Long-Term Unemployed Scramble As Loss Of Benefits Looms

By Chris Lehman

About 45,000 people in the Northwest will face the new year without the unemployment benefits they've come to rely on. Congress declined to extend the payments as part of a budget deal this month.

It's a monthly routine at the Oregon Employment Department.

Tom Fuller: "Today we are releasing the November 2013 employment and unemployment figures for the state of Oregon…"

And those figures showed yet another drop in the unemployment rate, to the lowest in more than five years. It's a similar story in Washington state. Idaho’s jobless rate is holding mostly steady. But the unemployment rate is 100% for the folks huddled over computer terminals at the Salem unemployment office. This is the place where out of work people come to browse job listings and receive training. And they don’t seem to be in the mood to talk to a reporter:

Voice1: "No thanks."

Voice2: "I don't want anything to do with

Voice3: "Can I see some credentials?"

Voice4: "Not at this time, no comment."

The frustration is evident on the faces of people here. Even the ones who are willing to speak with me.

Sophia Mequedes: "Hi, my name is Sophia Mequedes. I was a case manager for homeless and runaway teens in Salem. They lost funding."

And Mequedes lost her job at the non-profit. That was last spring. She’s been living off unemployment benefits since then. And she just learned that will stop at the end of this month. Mequedes says she'll take just about any job right now.

Sophia Mequedes: "I am a single mom of two. So, my income will be zero when my benefits stop."

And she’ll be left with no choice but to rely on temporary assistance for needy families. Mequedes is far from the only out of work Northwesterner who isn't picky about which job they'd take. Cindy Saroya was a teacher for nearly two decades, most recently in the Reynolds School District near Portland.

Cindy Saroya: "I'm applying for jobs where I would be making 40% of what I made when I was teaching. 30%. And still applying for them, still hoping to get something, and nothing happening. It's frightening and it's discouraging."

Saroya says she had always figured she'd be a teacher for the rest of her professional life. When she was laid off nearly 18 months ago...

Cindy Saroya: "It was a complete shock. It was pretty devastating really, emotionally."

Saroya says she even enrolled in bartending school this fall to try to expand her potential job options. She found herself thinking, maybe bartending isn't that different from teaching, anyway.

Cindy Saroya: "You're on your feet a lot, you're talking to people a lot. A lot of my friends were thinking that it would be a really good fit for me. And I thought, why not?"

But the 54-year-old hasn't had any luck getting a gig slinging drinks, either. And her benefits are set to expire at the end of the month, too. Of course, there's always the chance Congress could come back in January and retroactively restore them.

Tom Fuller: "We've seen them do that before."

But Tom Fuller of the Oregon Employment Department says as the nation's economy picks up, there's less of a chance Congress will extend unemployment benefits again...

Tom Fuller: "We're operating as an agency under the assumption that there's not going to be a program, but if Congress does come along and pass one, we'll scramble.”

And get people unemployment payments retroactively. But for now, Employment Department workers are busy contacting people whose benefits are set to expire…delivering the news that their holiday season will come with a big lump of coal this year.

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