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Tevlin: Fiscal cliff has unemployed living on edge

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN
  • Star Tribune
  • November 13, 2012 - 8:36 PM

For a lot of people, the "fiscal cliff" is economic mumbo jumbo with a nebulous personal impact. But it will become very real and tangible Dec. 29 for as many as 10,000 Minnesotans and 2 million Americans who are currently getting extended unemployment compensation benefits.

That means heading into the holidays with a very uncertain future for those who have so far not been lucky enough to have benefitted from a sluggish recovery.

People such as Rita Oaks, who lost her job as an account manager for a national health and fitness company located outside Minnesota back in April.

Her regular unemployment compensation ran out a couple of weeks ago. As the economy improved and the unemployment rate fell below 6 percent in Minnesota, the availability of compensation shrank from 20 weeks to 14. But because Congress failed to pass another extension last session, Oaks will only be able to collect until Dec. 29, or about eight weeks.

"It's such a devastating thing to think about," said Oaks, who is single and has no dependent children. "I feel relatively lucky because I had a good income and I've saved. I'm a lot better off than some. But even if you've saved, it isn't enough. The unemployment is helping me get by."

Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator for the National Employment Law Project (NELP) said that on Dec. 29 "two million people will fall off the cliff."

By the end of the first quarter of 2013, another 900,000 people who would have been eligible will also be denied. Conti said the impact on the economy would be immediate.

"This is not just any old money," said Conti. "Studies show that people on UI immediately spend the money on necessities. It would be like pulling $60 billion out of the economy."

On Tuesday, NELP launched a campaign with more than 35 organizations to re-establish extended benefits until the economy recovers more fully.

Monte Hanson, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, said there are approximately 15,000 Minnesotans on extended benefits. DEED estimates there will be about 9,000 to 10,000 at the end of December.

Oaks hopes she won't be one of them. Right now, however, looking for work has become her full-time job.

"I got turned down twice more today," Oaks said.

It has been a sobering time for Oaks, who has had a long, successful career that includes jobs as national and regional sales manager and who has helped orchestrate corporate startups and turnarounds.

Unemployment is "no free ride." She's been required to take retraining classes, apply for extended benefits every week and report every job she's applied for. Counselors are telling people not to count on Congress changing its mind, she said.

Oaks has specialized in selling outdoor and fitness goods, but so far that experience has not helped. "I got rejected to sell coffee cups and calendars," she said with a sigh.

For each opening, Oaks estimates she has between 100 and 200 competitors. "If they are looking for someone with pink hair, they'll be able to find someone with pink hair."

"What I'd like is a little more time to get through this," said Oaks. "My dream job would be sales. I'm a sales person, I like to talk to people. But I'd settle for a job where I can earn a living, and work for a company that values experience and a good work ethic."

"What is alarming, is that most of the public doesn't know anything about this pending situation, nor to my knowledge have any politicians addressed the issue in their campaigns," said Oaks. "Certainly, there will be an economic impact when millions of Americans lose what little help they are getting in this tough economy."

jtevlin@startribune.com 612-673-1702

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