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Old July 15th, 2009 #622
Joe_J.
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With the recession midway through its second year, the number of people running out of jobless benefits has reached a record high.
Just as first-time claims for unemployment insurance surged in the sour economy, final payments – made when laid-off workers have exhausted their initial benefits and all extensions – are climbing, with Mecklenburg County numbers more than double from a year ago.

As a result, more people are seeking help from already strained assistance agencies and trying to find creative ways to generate income, from babysitting to braiding hair to refinancing loans to taking on roommates.

Relief, in the form of new jobs, doesn't appear imminent, based on the latest labor statistics. The national unemployment rate rose to 9.5 percent in June, a 26-year high, with companies cutting 467,000 jobs – more than economists expected. Charlotte-area unemployment has outpaced the nation, reaching 12 percent in May. Economists expect both numbers to rise further before the end of the year.

Last month, the number of Mecklenburg County residents who ran out of unemployment benefits climbed to nearly 2,900 – the fourth straight month above 2,000 and more than double the number of people in June 2008, according to new data from the N.C. Employment Security Commission. Before the recession, the number of final payments in a single month never topped 2,000.

Among those out of benefits is Dennis Perkins, 57, of Charlotte, who filed for unemployment in December, after he was laid off from his job as a sales estimator for a Pineville company that makes metal parts for manufacturers. Because he had been with the company only six months, Perkins said, his jobless benefits were limited.

“I had 13 weeks,” he said, “and that was it.”

Compared with his annual salary of about $32,000 – or about $615 a week – Perkins said his weekly unemployment check was about $300. Besides cutting household costs, Perkins said he cashed out his 401(k) to pay off his mortgage, sparing his family the monthly payments this year.

Since getting his last unemployment check two months ago, Perkins has done several handyman-type jobs, he said, finding them by word of mouth or through fliers left in various neighborhoods. He spent one day last week installing laminate floor in a Ballantyne home.

“I'm picking up what work I can,” Perkins said. “It hasn't been real lucrative … $100 here, $50 there.”

For those who haven't found work after losing benefits, options vary. Like Perkins, many take whatever odd jobs they can find. Others borrow money from friends and family members.

“In some cases, I wonder how they manage,” said Paula Gilbert, a case worker supervisor at Crisis Assistance Ministry, a nonprofit agency that helps people with rent and utility payments. “It gets really bare bones.”

More people seek help

Through June, more than 13,000 county residents had received final payments from the N.C. Employment Security Commission this year.

With Mecklenburg unemployment reaching 11 percent in May and no dips expected for a few months, the number of people exhausting benefits likely will remain high. The 2009 total should easily eclipse last year's record of 13,729 – by the end of this month.

Displaced workers normally are eligible for up to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, with the amount and length of payments determined by the pay and time at a person's last job, said Andrew James, an ESC spokesman. The maximum weekly payment is $494, and with extensions during the recession, job seekers may be able to get up to 79 weeks of checks.

Eventually, though, extensions run out. ESC workers often refer people to their local Department of Social Services and charitable organizations, which say they have seen traffic swell dramatically in the past year.

DSS officials have said applications for food stamps are up more than 30 percent, with some applicants less than a year removed from jobs with six-figure salaries.

People without jobless benefits also seek help from Crisis Assistance Ministry, where the waiting room's more than 100 seats fill up quickly after the office opens each morning at 7:45 a.m.

Case workers at the agency say their clients often tell of refinancing loans, making deals to delay rent payments and taking other steps to raise or save money for bills and other crucial needs.

“One lady went out and got a roommate,” case worker Tiffany Bost said. “That helped.”

Growth boosts numbers

Final unemployment payments usually rise during recessions. In 2002 and 2003, payments in Mecklenburg topped 1,000 in most months before dropping to an average of 780 a month for 2004-2007.

The current recession, however, is the worst since at least the early 1980s and possibly the Great Depression, economists say. That severity plus the Charlotte region's robust population growth in recent years have resulted in the record number of people running out of benefits.

The next several weeks probably won't bring much relief. Although many economists say layoffs have slowed, most companies haven't resumed hiring. Job seekers also compete in a larger labor pool during the summer, when students, teachers and new graduates search for work.

Given that outlook, even people who haven't yet exhausted jobless benefits are searching for other sources of income.

Melinda Myers of Huntersville was a human resources project manager at Wachovia before being laid off in October. After nine years with the company, she got four months of severance pay. When that ran out, Myers, 54, applied for unemployment in March, getting 26 weeks of benefits that will run through August.

Myers' husband works full-time, and the couple has a 19-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter. Because her weekly $494 unemployment check is about one-third of her former Wachovia salary, Myers said the family has taken such steps as putting off vacations, clipping coupons, dining out less and asking the kids to put money from their part-time jobs toward their cell phone bills.
As for work, Myers said she has been teaching communications courses at ECPI College of Technology and working part-time at a day care center for dogs.

“It's a big balancing act,” she said.

Sue Kingrey of Pineville also was laid off in October after four years as a senior interior designer at Office Environments, a corporate furniture dealer. She began collecting jobless benefits in November, exhausted her 26-week allotment in May and is halfway through an extension.

Still seeking a job and unsure if she'll get another extension, Kingrey, 46 and single, said she and two friends started their own business. Change of Space helps homeowners and business owners reduce clutter or prepare homes and offices for sale, she said.

“We see that there is a need out there,” Kingrey said. “We just need to go get it.”
http://www.charlotteobserver.com/408/story/831920.html
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