Saturday, December 1, 2007

Fire Closures Hit Working Poor in the Wallet

North County Times
By: TERI FIGUEROA - Staff Writer

When North County businesses locked their doors during last month's fires, the temporary closures left many rank-and-file, hourly employees with shrunken paychecks.

At the end of the month.

With rent coming due.

"We had to ask my husband's boss for money to pay rent," said Lorena Castellanos. "It's hard, but what can you do? You can't stop time and ask for another week to make up (for the money we lost)."Her husband works in construction. She works in a Fallbrook nursing home. And on top of raising the couple's 3-year-old son, Lorena Castellanos also attends school full-time to become a licensed vocational nurse.

Finding out how many businesses closed during the fires ---- and thus the number of people with smaller paychecks ---- is difficult, said Gary Knight, the head of the San Diego North Economic Development Council.

He noted anecdotally that while one shop may have stayed open, a neighboring business was often shuttered for a few days.

"There is no reporting system," Knight said.

"There is no central collection service to indicate this kind of data.

"One clue may be to look at the unemployment claims made, he said.

By Tuesday, about a month after the fires began, the state's Employment Development Department had received nearly 6,600 unemployment claims from people who cited the blazes as the reason they were out of work, said Kevin Callori, a spokesman for the department.

Of that number, about 12 percent ---- 789 applicants ---- qualified for the Disaster Unemployment Assistance program, which comes from federal coffers, Callori said.

Since the wildfires, about 512 of those disaster-assistance applications have come from San Diego County. San Bernardino County had 228 people apply for the aid, and Riverside County had 16 such applications, Callori said.

Like the Castellanos family in Fallbrook, many of those affected by the loss of work are people who "really can't afford any interruption in income," said Katherine S. Newman, a professor of sociology and public policy at Princeton University in New Jersey. "It immediately plunges them into trouble.

"Newman's new book, "The Missing Class," highlights the challenges facing a class of people often dubbed the "working poor," or people just above the poverty level ---- those who earn between $20,000 and $40,000 a year.

After the fires, people in such situations can become the "collateral damage of a geographic disaster," Newman said in a telephone interview earlier this month.

What of, say, substitute teachers in Oceanside or Carlsbad who were stuck at home when school districts shut for the week? What of day-care workers who missed out on a week's pay because the child care center that employs them shuttered for the week? And the mom who had to skip work because the schools and day-cares were closed? Or the construction worker who saw much-needed work dry up for the week?

Some, it turns out, may qualify for unemployment checks from the state. But for those who don't, there may be little recourse to recover lost wages.

Professor Arnold Rosenberg at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego said that, generally speaking, employees are not entitled to be paid for hours they did not work.

It may mean tough times for families like the Castellanoses, who will have to stretch their pay in this, the costly Christmas season, to cover the hole in their monthly income.

"We still have the same amount of bills, just less money coming in," Lorena Castellanos said. "That payback will hit now."

"There is tremendous vulnerability in natural disasters," said Newman of the economic crisis confronting the "missing class." "I think it inspires a feeling of frustration, like pushing a rock up a mountain, and every time you are at the top, it tumbles down on top of you.

"For instance, Newman said, people in the working class make too much to qualify for the usual help available to those in poverty. These are people, she said, who work hard and earn money. But savings? For people in this "missing class," people living paycheck to paycheck, who has money to set aside?"

Their struggles don't provide them a buffer or safety net that is very strong," Newman said. "Any type of disaster will dash them down.

"For the lucky few, there may be some relief from the state through the disaster assistance program. It boils down to an unemployment check to cover lost wages due to the fires.Among those who may be eligible for unemployment checks are those who were supposed to begin jobs that wound up disappearing when the fires raged. The unemployment program also covers people who were injured in the disaster and left physically unable to work.

Other people who might qualify are those who were "unable to reach work because of the disaster," which is the phrase the state's Employment Development Department used in a press release Oct. 26.

Because eligibility for help is determined on a case by case basis, it is difficult to say if assistance is there for workers whose place of employment in, say, Valley Center may have been open, but unreachable because authorities were keeping folks from entering the evacuation areas.

Also unclear is whether unemployment checks would be available for employees of businesses outside the evacuation area that closed up shop the week of the fires.

So Callori, the employment department spokesman, has a simple piece of advice: "We tell people to apply if they think they qualify."

The deadline to apply for the Disaster Unemployment Assistance program is Monday.

To learn more about unemployment assistance through the state, go to The information is available in English and Spanish.Residents can also apply directly online at, or by calling toll-free (800) 300-5616 for English; (800) 326-8937 for Spanish; or (800) 815-9387 for TTY for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Contact staff writer Teri Figueroa at (760) 631-6624 or

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