An estimated 1,200 people have sought unemployment benefits in the Joplin, Mo., area after their workplaces were damaged or destroyed by a deadly tornado two months ago, according to the local chamber of commerce.
The number of jobless needing government aid could have been even higher, but some businesses have continued to pay their employees until their facilities can be rebuilt.
The death toll from the May 22 tornado rose to 160 when the local coroner confirmed this week that an 85-year-old man died at a nursing home July 8 from injuries suffered in the tornado. The twister damaged or destroyed about 7,500 residences and as many as 500 businesses, according to city officials.
About 5,000 people lost their workplaces, but about 3,500 of those have been kept on the payrolls - either by working at other locations, performing different tasks or simply waiting for their businesses to reopen, said Kirstie Smith, a spokeswoman for the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce.
Among them is Anthony Shipman, who said his employer, a beer distributor, gave him a week's salary plus other aid despite sustaining tornado damage so that he could deal with his living situation because his apartment was destroyed. Shipman also worked part-time as a bartender at a Pizza by Stout, a popular local restaurant that was destroyed by the tornado. Shipman ran the pizza joint's Facebook site, which has been inundated with comments from loyal customers pleading for the business to reopen. But that appears unlikely to occur.
Casey Cusick, who managed the restaurant with his aunt and uncle, said they have decided not to reopen Pizza by Stout. Cusick said the restaurant had about 30 employees, and he is among those who have filed for unemployment benefits as a result of the tornado. Cusick, 31, said he is planning a career change and taking courses at Missouri Southern State University.
"I've put may resume online," he said. "I don't want to do retail or restaurants, I'm just trying to find a good job."
Tracking the exact number of people left jobless by the Joplin tornado is difficult because of the way unemployment benefits are administered. The state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations cannot distinguish how many of the people receiving traditional unemployment payments from the Joplin area are doing so because of the tornado, said agency spokeswoman Amy Susan. The department also oversees a program called disaster unemployment assistance, which provides benefits to jobless disaster victims who do not qualify for regular unemployment benefits. That program had about 450 claimants from Jasper and Newton counties earlier this month, according to records provided to the Associated Press.
The chamber of commerce attempted to include people covered by both unemployment programs in its estimates of 1,200 people seeking jobless benefits, Smith said.
The chamber so far has raised about $500,000 for a long-term business recovery fund, which it plans to use in the future to help businesses equip themselves for reopening after they have exhausted insurance proceeds, bank loans and aid through the federal Small Business Administration.
"Certainly, this will have an effect on the business climate in Joplin long-term, but what we are hoping is the businesses that do commit to Joplin - do re-open, do rebuild - are going to be stronger," Smith said.