It’s tough enough to deal with the economic fallout from the coronavirus. Then there’s the frustration of applying for state and federal relief.
Many rural businesses in Alaska, as well as non-profits and those who make their living from the sea, have found the help that’s been offered, very unhelpful — so tangled in red tape, that it’s impossible to access.
Shirley Marquardt, executive director of the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference, or SWAMC, says she feels their pain.
“Why is this application so difficult to fill out? Why are you guys making this tough?” said Marquardt, about some of the frustrations she’s heard. “It’s already difficult. Don’t make it more difficult.”
She understands what it’s like to have poor internet access or be out on a fishing boat as the application deadline looms. And even if you have phone service, there’s often no information about who to call and how to work around glitches in the system.
And Marquardt says the process is anything but simple. She’s sat through hours and hours of teleconferences and phone calls, only to emerge confused and frustrated herself. That’s why SWAMC is using money from the U.S. Department of Commerce to set up a “Forward” program for the communities it serves in Bristol Bay, Kodiak, the Aleutian and the Pribilof regions.
Marquardt says it’s surprising how much help there is available through loans, grants, tax deferrals and other programs. And now, she says, it’s all at your fingertips on the SWAMC website, right on the front page.
“Super easy,” Marquardt said. “You go to one screen and everything that’s available comes up and it shows you what you’re eligible for, what you might be eligible for and what you’re not eligible for.”
Marquardt says it also helps to compare programs. For example, one form of assistance might disqualify you from another that might be more beneficial.
But the Forward program involves more than just a website.
“It is one-stop-shopping with a helpful voice at the other end of the phone line,” Marquardt said. And that voice is Keri Scaggs, hired to return every phone call.
“I respond as quickly as I can, because people are nervous,” Scaggs says. “They’re scared. They’re wondering what the future is going to look like, and I think it makes a difference for them to hear a voice that seems to care.”
Normally when there’s state or federal help available, Scaggs says she travels to communities and spends time with people, one on one, to help them apply for programs. But since the advent of pandemic and social distancing, everything has to be done online, a process that’s not user friendly to begin with — and even harder for Rural Alaskans.
“They feel disconnected and cut off as it is,” Scaggs said. “When they get a live person on the phone and hear a voice that will listen to their story and listen to their needs, listen to their fears, it does bring some comfort, even if I can’t always solve their problem.”
But Scaggs says, if she can’t answer your question, she will at least research it and get back to you, in hopes she can save you a step, or point you in the right direction. She’s also available for calls during the evening and weekends.
Shirley Marquardt says the COVID-19 relief application process only heightened longtime frustrations about poor internet access.
“This is a huge drawback for anything we do in this region,” Marquardt said. “We’ve been screaming for expanded broadband for a very long time, and it’s things like this that prove why we need it.”
Marquardt also has advice for those who aren’t tech savvy: Let family members log into the Forward program to find out what help is available, and then start the application process.
“They can talk to you on the phone and say, ‘OK, Dad, here’s what they need next. Give me this information. Plug that in,’” Marquardt said.
Marquardt believes Forward takes “the mystery and mystique” out of the application process, because you can easily find out which program fits your needs — and with a click of a button, apply directly from the SWAMC website, www.swamc.org. The only catch is, to use FORWARD, you have to live in a community that SWAMC serves. You can reach Keri Scaggs on SWAMC’s dedicated helpline at (907) 242-4077 or email her at email@example.com.