Out of work: Families on long-term unemployment turn resourceful in face of challenges

Jeanne Fowler of Snoqualmie loads groceries into her Jeep Cherokee, which she plans to sell soon. Although she doesn
Jeanne Fowler of Snoqualmie loads groceries into her Jeep Cherokee, which she plans to sell soon. Although she doesn't really want to sell the vehicle, she thinks the price will help keep her family afloat for a while longer. 'It's way more important to have a house,' she says.
— image credit: Carol Ladwig/Staff Photo

Christmas didn't happen for Will and Carla Neiss of Snoqualmie. No money, so no parties, no tree, no gifts, no travel.

"We got a wreath on the door, at least," said Will, wistfully. "We just can't do the things we want to do right now."

Will is one of the estimated 327,000 unemployed in Washington as of November, and one of millions of Americans in long-term unemployment. Laid off from his sales position in June 2009 and medically unable to receive unemployment checks for months after that, Will has had to make some difficult lifestyle changes.

"When we were both working, we could afford everything," he said.

In the last two years, though, they've cut their home phone and cable service entirely, lowered their thermostat to 64 degrees, and reduced Internet service to dial-up, since Will still needs Internet access for his job search. Carla is working three jobs, about 60 hours a week, to help pay the bills, and they are barely making the mortgage payments on their Snoqualmie Ridge home, which they wouldn't be able to sell, anyway. Will is doing all the maintenance on their cars.

"We're watching every penny," Will said.

His unemployment checks helped, but his benefits almost dried up while Congress was debating HR 4853. This bill, to continue emergency unemployment benefits as well as numerous tax breaks through 2012, was approved by the Senate Dec. 15 and the House of Representatives Dec. 17.

The extension reassured Neiss, who had only one week of benefits remaining before that vote, but it didn't really change things for Jeanne Fowler and her family. Her husband Ben, a union plasterer, has been on unemployment since March 2009, and received what is probably his last check the week of Dec. 27.

"We haven't gotten the letter yet," said Fowler, of Snoqualmie, "but we're pretty sure it's done, because it's been 99 weeks."

The unemployment insurance program administered by the state Employment Security Department (ESD) does not cover anyone beyond 99 weeks of benefits. This includes regular, extended and federal emergency unemployment compensation (EUC).

Jeanne Fowler has also been unemployed long-term, but was not eligible to receive benefits because she was out of the country for several months in 2009, on family matters, and could not complete the required job searches.

As a "99er," Ben can still receive help from the ESD's WorkSource offices located throughout the Puget Sound Area, and Sheryl Hutchison, ESD Director of Communications, strongly recommends WorkSource to all unemployed people, especially 99ers. "There's a real skill to looking for a job," Hutchison said, and WorkSource offers many classes on resumes, interviews, networking and so on.

The Fowlers also are likely to qualify for some of the many assistance programs available, with their combined income loss. They haven't researched these possibilities yet, though.

"You don't think you need it till you're absolutely desperate," said Fowler, standing outside the Mount Si Helping Hands Food Bank.

Unfortunately, some long-term unemployed people feel the same way, and don't seek the help that is there, says Margaret Hindle, with Hopelink's emergency services. Several services are available year-round, and three different heating assistance programs are available right now, for qualifying people.

"If people have been working, they might not qualify," she said, but each program has a different income requirement. While someone might not qualify for LIHEAP, they could still be eligible for PSE Help. To find out, Hindle encourages people to call 800-348-7144, an assistance hotline for these two programs. The third program, the Salvation Army Warm Home Fund, is managed by administrators at the Snoqualmie and North Bend Police Departments.

The Mount Si Food Bank also works to connect people with the services they might need, says director Heidi Dukich, adding that the food bank does not use income to qualify its clients.

Fowler planned to look into some of the assistance programs, soon. She has been visiting the food bank only for a few months, since the birth of her son, Sage. Although she's grateful for the help, she doesn't consider her situation "rock-bottom."

"We're really happy. We have a beautiful baby boy," she said.

They also have a roommate, Ben's brother, helping to pay the mortgage, and are planning to add on to their home so they can take on another renter. They've eliminated all their luxuries -- "I cut cable when I found out I was pregnant" Fowler said -- and sold a lot of things on eBay. Ben's brother just got a job, and Jeanne hopes to be back to work as a graphic designer by the summer. Even so, they've used up all of their savings and credit, and Fowler is steeling herself to sell her car, a Jeep Grand Cherokee that should get them through a few more months.

"I hate to sell it," she says, loading groceries from the food bank into her car, "but it's way more important to have a house."

Neither the Fowlers nor the Neisses have plans to sell their homes. Both love the area and plan to stay here as long as they can.

For Neiss, that means re-tooling his career.

"I can't count on the workforce to hire me," he said, so he applied for, and received training benefits, but was unable to use them because the semester had already begun.

"So what I'm doing now is self-learning," he said. He is independently studying Web design, and building up a portfolio of Web pages, which he's doing for clients for free now, to gain experience and recommendations.

Washington's unemployment rate has been at 9 percent or higher since August of this year, the highest rates recorded this decade. With the exception of July 2010, the rate has been 9 percent or more for the last 19 months.

Long-term unemployment is a financial challenge and an emotional drain. Both the Neiss and Fowler families are fairly objective about things, but they do have their occasional down moments.

"I've lost a lot of confidence in myself," Neiss said. "It's very hard to stay confident when you keep getting knocked down."

"It is sad and depressing, but if you think about it, it's not always going to be this way," Ben Fowler said

Unemployment Benefits, broken down

Benefits are available to workers who've worked the required number of hours in the previous year to qualify. The amount of each check is calculated as a percentage of a jobless person's previous wage.

To remain eligible for benefits, recipients must complete at least three job search activities each week, and attend some training events, depending on their previous type of employment.

Unemployment benefits are distributed as one of three types, regular, extended, or Emergency Unemployment Compensation, created by Congress in 2008 at the start of the economic downturn. People progress from regular benefits, to EUC if needed, then to extended, for a total of 99 weeks of benefits.

Regular: Pays up to 26 weeks of benefits

EUC: Pays up to 53 weeks of benefits, divided into four tiers*.

Extended: Pays up to 20 weeks of benefits.

*EUC tiers how long a person has been receiving benefits, how much benefits the person could receive, and for how many weeks: The higher the tier number, the longer the person's bout of unemployment.

ESD didn't implement the tiers until absolutely necessary, which caused a 1-2 day delay in benefits checks in early December, during the computer updates.

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