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Ellicott City flood leaves many workers without jobs

The flood waters that destroyed businesses in Old Ellicott City also left Danielle Walenga without a paycheck.

The manager of novelty gift shop A Journey From Junk and home decor retailer Junk Girl has filed for unemployment. But she knows she must find another job soon to take care of her family.

Walenga is one of the many employees who kept the quaint shops and businesses of historic Main Street running but now find themselves out of work after severe storms Sunday sent a flash flood through the streets of the Howard County town.

“I am a single mom with two small children and I have worked 60 hours to make ends meet now,” she said. “I don’t know what I am going to do.”

The two-hour storm that ravaged the old mill town last weekend left many shops like the ones Walenga manages awash with debris, mud and damaged inventory. The small business owners, who often operate on slim margins, can’t afford to pay their employees while they work to clean up the mess and decide whether to reopen. Many had just recovered from a similar flash flood that ravaged the area in 2016.

Commercial insurance doesn’t cover employee salaries during a business interruption, so the only financial reprieve workers have is to file for unemployment or ask for donations from the community. Some of the restaurants and shops affected by the storm have set up GoFundMe web pages to raise money.

The owners of Phoenix Emporium, a popular pub on Main Street, set up such a webpage for its workers.

“My employees will need your help,” they wrote. “Insurance will not cover business interruption or lost wages. They will all need to find new jobs. They will need help with living expenses, rent, car payments, etc. My hope is to provide for my employees until they can secure new jobs. Any help you can provide will directly benefit my employees. 100% of your donation will go to them.”

A group of business owners and a service industry worker also re-established a Facebook page first set up after the 2016 flood called Keep Ellicott City Working. It is a place where businesses from around the region can post available jobs.

Alex Belush, who works in the service industry, said he helped set up the page to help ease the sudden hardship many displaced Ellicott City workers now face.

“The restaurant industry is a family,” Belush said. “These are people you grow close with over time, and when times get tough you have to be there to pick each other up.”

Tammy Beideman, the owner of women’s apparel store Sweet Elizabeth Jane, said she will try to keep a handful of workers on payroll for as long as she can afford it. It took her four months to reopen after the 2016 storm, but she has moved the business to higher ground since then and said there is less damage than last time and hopes to reopen in a few weeks.

Beideman said she needs to retain workers to help her open again and so she doesn’t have to train a new staff. Plus, she likes the team she has built. It’s hard to find good loyal workers, she said.

“I don’t want to lose them,” she said. “I want them to know they can get unemployment. After that we will work as fast as we can so that we can open and they can get paid again.”

Jaclyn McIntosh, 20, has worked at Sweet Elizabeth Jane part time for a little more than a year. She will try to hold out until the store reopens, but said if it takes too long she would have to get another job. She lives with her parents so she has a place to stay. But McIntosh, who is also in school studying nursing, has other bills to pay and has to buy medicine regularly to treat her diabetes.

“Hopefully, I can live on unemployment and then come back,” she said. “I can go a little while because my parents can help me out.”

The owners of Park Ridge Trading Co. won’t be able to pay themselves or their two employees until they can reopen. Just about everything was lost at the gourmet shop that sells olive oils and jams and is now covered in three feet of mud.

“The goal is to get things back to functioning order as soon as possible so our tenants can move back in and our employees can come back to work,” Sanger said.

Linwood Boutique will have its employees work from another building until it can reopen.

The nonprofit Ellicott City Partnership raised $1.85 million for businesses in 2016 and is collecting money again. The money doesn’t go to cover the expenses of employees left without jobs. Instead, the group encourages business to set up GoFundMe fundraising efforts.

“Last time when we looked into helping out the employees, there were just so many,” said Maureen Sweeney Smith, the group’s executive director. “We just didn’t have the money or the system in place for that.”

In addition to unemployment insurance, displaced workers can find job search assistance at the Howard County Office of Workforce Development, said director Francine Trout. At its workforce center in Columbia, the organization provides resume help and career development assistance to people who are looking for jobs, and connects them with employers.

Trout didn’t know exactly how many workers had been displaced by Sunday’s flooding but said there are a significant number of job openings in the county in the fields of food service, information technology and health care.

Her message for anyone in the area who finds themselves out of work: “Contact us. We’re here to help.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Christina Tkacik contributed to this story.

amcdaniels@baltsun.com

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