Long-Term Unemployed Feel the Pressure of Benefit Cuts
Richard Nelson of Newbury, N.H., waits for the elevator at an office building in Lebanon, N.H., while checking in with businesses in the building about employment on Jan. 24, 2014. Nelson has been unemployed for over a year. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »
While checking in with businesses in the building about employment, Richard Nelson of Newbury, N.H. speaks with Mike Simpson of Mascoma Corporation in Lebanon, N.H., on Jan. 24, 2014. Nelson has been unemployed for over a year. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck-Valley News Purchase photo reprints »
Richard Nelson of Newbury, N.H., walks to his car at an office building's garage in Lebanon, N.H., on Jan. 24, 2014, after checking in with businesses in the building about employment. Nelson has been unemployed for over a year. . Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »
The news hit Richard Nelson one year almost to the day after his employer of nearly eight years laid him off.
And it didn’t cushion the blow that this time, the 52-year-old salesman saw it coming: On Dec. 28, 2013, the federal program that extends benefits for the long-term unemployed expired, with no indication that Congress would reach an agreement anytime soon to restore those benefits, which in Nelson’s case totaled $427 a week before tax withholding, the New Hampshire maximum.
“When you’re working, you pay into unemployment,” Nelson, who lives in Newbury, N.H., said last week. “When you’re unemployed, you need to show with your claim every week that you’re actively looking for work, before you qualify for your benefit. So it hurts even more to see those benefits cut off.”
He’s far from alone in feeling the pain.
Nearly 1,300 New Hampshire residents and 650 Vermonters joined 1.3 million Americans in seeing their extended benefits stop at the end of 2013. And state employment agencies are still trying to count the number of unemployed who are joining or soon will join their ranks once they reach their 26th week of state unemployment relief.
“Five-hundred fifty-four people received their last payment in December,” said Annette Nielsen, an economist with the Economic and Labor Market Information bureau of New Hampshire Employment Security. “There are definitely more people that were qualified (for extended benefits).”
Rick Steventon, deputy director of the Vermont Department of Labor’s Division of Unemployment and Wages, estimated that since the cutoff in extended benefits, at least 50 unemployed Vermonters a week have reached the end of their 26 weeks of state benefits.
“It could be as many as 800 people by now,” Steventon said. “That’s why we’re asking people to go to our resource centers, so we can help them with employment. There’s no guarantee on when (Congress) will do something.
Indeed, since returning from its holiday recess, the Senate has been slogging through a debate over whether and how to cut other parts of the federal budget to offset the cost of the extended benefits, while a bill extending benefits is stalled in the House of Representatives.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said last week that while yet another compromise bill could reach the Senate floor this week, the Senate’s majority of Democrats and independents “probably need six or seven (Republicans)” to join them for the 60 votes required to forestall a filibuster.
“When President (George W.) Bush was in office, we extended (benefits) five times,” Sanders said. “Five times. Now that (Barack) Obama is president, the Republicans are against it unless it is ‘paid for.’ They want to gut the Affordable Care Act, child-care tax credits, Social Security disability.”
Among the Republicans who have been working on compromise packages is U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. After one such deal collapsed on Jan. 14, Ayotte said at a news conference, “We came up with a good-faith proposal to extend long-term unemployment insurance for three months and reverse unfair military retiree cuts with a legitimate pay-for.”
In the House, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., is encouraging Republicans with long-term unemployed constituents to lean on Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to bring up for a full vote a bill extending benefits for three months.
“If he puts it on the floor, it will pass,” Welch said. “I’m hoping that the reality that this is hurting people in red states and blue states, that the problem knows no party boundaries, will bring people around.”
While he is not yet eligible for extended benefits — in fact, he hadn’t heard that they were available — Keith Bush, of Bethel, has not been waiting for movement in Washington during his roller-coaster ride through the unemployment bureaucracy and the job market that began with his layoff from a factory in Bethel in July.
“It was my first time on unemployment,” said Bush, 34, a pianist by training. “I like to work. I felt kind of humiliated.”
After two months of collecting about $200 a week of regular state unemployment, Bush said, he tried out for a medical coding job at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center — along with a parade of other job-seekers.
