Jobless Benefits Exhausted, Still No Work

The unemployment benefits for more than a million jobless Americans are about to run out. That is unless Congress votes to authorize yet another extension — something that is being debated on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, a single mother in Washington state already has exhausted her benefits. Austin Jenkins of the Northwest News Network has her story.

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Now Congress is considering another extension of unemployment benefits, which have already run out for the Washington state worker we're going to meet next. She spoke with Austin Jenkins of the Northwest News Network.

AUSTIN JENKINS: For Kasey Lalonde(ph), a trip back to the busted mill town of Cosmopolis, near the Washington state coast, is a trip down memory lane.

KASEY LALONDE: We are looking at the place where I used to work, the Cosmopolis Pulp Mill, kind of a ghost town now. I think�

JENKINS: Lalonde spent 12 years here, operating heavy equipment and working in the scale shack. A union worker, she could pull down 80 grand a year with overtime.

Ms. LELONDE: I miss the money I made there, but I don't really miss the work.

JENKINS: Lalonde lost her job here when the mill shut down. She took the opportunity to go back to school. A federal retraining program covered her unemployment benefits while she was enrolled. Her state jobless benefits kicked back in after she graduated this June. She earned her bachelor's degree in social services, but she has been struggling to find a job in her new field. Back in her apartment in nearby Aberdeen, Washington, Lelonde reads from the speech she gave at graduation.

Ms. LALONDE: Remember this day and revel in the fact that we're all in a level playing field, only separated by time and circumstances and not ability, hope or promise. This is a totally different feeling reading it now. Kind of feels just like words. I really meant that when I was saying it, though. I was so full of hope, and I felt successful. Today, I don't feel successful.

JENKINS: That's because Lalonde assumed by now, she'd be back in the workforce. Instead, her unemployment benefits have run out. A single mom, she's cashed her last check, and her bank account is almost empty.

Ms. LALONDE: Yeah, I'm probably about a month away from homeless. I've been looking for jobs that I never thought I would do in my life - after obtaining my degree. So, I'm scared to death.

JENKINS: Lalonde says the worst part is feeling like she's let down her 11-year-old daughter.

Ms. LALONDE: There's days when I don't get out of bed. And that doesn't mean I'm lazy. You know, sometimes it just becomes too much.

(Soundbite of sighing)

JENKINS: According to the National Employment Law Project, an estimated 1.3 million jobless workers will exhaust their unemployment benefits by the end of this year. That means they will have used up the standard 26 weeks of benefits plus several extensions.

In many cases, a laid-off worker these days can draw unemployment for up to a year and a half. But in this economy, Democratic congressman Jim McDermott of Washington state says that's still not long enough.

Representative JIM MCDERMOTT (Washington, Democrat): This unemployment, this year, is a lot like the unemployment in the 1930s.

JENKINS: McDermott is sponsoring legislation to extend jobless benefits for another 13 weeks. His bill would apply to the 27 states with an average unemployment rate of 8.5 percent or higher. It's passed the House and is now in the Senate.

Rep. MCDERMOTT: Right now, you have six people out looking for every job that's out there. And so it is a very, very hard job market to go into.

JENKINS: But not everyone supports yet another extension of unemployment benefits. More than 80 House members voted against McDermott's bill. Chris Edwards is an economist at the Cato Institute. He argues extending benefits can actually prolong unemployment.

Mr. CHRIS EDWARDS (Economist, Cato Institute): It seems to me, by increasing the unemployment benefits, you're reducing people's incentive to maybe take a lower-pay job, or maybe to take the tough decision to move.

JENKINS: Back in Aberdeen, Washington, that's exactly what Casey Lalonde is doing. She's got a line on a job in the oil fields of Alaska. She'd have to leave her daughter with her dad for three weeks at a time, but now that her unemployment benefits have run out, she says she has no choice.

For NPR News, I'm Austin Jenkins in Olympia, Washington.

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