LA GRANDE — With businesses closing and cutting hours due to the novel coronavirus, there is some uncertainty in the ability for people to pay their bills, including rent and mortgage payments, utilities and debt payments. Some local businesses are making moves to help alleviate some fears.
Local property managers at John Howard and Associates and Century 21 are working to help those who may not be able to afford rent due to a cutback in hours or a change in their financial situation due to the mandates around COVID-19. John Howard and Associates property manager Ashley O’Toole said the key to getting through this is to have good communication about the problem.
"Right now we would rather hear a renter may be late in paying rent rather than having to hunt them down after the fact," O’Toole said. "As a property owner it is not my decision to evict people or change late fees. J. H. and Associates is not going to have an across the board policy."
Similarly, Century 21 property manager Rosa Goodman said the company will take this on a case-by-case basis and work with the owners to ensure proper communication. Goodman said there are owners willing to waive rental payments for the time being if tenants can prove COVID-19 closures affect them.
People receiving federal housing assistance also are looking for some certainty. U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) and other Democrat lawmakers wrote to the department of Housing and Urban Development asking for a moratorium on evictions. The department has yet to make a decision.
Covering the power or internet bill is another concern. The Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative announced it will suspend shutoffs in the case of those who cannot pay their bill.
"We are committed to our communities," OTEC spokepersos Joe Hathaway said. "We are owned by our members and we will do what we can to help our community."
Like the cooperative, Eastern Oregon Net Inc., La Grande, and Charter Internet Services are suspending disconnects and waiving late fees during this crisis. Charter and EONI are offering free wifi at their offices. "With everything else breaking, we don’t need the internet to be another thing that isn’t working," said Jeff Crews, vice president of EONI.
The companies are following the Federal Communications Commission’s pledge to keep America connected.
The pledge to now terminate service to any residential or small business customers because of their inability to pay their bills due to coronavirus disruptions, waive late fees because of their economic circumstances related to the pandemic and open Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them is valid for 60 days from Friday at this time.
Old West Federal Credit Union, which serves Grant, Baker, Union, Wallowa, Umatilla, Morrow, Wheeler and Harney counties, is one of many banks offering emergency loan assistance and adjustments on loans. As a member-owned cooperative, Old West FCU can offer skip days on loan payments and address issues on a case-by-case basis.
Old West CEO Ken Olson and Moran said with the advancements in technology in banking the situation is different than the financial crisis of 2008, even if there are similarities in the stock market trends. With online banking almost universally used, and ways to get money without person-to-person interaction, Olson said there isn’t a need to pull money out of accounts out of fear of not having access. Community Bank will close access to lobbies effective Monday, March 23, but Moran said there is plenty of options for accessing money.
"We began taking steps months ago to increase our cleaning frequency," Olson said. "We are creating contingency plans to make access easier and staff will start wearing gloves when handling money because money can be very dirty."
Like Old West, Community Bank is offering to help customers individually with financial difficulties that may arise as a result of job cuts. This help can include options to skip payments or extend payment dates to assist people.
"As a community bank, we are only as successful as the community around it," Bank President and CEO Tom Moran said. "Providing financial comfort or security is only going to help the situation. It is just the right thing to do."
Living in a time of COVID-19 means things can change by the hour and many of these companies said they are continuing to make contingency plans as the situation changes.