CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Relief efforts to aid workers who have seen their wages suffer as a result of water-related business closures are beginning to be organized.Businesses across the region were forced to shut down last Thursday because of the Freedom Industries chemical spill that rendered the water supply for roughly 100,000 homes and businesses untouchable.The closures have meant many workers, particularly those in the hospitality and food service industries, have lost wages from being unable to work.The United Way of Central West Virginia announced Monday it is establishing a West Virginia Emergency Fund to help those who will now be facing strained household budgets.John Ballengee, president of the local United Way chapter, said the fund would specifically help those workers pay the cost of their utility bills in the coming months."We know that the utility bills will keep coming in February, but with a couple hundred dollars in lost wages over the last four or five days, that might be tight," Ballangee said. "This is plugging that hole in the budget," he said. "When you take a couple hundred of dollars out of someone's cash flow, that creates a need. If we can help relieve nearly all or part of that out of their budget, they have a better chance of making ends meet." Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, pointed out the chemical leak comes on the heels of a cold snap that left many people turning up the heat. Those heating bills will likely come due next month. "We just had that arctic freeze and suddenly this situation with the water," Unger said. "Probably the utility bills will be higher this month than in other months because of the weather." Last year, Unger began a Warming Hands and Hearts initiative with the United Way to use private sector funds to help low-income families cover their utility bills in the winter. He said he's already talked to his constituents in the Eastern Panhandle and encouraged them to contribute to help residents of the Kanawha Valley and the surrounding areas who have been affected by the spill. Ballengee said the United Way of Central West Virginia would gather donations for the emergency fund over the next 10 days and begin providing assistance to residents in need during the week of Jan. 27. Ballengee said donations could be made using cash, check and by credit or debit card. Cash and check donations can be mailed to or dropped off at the United Way of Central West Virginia office, located at 1 United Way Square, Charleston, WV 25301. Debit or credit card donations can be made by calling 304-340-3500 or by visiting the Charleston office. Donations can also be made online by visiting the organization's website, www.unitedwaycwv.org, and clicking on the West Virginia Emergency Fund link on the homepage.
While the organization is encouraging people to donate to the fund, Ballengee said volunteers will not actively go out and solicit donations. "We will not reach out via telephone," he said. "We have sent out a number of emails announcing the fund ... but we will not be soliciting funds via the telephone." The organization is taking that step to help prevent others from being able to fraudulently solicit donations by posing as United Way volunteers.Ballengee said if anyone is contacted by someone posing as a United Way representative soliciting donations, they should report the incident to local law enforcement or the attorney general's consumer protection line at 800-368-8808.The United Way is still working on developing full details and criteria about how and where assistance will be provided.Individuals seeking assistance will be asked to provide a pay stub from within the last 30 days, verification from their employer detailing lost wages or time off as well as the utility bills they need help paying.
Ballengee said more complete information about the assistance process would be released in the coming days.***Updated: The original version of this story said the United Way could not accept donations on their website. The story has been updated to reflect that the organization can now accept donations online. Capitol reporter Whitney Burdette contributed to this report.Contact writer Jared Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4836.