“There were so many people down there,” Bush recalled. “I applied, and took the test, but that was it. With all the other people looking for work, you feel like you’re in shark-infested waters.”
Bush said he then took another manufacturing job that didn’t pan out, then started searching the computer listings at the Vermont Department of Labor’s resource center in White River Junction. There, this past Friday, he found a promising lead: teaching an online piano course.
“I’m trying to be positive, no matter what,” Bush concluded. “I like to work. I don’t like to sit around. I’m hoping to find my niche through this.”
Nelson thought he’d found his niche, after more than 15 years in sales — first for an ambulance service and then a pharmaceutical firm in Greater Boston, for a linen rental service in Portland, Maine, and most recently for a Lebanon-based software company. Then, at the end of 2012, after his third straight year of exceeding his annual sales target, “I got a knock on my door from the vice president of sales in North America a couple of days after Christmas. He asked me to go for a walk with him.”
Down a long corridor from his office, Nelson recalled, the vice president left him with the firm’s lone human resources official. After telling Nelson that his job was over, the HR person followed him back to his office.
“They watch your every move while you pick up your belongings,” Nelson said. “Then you’re driving home in a state of shock and disbelief. You’re asking, ‘What just happened here?’ One minute you’re employed, the next minute your life is turned inside-out and upside-down.”
While applying and then qualifying for unemployment from the state of New Hampshire — and while his wife, Nanette Thelemaque, continued in her job at Dartmouth College — Nelson mounted his campaign to sell himself to prospective employers.
After assembling a loose-leaf binder full of letters of recommendation from former colleagues, bosses and clients, he made a steady stream of what salespeople describe as “cold calls” to firms in and well beyond the Upper Valley, as well as checking on posted openings.
“When I first put this together, I thought, ‘Because of this big book, I’m a cinch to be hired,’ ” Nelson said. “It hasn’t worked out that way. I naively thought that could be my ticket to the next company.
“It’s not that simple.”
About a dozen interviews and many unanswered applications later, Nelson counts his blessings, including his wife’s continued employment, and relies on the “armor” he developed in a long career of sales to not take the rejections personally. “I’ve got to find some way out of it,” Nelson said. “The phone is usually only going to ring depending on the effort I put in to make outgoing calls to those companies. I’m not asking myself, ‘Will I be employed again?’ But after a year of being unemployed … well, it’s not an economy that’s chock full of jobs.”
Pointing to estimates that 37 percent of jobless Americans have been out of work, and looking for it, for longer than six months, Sanders said if Congress doesn’t revive extended benefits soon, the economy could resume shrinking.
“These folks have no money to spend,” Sanders said. “We’re losing jobs as a result. We’re going to lose about 200,000 jobs (nationwide).”
At New Hampshire Employment Security, Nielsen estimated that of unemployed people who claim unemployment assistance, roughly 16 percent receive the extended benefit. Nationally, the figure is closer to one in three. She added that, in September, the most recent month measured, New Hampshire recipients of extended benefits pumped about $1.3 million into the state’s economy.
In its most recent measure, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics found unemployment rates of 4.4 percent in Vermont — tied for fifth lowest in the country — and 5.1 percent in New Hampshire — tied for 10th lowest. Those figures do not include people who have given up looking for work.
Dartmouth College economics professor Patricia Anderson described the high percentage of long-term unemployed as “kind of unprecedented, as far as how long the benefits have been extended.”
“In better times, you see a lot of people go back to work after the unemployment runs out,” Anderson said. “Broadly speaking, there weren’t a lot of safety nets out there this time.”
In the absence of such nets, Nelson is counting on hiring managers and company leaders to resist the temptation to assume that an applicant who’s been hunting for more than a year shouldn’t be considered.
“If I’m a qualified candidate and measure up equally with someone who’s currently employed, I hope they’ll think, ‘Help the person who doesn’t have a job,’ ” Nelson said.
“If they’re given the opportunity, they’re more likely to be resourceful, remember what their last year or whatever was like, and they’re going to reward you with their best performance. If it’s apples and apples, I hope they would take a long, hard look at the unemployed person, and have some compassion.”
David Corriveau can be reached at email@example.com and at 603-727-3304.