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Prospects remain grim for the long-term unemployed

Photo: Flickr/b4b2

Updated: Late Wednesday, the Senate failed to pass a bill that would have extended unemployment benefits for millions of Americans who are out of work. The issue will not be taken up again before the July 4th recess.

John Conley considers himself too young to retire, but too old to be hired.

Conley is 54 and once worked in the insurance industry making more than $100,000 a year. When he was laid off from his job in 2007, he thought that a year of severance would be more than enough to make it through to his next job, but he’s been unable to find work ever since. He says he has even tried to find a managerial job in a big chain store but he’s told he is overqualified and he believes he has three strikes against him: his age, his bad credit and the fact that there are now five job seekers for every one job.

“I’ve been down the’s of the Internet and nothing has really come through,” Conley says. “It doesn’t mean it won’t happen, so I continue to call and look and see what may be available.”

Conley is one of millions of Americans who have exhausted their unemployment benefits. “I am out and done and I accept that,” Conley told me. He lost his benefits in February 2010 and he says he has accepted that Congress probably will not create an extra tier of benefits for people like himself – the so-called “99ers” — those who have received the maximum 99 weeks of unemployment benefits.

But Conley says he feels for those who are about to lose benefits this month. “What is hard to believe for me is the games Congress is playing with millions of people;s lives with the unemployment insurance extension bill. It’s so unfair to millions who have just gotten thrown in the system to have it shut down on them.”

The typical number of weeks that states provide for unemployment benefits is 26 weeks. Since July 2008, Congress has implemented federal emergency extensions to help people during this particularly tough recession. But those extensions ran out in May. And last week, the Senate failed to pass a bill that would have extended unemployment benefits yet again for millions of Americans who are out of work. According to the Hill, there is an effort to push a stand-alone extension of jobless benefits before the July 4 recess.

“If nothing passes, it will be absolutely devastating for those who have been unemployed for more than a year; it affects whether people can pay their rent and buy groceries, plain and simple,” says Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director of the National Law Employment Project. He believes that those benefits have helped local economies, as well.  “It will have a devastating effect on those economies hardest hit by unemployment. So if they pull the plug on unemployment benefits, then they are also pulling the plug on recovery.”

There is very real concern about long-term unemployment becoming a crisis that has reached every corner of American society. As Paul Krugman recently noted, current levels of unemployment in the U.S. “remain at levels that would have been considered catastrophic not long ago, and show no sign of coming down rapidly.”

Nearly half of the 9.7 percent of unemployed Americans, about 6.8 million people, have been without work for six months or longer, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s the highest rate since World War II. And according to this analysis by the Pew Economic Policy Group, nearly a quarter of the nation’s 15 million unemployed workers have been jobless for a year or more. That percentage translates into 3.4 million people, roughly equivalent to the population of Connecticut.

And the future does not look bright: the National Employment Law Project projects that 1.63 million Americans will lose their benefits by the end of this week if the federal extensions are not renewed.

Meanwhile, it is unclear what will happen for “99ers” like Conley, who lives in Charlotte, N.C. For now, he gets by on his girlfriend’s modest nonprofit salary, which is barely more than minimum wage. And he says he spends his days calling friends for job leads and scouring employment websites. He doesn’t have enough money to relocate to a more affordable city, so he keeps hoping that the next day may bring good news on the job front.

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