CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The local United Way hopes to help those it sees as most impacted by the recent Elk River chemical leak -- the service workers who have lost part of their paycheck during the nine-county "do-not-use" water advisory.
John Ballengee, the president of the United Way of Central West Virginia, said the agency is establishing a West Virginia Emergency Fund for workers who have lost "30, 40 or even 50 hours" of work during the emergency.
The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department ordered all restaurants and bars with a health license to close following the chemical leak, which contaminated the water supply of the state's largest water utility, West Virginia American Water. A limited number of facilities have since been allowed to reopen.
"We want to be able to ask the community for support -- a neighbors-helping-neighbors kind of thing, to assist people who have lost wages as a result of the water crisis," Ballengee said. "We want to try to help them because they've lost so many hours of pay during this, and we doubt their utility bills are going to decrease just because of that, with maybe the exception of their water bill."
The fund will be similar to other utility aid funds, and will be available to help workers with water, sewage, electric, gas and other household bills, Ballengee said. Applicants will need to prove their employment status and that they lost work during the crisis, he said. If they can, they'll get a certain amount, based on their need and the amount of money the United Way is able to raise.
"The individuals that we're targeting are the folks who are working in the restaurant or service industry and are, in most cases, already dealing with limited wages," Ballengee said. "This might be a second or third job, in fact, so they're affected more than somebody whose office closed and who works for a law firm or a bank."
Ballengee said the United Way will probably have a cap on the amount it is able to disburse to each person, depending on how well the initiative is funded.
"It will be interesting to see how actively engaged the community becomes in reaching out to help each other," he said. "This is really what the United Way is all about; our focus is dealing with people's unexpected crises."