EAU CLAIRE — With three sources of income, Barbara Eckes thought she was doing pretty well financially when 2020 started.
She wasn’t rich by any means, but the military veteran from Eau Claire had all she needed to support her modest lifestyle.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic reached Wisconsin.
In a matter of weeks in March, Eckes’ life was upended when she lost her two primary income streams — she was furloughed from her part-time job at the Michaels craft store in Eau Claire and was locked out of the west-central Wisconsin nursing homes where, as a licensed massage therapist, she worked her magic on residents as an independent contractor.
All she had left to live on was the monthly pension of $327 she receives for her 22 years of service in the U.S. Army.
Her best hope of continuing to make ends meet was to seek state jobless benefits and, more importantly, the extra $600 a week in federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation established in the CARES Act.
In March and April, as the coronavirus began tearing through the country, Americans lost as many jobs as they did during the Great Depression and the Great Recession combined — 22 million jobs that were there one minute and gone the next.
Eckes’ hopes were dashed, however, when her application wasn’t approved and then got hung up in the adjudication process. She called the offices of Wisconsin’s governor and her state and federal representatives, but to no avail.
“It’s been a struggle,” Eckes said in June. “It’s just frustrating when you don’t know where your next dollar is going to come from.”
In May, she got called back to work a few hours a week at Michaels. The paychecks were welcome but not enough to cover all her bills.
By June she was unable to pay the rent for her two-bedroom apartment. Luckily, she didn’t get evicted because the landlord knew she was applying for emergency rental assistance from a local nonprofit agency. But that process also hit a snag, and Eckes missed her July rent payment as well and faced a $25-a-month late payment penalty on top of her back rent.
Eckes, 61, responded to her sudden hardship by cutting way back on spending.
“I’m just really watching what I’m buying,” she said. “I’m staying home a whole lot more because going out would mean spending money. Before, I would sometimes go out for dinner or grab an ice cream cone, but you can’t do that if you don’t have any money.”
Instead, she spent much of the summer watching TV and coloring in adult coloring books.
“Even when I go to Walmart, I can’t buy what I know I need because I just can’t afford it,” Eckes said. “I’ve got three shirts I can wear to work, and that’s what I wear.”
Eckes enjoyed a breakthrough the night of July 28 — more than four months after she was furloughed — when she checked her bank account online and found she had received state and federal unemployment payments for four of the weeks she was out of work.
“It was like a miracle. I was down to $60 to my name,” Eckes said. “I was just ecstatic. I felt like singing.”
The ban on almost all visitors at nursing homes — put in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus in a vulnerable population — stands in the way of Eckes bouncing back from the blow she was dealt by the pandemic.
But she also feels sorry for nursing home residents who miss her massages.
“I have one gentleman I worked with for almost three years who calls me nearly once a week and says, ‘Barb, you still can’t get in? I hurt so bad. I really need a massage.’ “
Like that man, Eckes must wait for her pain to go away. She looks forward to the virus threat easing so she can get back inside local nursing homes — and get back her life.
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