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Unemployment in three-county region triples from rate before pandemic

The unemployment rate in Gregg, Rusk and Upshur counties was three times higher in April than it was in February as the new coronavirus global pandemic continued to cost jobs, according to a report from the Texas Workforce Commission.

The commission reported Friday that the unemployment rate in the Longview Metropolitan Statistical Area reached 12.3% in April with 11,000 residents between jobs. It was up from 5.7% in March — which saw only a partial effect of the pandemic — and up from 3.1% a year ago.

The numbers have been rising since the commission reported a 4.1% unemployment rate for the Longview MSA in February and as a consequence of Gov. Greg Abbott imposing restrictions on business activity to prevent the spread of the COVID-19. Those restrictions now are being lifted in stages.

The Longview MSA figure for April is lower than the statewide rate of 12.8%, its all-time high as the Texas economy lost about 1.3 million nonfarm jobs. Texas set its previous record of 9.2% in November 1986 as it reeled from its last major oil bust, the Texas Tribune reported.

“These numbers from the Texas Workforce Commission reflect the measurable impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the Texas economy,” Robert Johnson, executive director of the Gladewater Economic Development Corp., said in a statement. He said GEDCO will “tirelessly continue our economic development efforts aimed at the recruitment of new business and the retention of existing business both in Gladewater and East Texas as a whole.”

“We hope to reverse the unfortunate trend as outlined in this jobs report by addressing not only business recruitment and retention but also skills development in order to maintain a strong and ready workforce,” Johnson said.

The numbers came as no surprise to Gilmer City Manager Greg Hutson, who also said most of the major businesses in the city are “running strong.”

“It is not as bad here as it is elsewhere,” Hutson said. “We will weather the storm.”

Hutson and Johnson commented on a month that saw two major companies tied to the oil and gas industry slash jobs within the MSA. Fort Worth-based hydraulic fracking company FTS International Services notified the TWC on April 14 that it would furlough 59 employees at its facility at 1704 E. Whaley St. in Longview.

Houston-based oilfield services company Halliburton followed suit April 29 by notifying the commission it was laying off 233 employees at its facility at 2906 FM 349 in Kilgore with plans to shut down the site and move its operations to Bossier City.

Both companies used notifications about pending job losses to comply with the federal Worker Adjustment Retraining Notification act, which kicks in measures to help displaced workers land new jobs.

Services are provided regionally by Workforce Solutions East Texas, which maintains an office in Longview at 2430 S. High St.

“Workforce Solutions East Texas continues to serve our community and partners in these historic, but temporary, times,” Executive Director Doug Shryock said in a statement. “The fact that we’re only seeing 12.3%, while very difficult, is a tribute to Texas’ can-do attitude. We are already seeing this tide turn as we reopen our region and state.”

John Clary, executive director of the Henderson Economic Development Corp., said he hopes the economic slump is only temporary.

“I don’t know how long it is going to take to come back,” Clary said. “We are hoping it is two years or less, primarily in the oil industry. I think everybody (else) is going to be back for full employment in the short term.”

All major job industries in Texas experienced job losses in April since March, the TWC reported. They included 530,200 jobs in leisure and hospitality, 162,800 in education and health services, 148,600 in professional and business services, 62,500 in construction, 44,300 in manufacturing and 24,300 in mining and logging, which includes the oil and gas industry.

The Amarillo MSA posted the lowest unemployment rate among Texas MSAs in April with a nonseasonally adjusted rate of 8.8%. McAllen-Edinburg-Mission reported the highest rate at 18.2%.

United Way helping fill gap for Gregg County residents who lost wages from pandemic

Before the world ground to a near-halt because of concerns about the spread of COVID-19, single mom Jacklyn Boyce usually worked three or four jobs at a time.

She said she worked full time as a caregiver in home health, part time as a licensed beautician and also with a family member at a business helping sell credit card processing machines to businesses. She also recently started writing for a new East Texas book series called “The Messy Buns Diaries,” but that doesn’t make money right now, she said.

“Everyone of those jobs shut down except for the home health care job,” she said, but even there, her hours were cut as steps were taken to reduce the possible exposure of clients to the new coronavirus.

She applied for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides monthly assistance for groceries, and qualified for $150 a month. That doesn’t stretch that far, the mother of three said, and her car broke down. She’s relied on her 18-year-old son who lets her borrow his truck when he’s not working, or on her grandmother or a co-worker to get to and from work.

“It was anxiety times 10 worrying about how I was going to get all my bills paid,” Boyce said.

Then, she heard about a program initiated by the Greater Longview United Way to assist people who experienced a job loss or loss in wages or “extraordinary costs” because of COVID-19, beginning on March 17. The Greater Longview United Way continues to accept donations for the program.

Greater Longview United Way Executive Director Donna Sharp said the program provides one-time assistance up to $1,000 to help a household with rent or mortgage payments or utilities, for instance. Child care costs, if a person had to pay for child care because the child was out of school and the parent had to work, also qualify.

