Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune
“I am the face of the economic downturn,” says Lanaya Baker. She was laid off from her six-figure job in 2008 and, without an extension of unemployment benefits, may lose her apartment as well. When her washer broke, she reclaimed one from someone’s trash.
Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune
On Thanksgiving, Lanaya Baker carved a turkey breast while her daughter, Megan Carruth, took sweet potatoes out of the oven. The turkey breast came from a food shelf.
Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune
Jobless worry about cutoff of federal benefits
- Article by: DEE DePASS
- Star Tribune
- November 25, 2010 - 10:24 PM
Lanaya Baker used to earn six figures selling $200,000 software factory systems to U.S. automakers. But that was before she was laid off in late 2008.
Her unemployment benefits ended months ago and since then she's lost her house, her savings, her marriage and nearly her dignity. Prospective employers insist she is too overqualified to hire. With no formal safety net, Baker now relies on friends, her job counselor and a Minnetonka food shelf to eat and pay rent. She will soon sell her wedding ring in a last-ditch effort to not have to move into her car.
"I am the face of the economic downturn," said Baker, who has relentlessly written congressional delegates about the need to help others like her.
Nearly 2 million Americans risk Baker's fate. Come Sunday, the federal emergency unemployment extensions Congress passed last summer start to expire. If that happens, some 132,000 Minnesotans will begin to lose the vital safety net that offers up to 51 weeks of federal aid.
While members of Congress debate federal deficits, tax cuts and excessive government spending, many unemployed job-seekers are barely getting by, say job counselors and state officials. In Minnesota employment grew just 1.6 percent during the past year, state officials said.
The fact that Congress failed to help those left in "the cracks ... is enough to make me carry a sign and picket," said Baker.
House members voted down an extension last Friday before leaving on their Thanksgiving break, meaning it is unlikely that an extension will be granted before benefits expire. That irony is not lost on some angry constituents.
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., voted against the unemployment extension after decrying excessive federal spending and the need for a return to "fiscal sanity." Minnesota Republicans John Kline and Erik Paulsen and Democrat Colin Peterson also voted against the measure to extend federal unemployment through February 2011.
After the vote, hundreds of thousands of letters and petitions flew into Congress from horrified job counselors and members of the National Employment Law Project, AFL-CIO, United Auto Workers, MomsRising, the Coalition on Human Needs and other groups that say their clients and members need federal help.
State officials and unemployment counselors said calls from anxious clients increase daily. Many callers aren't sure what to do next.
Unemployment "certainly is a lifeline" for some, said Betsy McMillan, director of the Employment Action Center that helps dislocated workers across the state find new jobs.
"For those that don't have a second income or if both [spouses] were laid off, then their income is cut considerably. And if they have exhausted savings, then they are in a pretty precarious [position] for losing a home or not being able to make car payments and having their car repossessed," McMillan said.
Meg Gravelle, an employment counselor at HIRED's Dislocated Worker Program in Minneapolis, said 40 percent of her clients are in real trouble if an extension doesn't go through. "I have people who are becoming homeless because of this and they are losing their cars. It's devastating, absolutely devastating. ... Congress needs to find more funds to serve this system before we are in a nationwide emergency."
Qamar Farah, a laid-off Park Nicollet medical assistant, feels "lost." Her federal unemployment expires in three weeks.
"I apply everywhere and I can't find a job," said the Shakopee resident who immigrated to the United States 12 years ago. For the past three years she has supported a mother and five siblings by herself. "I always work and supported five people because I know English. I have never been on government help. ... Now I feel like I am giving up. If I lose my unemployment then my house will go into foreclosure."
The lack of a congressional extension will repeat last summer's scenario, when federal benefits were allowed to expire for seven weeks before an extension was granted. That left 2.5 million unemployed Americans without their average $300 a week bank deposit from the government.
In Minnesota, some 20,000 Minnesotans exhausted their federal benefits between May and July 23. A temporary emergency extension signed by President Obama on July 22 prevented 60,000 more from going without a check between July and Nov. 30.
Farah and countless other job-seekers are swarming the state's 46 workforce centers, the Employment Action Center, HIRED and other agencies to learn what they should do. While the U.S. unemployment rate is 9.6 percent, Minnesota's lingers around 7.1 percent.
'Not time to panic'
State figures show that for the week ending Nov. 13, nearly 147,000 Minnesotans collected state and federal unemployment. Of those, 68,953 received their money from the state's "regular" 26-week unemployment program.
But there are 62,887 who have already exhausted state benefits and moved on to the federal emergency program that offers three tiers of unemployment for up to 51 weeks.
Unless Congress extends it, neither state or federal recipients will be allowed to move onto any tier of the federal emergency benefit program. Their benefits will simply run out.
But it's not time to panic, insisted Lee Nelson, chief attorney for Minnesota's Department of Employment and Economic Development.
That's because Minnesota's unemployment program offers something "most states don't," a final 13 weeks of extended benefits for eligible recipients who exhaust their federal emergency unemployment, Nelson said. The jobless who now get 26 weeks of state benefits or the emergency federal aid will not graduate onto a new tier of federal benefits. Instead they'll be transferred onto the final 13-week state program.
The change is largely an accounting trick that will take place behind the scenes, Nelson said. "Contrary to most states, nobody in Minnesota will be immediately cut off."
But Lenore Rockler, a senior employment counselor at the Dislocated Workers Program run by the job counseling agency HIRED, said there are gaps in that program. Several of her 150 clients were recently "shocked" to learn there may be no extension coming.
They now receive federal unemployment as part of a special job-skills retraining program aimed at people laid off when their manufacturing jobs went overseas.
Without the federal extension, many will be forced to stop training, "take up any job," and waste a year's worth of valuable schooling and funding, Rockler said.
One client, a young mother, has two courses left to earn an IT software degree at Hennepin Technical College in Eden Prairie. But her federal benefits just ended. Because Congress failed to intervene, the former factory worker had to get a job immediately and borrow money to pay December's rent.
It's all come as a big "surprise," Rockler said. "We have a lot of clients who were expecting their unemployment to continue during their training. Now with this change, all of a sudden they are out in the cold."
Many are getting desperate and taking lower-wage jobs than they would get if allowed to finish their training, Rockler said, noting that wages have plunged from $20 an hour to $11 or $12. "I don't know how you support a family on $11 an hour."
Her agency is responding by pitching in to cover some client emergencies -- gas money so they can get to an interview, rent before an eviction notice is issued or bus vouchers.
"We just don't have the funds to cover everybody's emergency," said Rockler, who suggested one single mom tap her church for rent money and clothes for her child. "This is all shocking."
Dee DePass • 612-673-7725
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