Snapshot of survival

Elaine Williams, Lewiston Tribune, Idaho
·5 min read

Apr. 18—At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kevin and Sunshine Brotherton worried that the loss of his job at a Clarkston boat-building plant was just the beginning of their troubles.

His income covered the majority of their family's expenses, and they didn't know how long it would be before he could return to work or when his unemployment benefits might arrive.

Even worse was the possibility that the financial instability and his boredom might trigger a relapse of his methamphetamine addiction.

"Staying here in my home, stuck in my own head, is bad news, because that's when you start getting the stupid thoughts," Kevin Brotherton said.

A year later, the Lewiston couple's worst fears haven't materialized. The economy in north central Idaho and southeastern Washington rebounded faster than other parts of the country.

Manufacturing, including Renaissance Marine Group where Brotherton works, has remained strong, partly because demand for boats soared with an uptick in outdoor recreation.

He was called back to work about eight weeks after he was sent home, and the family, who was featured in a Lewiston Tribune story last year, stayed healthy and discovered new ways to cope. Sunshine Brotherton went from being a certified nursing assistant at the Idaho State Veterans Home in Lewiston to working as a recreational aide there.

The pay is similar, but she said she enjoys the work more. She gets to do fun things with the residents, such as play games or listen to stories about their experiences.

------Another woman featured in the same story, Molly Lewis, also found the setbacks she encountered were temporary, and she transitioned to a new career.

Lewis worked steadily as a cosmetologist for 20 years until her employer, SmartStyle Hair Salon inside Walmart, had to temporarily shut down because of COVID-19.

Walmart hired her almost immediately to help fill orders that customers submit online and pick up at the store. When SmartStyle reopened, Lewis, who wasn't available for an interview for this story, remained at the retailer, earning a promotion.

------The Brothertons' and Lewis' experiences reflect broader financial trends in the region. The unemployment rate in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley was 3.3 percent in March, just three-tenths of a percentage point higher than right before the pandemic hit, according to numbers released Friday by the Idaho Department of Labor.

That doesn't mean everyone has recovered. In Whitman County, for instance, there were 23,140 people working in February of 2020, and that number fell to 21,730 for the same time this year, said Doug Tweedy, an economist with the Washington Employment Security Department in Spokane.

Most of the drop is split roughly equally between hospitality and Washington State University, the largest employer in the region, Tweedy said.

And even in the cases like the Brothertons' — where the loss of work was relatively brief — rebounding can take months.

"We were really concerned about how we were going to make it after Kevin got laid off," Sunshine Brotherton said.

His unemployment benefits didn't arrive until he was back at work. They got behind on their bills, including electricity and the $900 a month they pay for the single-wide, three-bedroom manufactured home where they live.

"We had to prioritize what was the most important: feeding our family or paying the bills," Kevin Brotherton said. "We chose feeding the family was more important."

Community resources were a huge help. Their children, Harley McNish, 14, Nevaeh Brotherton, 9, and Kevin Brotherton II, 7, got free breakfasts and lunches distributed at McGhee Elementary.

"Our landlord was very nice," Sunshine Brotherton said. "He would work with us as long as we communicate with him."

When his income was restored, they paid the rent and Avista utilities first, and then made small payments to other creditors, partly to demonstrate their commitment to satisfying those debts as soon as they could afford to.

They found big and small ways to save. Extended weekend getaways without the kids to places like Spokane were out, and so was smoking after they realized their habit was costing significantly more than $100 a month.

They cut back on food where possible, buying generic brands and switching to instant coffee.

Those strategies, however, only stretched their paychecks so far. They were within days of having their power cut off when they used their second stimulus check to cover the last of what they owed to Avista and finished getting caught up on other bills.

------A lack of money wasn't their only issue.

The Brothertons found themselves ill-equipped to help their children after Lewiston schools went to online instruction last spring.

Nevaeh and Kevin stopped doing class assignments. A school employee helped Harley in two classes where he needed to bring up his grades.

The pressure on people struggling with addiction was tremendous, and three people he knows died because they couldn't handle it, Kevin Brotherton said.

The 12-step meetings he attended as often as five times a week went to Zoom, and he found the new format didn't work as well for him. He participated on his cellphone in his car, because that was the only place that provided enough privacy.

"In person, you get that feeling of acceptance and belonging with other like-minded people," he said. "(On Zoom, I was) falling asleep, trying not to go out and get loaded."

Once the weather improved, the meetings migrated to parks, and members gathered for fishing expeditions and golf — activities they have continued.

"That's my medicine," Kevin Brotherton said. "That's how I stay clean."

------Moving forward, the Brothertons said they plan to use the discipline they developed during COVID-19 to help them make their future more secure.

Instead of taking trips, they're saving money. Sunshine Brotherton is starting to think of going back to school, perhaps to train as a counselor to help those battling addiction. They're hoping a different home is in their future too.

"We figured if we're going to be paying (rent), we might as well work on our credit and get it up so we are able to have a place that will always be ours," she said.

Williams may be contacted at ewilliam@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2261.