“We did receive some beautiful donations from the community,” Sharp said, from familiar donors and some newcomers, ranging from $20 to thousands of dollars. United Way Worldwide also provided a $15,000 grant to the local United Way from federal funds that were provided to the larger organization.

Applications for assistance are available by calling the United Way’s INFOline at (903) 236-9211. Applicants must live in Gregg County, and they must able to provide proof of 90 days of income and verification of lost wages because of the pandemic.

“What we’re seeing is people that may be living paycheck to paycheck or maybe never needed assistance before,” Sharp said, and many of them don’t know what kind of help is available to them.

“We really are trying to reach the community and let them know we do have the funds,” she said, and also direct people to agencies that might be able to help them with other needs, such as food.

Most of the needs the United Way is seeing are for big-ticket items such as rent and mortgage.

“If they can get assistance with that, their food situation is better,” Sharp said.

While she declined to discuss the total amount that has been raised, she said the program has disbursed $33,600 through earlier this week, and more money is available.

“Until the funds are exhausted, we will keep helping folks,” Sharp said.

People the organization has assisted have been “so gracious,” she said, asking only for what they need. While people can’t apply for a second assistance, she wanted potential applicants to understand that if they lost wages because of the pandemic, even if they’re back at work now, they still may apply for assistance from Greater Longview United Way’s COVID-19 fund.

Boyce said she received money to pay her rent and water bill this month, and praised the United Way’s Community Services Manager Kathy Rae for assisting her as she completed the application process.

“I can’t tell you how much weight went off my shoulders because of (the assistance from Greater Longview United Way),” Boyce said.

She has to rebuild clientele to work as a beautician again, she said, but she’s returned to work full-time as a caregiver. Still, she’s missing the overtime she previously worked in the job, and her side job with the credit card processing business hasn’t returned.

“God’s going to always pave the way,” Boyce said. “He did that with the United Way.”

Longview resident Jacqueline Roberts said her hours were cut from 40 to 32 in April working in food service for Aramark at Christus Good Shepherd Medical Center.

“That kind of hurt, because I was used to getting 40 hours plus four or five hours of overtime,” she said, and she had pressures beyond her own bills. She also was assisting her daughter, who lives with her four children in Houston, and her mother who lives in Galveston.

“It really hit me at the wrong time completely, but I didn’t know anything about United Way until I went to Longview Community Ministries to get some food and I was asking if they help on utilities or anything,” Roberts said.

Rae also was helpful and patient with her, she said.

“I turned around and told some other people that needed help to go there — don’t be ashamed to go there,” she said.

She said United Way paid her rent for May. She would have struggled to pay it on her own, she said, and it would have left her in a “predicament” with other bills. She’s hoping she’s returned to full-time status soon, she said.

“I only ask for (help) when I need it,” Roberts said.

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East Texas coronavirus cases top 2,400 with increase of 54 on Friday

Friday brought East Texas another day of increases in coronavirus cases, now topping 2,400, as 54 more diagnoses were confirmed across the 25-county region, with Titus County’s tally again accounting for the largest portion, as it had on Thursday.

At least 2,403 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in the region as of Friday evening, up from 2,349 a day earlier. No new deaths were recorded Friday, leaving the death toll at 108 for East Texas.

In Gregg County, County Health Authority A.J. Harris cited eight new cases of the novel coronavirus on Friday, raising the county’s total to 195.

Harris said 1,943 total tests had been administered in the county as of Friday, with 1,625 negative results and 123 results pending.

He reported one new recovery, bumping the total recoveries up to 58 so far. The county has had four deaths from the virus.

County Health Authority Dr. Lewis Browne said the new cases were caused by community spread and are not related to nursing homes.

He said the rise in cases can be attributed to more testing in the county, but people still should wear a mask and practice social distancing.

“It looks like with the opening up of the state, people let their guard down,” Browne said. “Instead of, ‘We’re opening up, and you need to be more vigilant so we can go back to our normal lives,’ they are not being vigilant and doing what they want to do.”

County Judge Bill Stoudt reported Friday that two of the 11 positive results received so far from last week’s three-day mobile testing in Longview were Gregg County residents.

Titus, Harrison

In Titus County, Titus County Judge Brian Lee early Friday morning reported 28 new positive cases from Thursday, boosting his county’s cumulative total to 248 cases.

The county on Thursday reported that 59 new cases had been confirmed on Wednesday and two new cases on Thursday, totaling 61 for Thursday’s daily report.

Lee, in a Facebook update, said he does not have accurate information on recoveries, but he estimated that the county has had 20 recoveries. The county has had two deaths.

Titus Regional Medical Center in Mount Pleasant reported Friday morning that it was treating 19 coronavirus patients, five more than it reported were hospitalized Thursday.

