Thursday, June 03, 2010

For ‘99ers,’ a job can feel like a mirage

They call themselves “99ers,” because they have exhausted the maximum 99 weeks of unemployment benefits.

Their savings have been depleted, along with their dreams of a comfortable financial future. In many cases, their credit is shot too after years of living on the financial edge and relying on plastic to cover the most basic expenses.

They have lost many things: homes, cars, valuables, relationships, health insurance, even the cell phones and computers that provide the lifeline to the one thing they need most — a job.

For some, it is any job — a job washing dishes, cleaning toilets or taking orders at McDonald’s. Others, even in the face of such dire financial hardship, still refuse to accept a menial job that offers far less money — and respect — than their previous positions as managers, teachers, architects or administrative assistants.

Desperate for work, some 99ers, such as Florida native Diana Johnston, have gone back to school in the hopes that they can reinvent themselves as nurses or technicians. But the cost of education deters some, including 35-year-old Jeremy Hawking, who questions the wisdom of taking on more debt when he is already struggling to make ends meet.

The 99ers lost their jobs in mid-2008 or before, meaning they were among the earliest victims of a tenacious recession that took hold in December 2007. Yet they could be among those who will have the hardest time getting a new job even now that companies have warily started hiring again.

That’s because being unemployed can build on itself as people lose the financial means to apply for jobs or go to job interviews, get worn down by the stress of being jobless and no longer have the most up-to-date skills.

As of May 1, there were around 419,000 people collecting “Tier IV” unemployment benefits — the last stage of payments before a worker exhausts all unemployment aid available under the federal unemployment extensions, according to the Department of Labor. The DOL does not have data on how many people have exhausted 99 weeks of benefits since the recession began.

The situation is especially worrisome in this recession, in which millions of jobs have been lost and few, so far, have come back. That has left employers free to be extremely picky about who they hire.

“We’re in this humongous hole, and we just hit bottom,” said Sylvia Allegretto, an economist with Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UC Berkeley. “We’re just starting to climb out of it.”

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