GARNER — William Van O’Neal, a 57-year-old truck driver from Garner, was laid off from his job last January. He received an unemployment check for six months, but when “the money ran out,” he had to scramble to take care of his family.
Jim Chambers of Holly Springs was hoping he would have a job this Christmas. Chambers, a former general manager for a local medical equipment company, was laid off in October 2011. His unemployment benefits ran out in fall 2012. He’s now making some income as a consultant and draining his savings and 401(k) to survive.
“We are living off our future,” said the 60-year-old Chambers.
Last month, North Carolina’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 7.4 percent, still above the national rate of 7 percent. But O’Neal and Chambers represent a group of the unemployed who don’t seem to be making many gains, the long-term unemployed, men and women who have been unemployed for more than 27 weeks.
In North Carolina, unemployment benefits end between 12 and 20 weeks because of legislation that went into effect on July 1. The law also reduced the amount of weekly payments, with the maximum dropping from $535 to $350 per week. Those changes also meant that unemployed North Carolinians could no longer get extended federal benefits.
Roger Cameron, a Wake Tech instructor who teaches Human Resources Development classes for the unemployed and underemployed, worries that the basic needs of the unemployed are not being met.
“I see people suffering,” he said. “I see people who are dropping weight. I talked to someone who is not eating regularly. They need tangible help.”
Many have turned to their churches and food pantries for help, straining already stretched resources. Rick Miller-Haraway, regional director for Catholic Charities for Wake County, which operates Catholic Parish Outreach Food Pantry, said he has seen an increase in the number of first-timers.
“We are seeing people whose unemployment benefits have run out, people who used to make $50,000 and are now making $30,000, and a higher number of college graduates who are not able to make ends meet,” he says. “They tell us, they never thought they would need food.”
A downward spiral
Joe Paradise, a financial counselor for Triangle Family Services, also is seeing a downward spiral within the ranks of the unemployed.
Many of his clients have lived from paycheck to paycheck without savings so when they lose their job, they fall behind on their mortgage or rent and quickly sink into poverty.
Others have drawn down their emergency savings or retirement funds and are now scrambling to pay their bills.
“They are living on the edge,” he said. “They are out of options by the time they come to me.”
Paradise teaches a six-week course, trying to help consumers, especially those out of work, make better choices before they get desperate.
O’Neal, who is raising three children – ages 7, 11 and 17 – had worked for the same company for 17 years when he lost his job. He looked for other work while on unemployment without luck.
With money running out and his home in jeopardy of being foreclosed on, he turned to Triangle Family Services for financial counseling.
With their help, O’Neal was able to get help with his mortgage and save his three-bedroom, two-bathroom home. He also learned how to pare expenses (the cable was among things to go) and ask for help. He now receives food stamps, and his children are on Medicaid.
Now to make ends meet, he relies on landscaping jobs around the Triangle and would like to be able to start his own landscaping business, but his credit – hurt by his unemployment – isn’t good enough to let him buy the needed equipment.
Worried about morale
Cameron, of Wake Tech, is a former Lenovo program manager who was laid off in March 2009. He has been attuned to the Triangle’s unemployment scene ever since and is seeing a shift. He said he has noticed that fewer people are attending the Colonial JobSeekers support group in Cary. “The crowds are getting thinner, but I don’t think that’s because people are landing jobs,” he says. “I think they are giving up.”
He also fears that changes at the Division of Employment Security may be keeping claimants from receiving some of the personal guidance they need to get back to work.
The Division of Workforce Solutions, the Commerce division charged with helping job seekers find work, laid off 350 temporary staffers earlier this year, and claimants are not assigned a specific counselor. Instead, job searchers are treated with a one-size-fits-all approach.
Danny Giddens, executive director of operations for the Division of Workforce Solutions, said his staff participated in rigorous training to learn how to better work with customers and provide more career counseling services.
“We don’t have the luxury for having specialists for one type of population or another,” Giddens acknowledged, “but the staff tries to work with all customers based upon where they are in their job search.”
Giddens said that he is also concerned about the state’s long-term unemployed. “We make attempts to elevate their morale,” he said. “Is their resume as good as it could be? Have they been practicing interviewing?”
Possible changes ahead
There are glimmers of hope.
Hiring also has picked up, though not enough to offset job losses. Wells Fargo economist Mark Vitner last week said civilian employment in the state rose by 39,400 over the past three months. Though, in comparison, in the first eight months of the year, employment declined by 45,100.
Vitner said the state’s new unemployment law could be a factor. The loss of benefits could cause some people to take a job that they would not have taken before because of its lower pay. But his data also indicate that some job seekers are still dropping out of the workforce altogether, which also reduces the unemployment rate.
Congress is expected take up a bill in January that would extend federal benefits, and Sen. Kay Hagan, a Greensboro Democrat, has added a provision to the bill that would restore North Carolina’s eligibility for the federal unemployment benefits. At this point, the details of who would be affected by it are unclear.
That said, Miller-Haraway, with Catholic Charities, doesn’t see much relief coming in the new year.
“It’s not going to change. We have an economy that has replaced good paying jobs with low paying jobs.”
Lacy can be contacted at RIFworker@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter @RIFworker