stop trying to progress during a downturn.
“A lot of people are thinking about how business is going to be different when the quarantine is over,” Sudduth said.
Yolanda Juarez, a human resource generalist for The Liberty Group, said the Texas Workforce Commission waived the five-day waiting period for unemployment benefits and that the CARES Act extends unemployment eligibility by up to 13 weeks.
Since benefits are not retroactive, she encourages people to apply in a timely manner and to be sure to put in the correct information.
“I know someone who entered that they made $19 a week and not $19 an hour and it delayed things,” Juarez said.
Juarez hopes those who are out of work will take advantage of what’s available to them.
“Some people are so new to (applying),” Juarez said. “It’s not a reflection of them.”