A sign in the window of Bearded Oregon in downtown Salem on Thursday, April 2. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Last Tuesday, with just four minutes until his 3 p.m. clock-out time, Karl Gressett heard words he didn’t expect to hear: “We don’t need you.”

Since becoming a welder five years ago, Gressett, a resident of Keizer, didn’t have trouble finding work. The last time he lost a job a couple of years ago, he had a new offer hours later.

But he said work had dried up at Pioneer Truckweld, where he helped assemble dump trucks. Gressett was shocked to find himself out of job and unsure of what’s next for him, his wife and three kids.

“I’ve applied for jobs and unemployment and I’ve heard nothing back,” he said.

Oregon, following the rest of the country, has seen record claims for unemployment since the COVID-19 outbreak that’s brought sweeping portions of the economy to a halt and threatens to do more damage.

The Oregon Employment Department saw 92,700 initial claims for unemployment benefits during the week of March 22, the most recent week it has numbers available for. That’s a 21% percent increase from the previous record-setting week. 

The department has been backlogged with claims, leaving applicants like Gressett waiting and uncertain.  

A state order has shuttered restaurants, hairstylists, retailers, tattoo parlors and other small businesses in Salem and across the state. For many, it’s not clear when they’ll reopen.

“These are the frontline of our community and they’ve been hit the hardest,” said Marion County Commissioner Colm Willis. He said that such businesses often don’t have much built-up wealth to fall back on.

When Jose Estrada opened Primos Barber Shop in Keizer two years ago, he realized a dream to own his own business. He said they offered classic barbershop services like hot towels and straight razor shaves. He said they also offered facials and steam treatments.

Since opening, the number of barbers and stylists in his shop rose from two to seven. He said it grew out of its old building and moved to its current location at 4468 River Rd N.

“We were doing pretty good until this hit,” he said.

A week before a government order closed barbershops and other businesses, Estrada said he met with staff to discuss what to do. He said the mood was sad and nobody anticipated the outbreak would be so severe.

But he said they agreed it was time to close over concerns the personal contact their services required. He described closing the shop as “surreal.”

Since then, he’s been at home with his two boys, doing yard work. He’s also been on the phone with government officials trying to find out what will be available to help businesses like him. He said his landlord is cutting him a break on rent for the store. But he said he’ll be worried if things go on like this. He just wants to be back at the place he’s used to spending so much time.

“Barbers love to be at work,” he said.

But others can’t stay home.

Melissa Stacy, of Salem, has chronic bronchitis and worries she’ll have a severe reaction if she contracts the novel coronavirus. She said she’s had pneumonia repeatedly and has had years where she only had her voice for six to eight months.

But as a single mother of two, she said she has little choice but to go to work at a Shell gas station pumping gas and working as a cashier.

She said she wears latex gloves, washes her hands, takes supplements and tries to follow social distancing guidelines at work.

“But sometimes you just can’t help it,” said Stacy, 42, describing how customers will stand right in front of her. She said another coworker was spit on.

She said she’s struggled to find childcare. One babysitter has stayed away out of concerns of passing the virus along to her elderly father, said Stacy.

But she still goes to work. She has rent and bills to pay and few options.

Since losing his job, Gressett has signed up to work with DoorDash, driving his Ford Explorer around delivering meals to cooped-up people. He said the first week he was making about $25 an hour, what he made as a welder.

But he said that more recently when he’s pulled up to wait for deliveries, he’s seen more people parked in their cars with the signature red bags used to make deliveries. Since then, he’s seen his pay drop to $13 an hour and he still has to pay for gas.

Gressett, 34, said that his old company might have work at its location in Toledo, Washington. But that’s 120 miles away.

In the meantime, he and his wife have rent and car payments to make. He’s weighing the possibility of working in Toledo and being away from his family four nights a week or commuting every day, putting a thousand miles a week on his car.

“I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I just hope we can all get back to work soon and take care of our families.”

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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