In Harrison County, County Judge Chad Sims reported two new positive cases of the virus, raising his county’s total to 230. Sims also confirmed seven new recoveries, raising that total to 67.

The county now has 140 active cases. It has had 23 deaths from the virus.

Lamar, Camp

In Lamar County, five new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed Friday, including that of a 10-year-old girl, the Paris-Lamar County Health District said.

The county now has recorded 133 total cases of the virus, with 43 recoveries and nine deaths.

In Camp County, County Judge A.J. Mason reported five new cases of the novel coronavirus on Friday, increasing his county’s total to 37. The county has had six recoveries, Mason said.

“As we enter the Memorial Day weekend, we fully expect to receive many more positive cases over the next few days. This is expected, as we know there are industry-related cases, and a large volume of tests have been conducted in recent days. As those results become available, we expect to see a high positivity rate, and many more of our Camp County citizens to be affected,” Mason wrote on Facebook. “I ask you to please continue to follow social distance and hygiene recommendations. Enjoy this holiday weekend, safely.”

Morris, Smith

In Morris County, County Judge Doug Reeder confirmed Friday morning that he had been notified Thursday night about two additional cases of the virus in his county, bringing its total of cases to 17.

“This is the fourth straight day with at least one positive reported case and the eighth reported case in the last nine days,” Reeder wrote on Facebook. “Please continue to take this virus seriously and follow responsible social distancing.”

The county has had five recoveries.

Smith County, once the hot spot in East Texas for confirmed cases of coronavirus, reported no new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, according to the Northeast Texas Public Health District.

The county’s cumulative total of positive cases stands at 198, but NET Health reported 10 additional recoveries Friday, increasing the recovery count to 152.

The number of active cases in the county was 42 on Friday, and it has had four deaths from the coronavirus.

Tyler hospitals on Friday were treating 37 patients from East Texas for the coronavirus.

May 23

May 23, 1894: Outlaw Bill Dalton and gang members Jim Wallace, Jim Nite and Judd Nite rode into Longview and robbed the First National Bank. The gunfight that followed at Fredonia and Bank streets was one of the Old West’s biggest, with 200 shots fired and two deaths.

Gregg County schools to get almost $5 million in federal stimulus funds

Gregg County school districts are set to receive almost $5 million in federal funding this summer related to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Texas will distribute most of a $1.29 billion federal stimulus package to districts this summer, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced this week.

State officials told school districts in March there would be no financial penalties for attendance declines as COVID-19 fears spread and school districts were required to close their buildings. Now, Texas has decided to use its share of the federal stimulus package to fund that promise, distributing 90% directly to districts based on their student poverty rates, aiming to forestall layoffs and budget cuts.

Houston ISD, the state’s most populous, will receive the highest award of $81.7 million. In Longview, Longview ISD will receive the most funding at $2.09 million, while Pine Tree ISD is set to receive $963,000 and Spring Hill ISD will get $262,000.

On top of the federal stimulus money, Gov. Greg Abbott and state lawmakers agreed to reimburse all school districts for up to 75% of their pandemic-related expenses to date, using money from a federal grant awarded to Abbott’s office. School districts statewide have spent about $392 million on COVID-19 expenses.

School districts in Texas are funded based on student attendance, meaning the statewide school closures could have been a major financial hit. “With school closed to in-person attendance for nearly a third of the school year, generating the remainder of that entitlement would be impossible without us stepping in and making some changes,” Morath said Thursday.

States are allowed to use the federal stimulus funding to offset budget holes. “Federal guidance explicitly authorizes it as a way for states to sustain their school finance system, as long as net state funding remains above prior years,” Morath said.

Texas school districts will be able to apply for their portion of the stimulus money in June, according to the TEA, and will have considerable flexibility spending the money on costs such as providing mental health support and buying technology for students. They can use it to cover expenses dating to March 13.

Morath warned school officials to be cautious about how they spend the money. “The economic damage from COVID-19 is substantial ... and we just don’t know what will happen in future years,” he said. “I just think it’s wise that we don’t take actions now that make future actions more painful.”

Texas is requiring districts to use some of the money to offer services like tutoring and counseling to all private nonprofit schools within their boundaries, in line with recent controversial guidance from U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

School districts receiving federal money for their poorest students have always had to use a portion to provide services for low-income students attending private schools in their boundaries. DeVos’ new guidance expands that requirement to all students attending private schools in their area, regardless of income. The TEA will send out more guidance on how this policy will work.

Schools incurred a number of unexpected expenses as fears of COVID-19 shut down school buildings and forced them to hurriedly draw up plans to teach students from afar. They bought Wi-Fi hot spots and Chromebooks to hand out and offered free meals to families, sometimes beyond what the federal government had agreed to reimburse.

Texas’ leaders mandate this week that all agencies cut 5% of their budgets explicitly excluded public schools. But the pandemic has decimated the state’s sales tax and oil revenues, concerning school officials who want to know what they should expect long term.