David Schaffert, Thurston Chamber President/CEO, and Michael Cade, Thurston EDC Executive Director. Photo by Heather Harris, Elements Photography, courtesy of the Thurston County Chamber.

In the first weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, Abigail Blue got a call from her friend, Phil Owen, the executive director of Sidewalk, an Olympia nonprofit that helps people experiencing homelessness to transition off the streets and into housing.

As the pandemic advanced, Owen’s entire core of volunteers, most of whom are over 65 and fit the at-risk profile, had disappeared. The organization had just three full-time employees, not enough to provide the essential services that are more critical than ever for vulnerable local citizens.

Blue, the senior associate director of Strategic Initiatives at Pacific Mountain Workforce Development Council (PacMtn), sprang into action. Partners at ResCare connected with youth ages 16 to 24 who were interested in doing social work. PacMtn’s Jeannie House reached out to clients on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and found another candidate.

Within 24 hours, Sidewalk had three more full-time workers and was able to house 30 people.

“We’ve all showed up with rolled-up sleeves and willing hearts, ready to do what we can to help,” Blue said. “If there were previous barriers between agencies, those are all down. We have an incredibly compelling shared purpose: To help our community members and our businesses and buoy each other through this period.”

Those partners include the Employment Security Department, ResCare, regional chambers of commerce and economic development councils, the Washington State Department of Labor, Timberland Regional Library, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, and local colleges.

Lee Childs, a senior program specialist at PacMtn, is responsible for the regional Rapid Response team. “Any time I hear that there’s a layoff or going to be a closure, my job is to pull everyone together,” Childs said. “Right now, people are getting laid off left and right.”

The team’s goal is to support jobseekers to find another position while helping businesses create strategies to mitigate or avoid layoffs. Although many industries are letting workers go, some of those deemed essential by Gov. Jay Inslee are hiring. Health care, delivery services, grocery, and shipping logistics companies are rapidly upscaling their workforce, Blue said: “There’s this huge shift in the labor market where people who used to work in restaurants may now be employed driving food deliveries.”

PacMtn also helps direct people to a web page created by the Thurston Chamber of Commerce that explains how to apply for unemployment. “It’s a step-by-step guide for how to create an account,” Childs said.

The Employment Security Department is seeing an exponential rise in unemployment claims. Nearly 600,000 Washington residents had filed within the first few weeks of April, with 43,676 of those claims filed in the five counties PacMtn serves. To address the need, the agency has hired more staff and extended its hours. When people call, after an initial triage to determine basic needs and goals, the team helps applicants set up a WorkSource account so they can apply for new jobs.

Adults over 24 years old are directed to Career Path Services; those between 16 and 24 are funneled to ResCare. “They have case managers helping with barrier removal, like if you have a transportation issue or need help with your resume,” Blue said

For employers, a different type of support is available through the Thurston Chamber of Commerce Business to Business (B2B) services. “When the crisis hit, there needed to be a really quick shift in the types of services being provided,” said Thurston Chamber President David Schaffert. “On the contractor side, it switched from developing higher level conversations to creating system support within WorkSource.”

One option for employers looking to retain employees is the shared work program, which allows employees to split hours. They then are referred to WorkSource at the county level where they are connected to other area employers who also may be offering reduced hours.

The Chamber also helps businesses navigate federal, state, and local assistance systems. “We are the conduit for direct referrals to those resources as well as having subject matter expertise on each of the Small Business Administration products out there,” Schaffert said. “If a business has a question, we’re able to help them explore the best option for them.”

The Greater Grays Harbor Chamber and Economic Development Council also is working with PacMtn to coordinate a response. “They’re a great resource,” said CEO Dru Garson. “We’ve had a huge volume of unemployment claims. Programs or assistance that we have from PacMtn help our folks get back to work or at least get the services they need during this transition time.”

Meanwhile, another PacMtn partner, the Thurston Economic Development Council, is finding a silver lining amid the chaos wrought by COVID-19. “We’ve created unique partnerships in Thurston County for entrepreneurs,” said Executive Director Michael Cade. “Now let’s use it to get to work and make sure that when the economy does turn around, businesses have the tools and knowledge and expertise to take advantage of it by being quickly back up to speed.”

The EDC has established a Business Resource Hotline that divides callers into a three-tiered system based on needs. Some are looking for immediate assistance or answers to specific questions; others desire technical assistance; and a third tier is interested in long-term mentorship, counseling, or other business-development systems. It’s also helping administer $500,000 in grant funding for small businesses through the City of Lacey, as well as a set of $65,000-per-business grants through the Washington State Department of Commerce.

Once the economy reopens, Childs believes some of the lessons and practices learned through will last. “We’ve learned how fragile our economic status is,” she said. “What’s important is caring for one another, doing teamwork to support one another’s roles. We’re learning how to make ourselves more flexible and broaden our capabilities to be supportive.”