Unemployed workers waiting to enter a career fair


The Real People Whose Lives Will Be Turned Upside Down If Congress Doesn’t Act In The Next Three Weeks

Lillian Humphrey is 62 and has worked for at least 40 of those years. But she had to leave a job at the beginning of the year after she was diagnosed with osteoporosis and could no longer lift the heavy equipment as required by the position. She’s been relying on unemployment benefits to get by since May, “which enables me to know my bills are being paid and I’m not going to lose my house,” she told ThinkProgress. But she and millions of other people who have been out of work for 27 weeks or more will be cut off unless Congress acts by the end of the year.

That’s because the federal program, which offers benefits after the typical state cut off of 26 weeks, is set to expire and would have to be reauthorized. Democrats have pushed to extend it as part of the budget conference begun in the wake of the government shutdown, and to that end they will hold a hearing on the long-term unemployed on Thursday. But Republicans are indicating that they aren’t likely to support an extension.

For Humphrey, losing the benefits will force a number of tough choices. She is the sole provider for herself – “Nobody helps me pay my bills,” which are few, she said. She’s been “desperately applying for jobs,” putting out more applications than required to receive benefits every week. But she suspects that her age is an impediment to getting a new job. “I’ve been on interviews where people don’t know how old I am or haven’t figured out how old I am, and then you can see the look on their face when they come out to greet me that I’m not something that they would be interested in,” she said. “It hurts, after a couple of times seeing that, it hurts.” Now she puts the year she started working on her résumé and tells people her age when doing phone interviews. “When they see that I’m old, then I don’t hear back from them,” she added.

If the extended benefits disappear at the beginning of the year and she isn’t able to find a job in time, she will likely have to tap into Social Security. But those benefits will be less than unemployment, so even if she goes that route she would at least have to work part time. On top of that, her family has a history of heart problems and she has to watch her high cholesterol, so employer-sponsored health insurance is particularly important to her. “I would prefer to work and get some benefits,” she said. “I don’t want to retire early.”

Humphrey’s ability to keep looking for full-time work thanks to receiving unemployment benefits isn’t an anomaly. A 2011 study from the Joint Economic Committee found that those who are eligible for benefits spend more time job-hunting than those who aren’t. It makes sense: Maurice Emsellem, program director at the National Employment Law Project, pointed out that much of job hunting is done on the internet, but those without the income from the benefits may cut back on internet service. They may not have the money to pay for the gas to get to their interviews. “There’s a lot of decisions you have to make in terms of your job search when you have very limited income,” he said. Benefits also offer “peace of mind that puts you in a better frame of mind to go out and sell yourself,” he added.

They can also help people pursue careers they want rather than taking whatever low-wage jobs might be more available. Alan, who asked that only his first name be used, has always worked as an accountant, but he’s been out of work since the middle of March. He’s applied to accounting jobs, but has only had two interviews. “It’s been rather discouraging,” he said, so instead he’s decided to try getting into a different area: teaching English. He’s been volunteering to teach English for nine years, but is hoping to take advantage of some workforce training to help enter the field in a paid position. If federal benefits aren’t extended, however, it would likely mean letting go of the dream. “I do have some savings, but if I don’t get work after that training then it could get pretty serious,” he said. Without the benefits, he would instead likely move to a different state to stay with a friend.

He may face what many people who have been out of work for a long time face: odds stacked against them in getting a new job. Studies have found that the long-term unemployed are much less likely to be viewed as a qualified candidate or to get calls for interviews than those who haven’t been out of work for as long.

John De Marchi is also struggling to find a new job, but with the benefits he’s able to focus on looking for work in the career he’s worked hard to enter. He spent four years in college, two years doing internships, and three years working as a 3-D video game artist before getting laid off when his company was bought. He supports himself and a friend who lives with him, paying all of the bills. “Having the unemployment benefits is pretty much the only way to keep my household running,” he said. Losing them would be “pretty much devastating to my ability to actually continue my career,” he added, since he would instead have to take any work at all, likely going back to a sales job – although he noted that even those may be hard to come by.

The loss of benefits for long-term unemployed workers would not just disrupt career paths, but it would mean serious financial hardship. The extension benefits average just $1,166 a month, but that’s a vital lifeline for many. Unemployment benefits keep more than a million and a half people out of poverty. When they run out, the majority report that their families are economically impacted. According to a survey of the unemployed by Rutgers University, half those who had been out of work for more than two years said they cut back on doctor visits, 60 percent borrowed money from family and friends or sold their possessions, and one in five moved in with others to save money. People receiving unemployment benefits are already “stretched to the limit financially,” Emsellem said. “So you pull the extension out from under them, and that’s their lifeline.”

Humphrey knows this. She needs a certain amount of income to survive and is willing to take most any job. “All my job career was in customer service and administrative assistance, which is what I enjoy,” she said. But she’s up for branching out to new industries. “I’m a good learner. I’m willing to learn anything.”

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