Jobless To Feel Sting Of Unemployment As Benefits Expire

Monday, unemployment benefits were scheduled to expire for nearly 200,000 Americans. That's because members of Congress didn't pass an extension of unemployment benefits before they left town for their spring recess. Host Michel Martin speaks with NPR's business reporter, Tamara Keith, about unemployment benefits and what happens when they dry up, along with Jack Warner, a Michigan resident and unemployed computer programmer, who may lose his benefits in just two weeks.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, are you scrambling to meet that dreaded tax day deadline? We've got some tips to make last minute filing a little less painful. That conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, another deadline has come and gone with potentially painful consequences for many unemployed Americans. Yesterday was the day unemployment benefits were scheduled to run out for about 200,000 Americans. That's because members of Congress did not pass an extension of unemployment benefits before they left town for their spring recess.

Here to talk more about this in our Washington, D.C. studio is NPR business reporter Tamara Keith. She's been covering unemployment and the latest political scuffle over extending benefits. We're also joined by Jack Warner, he's a veteran computer programmer in Michigan. He's been out of work for 13 months, and he found out recently that he has just two weeks left of unemployment benefits, and he joins us from Clinton Township, Michigan. Welcome to you both. Thanks for joining us.

TAMARA KEITH: Thank you.

Mr. JACK WARNER (Computer Programmer): Thank you, it's nice to be here.

MARTIN: So, Tamara, can you just tell us exactly what this deadline was and who's affected by it.

KEITH: Okay, so, people who get unemployment insurance, who have unemployment benefits, they start out for the first six months getting state benefits. That is your typical unemployment, non-recession situation. Because of the recession, Congress has created two new programs in the last two years to extend benefits for people up to potentially 99 weeks, which is a very long time.

The problem is that Congress went away without approving additional new funding to continue paying those benefits. So, folks who were supposed to move from state benefits to these added federal benefits this week, they don't have benefits to go to. And folks who were moving from one tier of benefits to another tier of benefits in this sort of complicated system, they also would lose payments.

MARTIN: Now, Jack, I understand that you were laid off from your job as a computer programmer just over a year ago. You've been receiving benefits for most of that time, but you were recently told you had to reapply for an extension and you were denied. Do you know why?

Mr. WARNER: To be perfectly honest with you, I know it has something to do with wages that were earned during the course of the time that I was collecting benefits. But specifically I couldn't really tell you.

MARTIN: Do you know whether it has anything to do with benefits of the funding running out?

Mr. WARNER: No. I believe they wanted me to reapply for another benefit year because my year had come and gone. And apparently you need to have a certain amount of income in order to reapply for another benefit year. And I'm assuming that unemployment benefits don't count towards that income. And even if they do, apparently it's not sufficient to meet the requirements for filing for a new year.

MARTIN: That's pretty complicated. So, Tamara, is this typical? Is it kind of I'm trying to figure out what's it going to be like for people who might be in this group of people who are affected by this. Congress is saying before they left, you know, of course both sides are blaming the other for the lapse in the benefits. Republicans are saying they're happy to extend the benefits as long as they're paid for.

KEITH: Right.

MARTIN: The Democrats are saying this is an emergency, and so Congress needs to go for it. But I'm trying to figure out what's it going to be like for people who are in this group of people. What's going to happen? Are the payments just going to stop?

KEITH: Presumably they just stop. And then when Congress fixes this, they just resume. You know, the folks that are having to explain all of this are in the local unemployment offices. And it's a huge tax on them, I'm told, because there are so many different little programs and so many exceptions and complications and it's very hard to explain this to all of these unemployed people who are all in different time schedules and different it's just very complicated.

MARTIN: How many people overall are receiving unemployment benefits?

KEITH: Well, you know, that's the other thing that I think is important to point out. It's about four-and-a-half million people who are getting unemployment benefits. There are 15 million people who are unemployed. So, you know, we figure, oh, there are unemployed people, I'm sure they're getting benefits. No, most of them are not. People time out. They run out of benefits. People were working part time or temp before they became unemployed and they don't qualify. There are just a huge number of people who don't qualify for benefits, who are scratching and scraping to get by.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about unemployment benefits. Congress left town without passing an extension of unemployment benefits. We're talking about who this will affect and why and what about all the other people who aren't receiving unemployment benefits, what are they going to do.

I'm joined by NPR's business reporter Tamara Keith. Also with us is Jack Warner. He's a Michigan resident and an unemployed computer programmer, who may lose his benefits in the next two weeks.

Jack, could you tell us, what's your job search been like? I understand that you've been in a retraining program for part of this time, anything coming your way?

Mr. WARNER: Well, I still get emails from agencies looking for mainframe programmers, which is what I have done for my entire career. And there's a couple of skills that I don't have that are usually attached to most of the emails that I get. So, it's not something that I can apply for most of the time.

As far as the retraining goes, I'm still looking to stay in the programming area by going back to school at Macomb Community College here in Clinton Township. And I'm hoping to get an associates in applied science degree in IT programming, which would be more geared towards the PCs and client server and that sort of stuff, as opposed to the mainframe side.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask how you're managing during this time? How are you keeping your budget in order and all of that?

Mr. WARNER: It's tough. The money coming in from unemployment certainly helps, but I'd say probably I end up withdrawing $800 to $900 a month from savings to try and keep up with the bills, and that's still not paying all of my obligations.

MARTIN: How much do you get from unemployment?

Mr. WARNER: $638 every two weeks.

MARTIN: Does that cover your rent or mortgage or...

Mr. WARNER: No.

MARTIN: That doesn't even cover your housing.

Mr. WARNER: No.

MARTIN: No. So, everything else: food, transportation, gas, heat, utilities is coming out of savings or...

Mr. WARNER: Yes.

MARTIN: Yeah. Wow. How are your spirits?

Mr. WARNER: Kind of down. It's rough trying to juggle things, not being able to apply for the positions that I do receive emails for. You know, simply because I don't have some of the skills that they're looking for. The fact that I'm an older person at this point now also concerns me, granted, you know, employers are not supposed to hold that against you, but I'm certain that that does happen.

And even if I do finish my course of study at Macomb and get a degree in two years, I'm still going back out into the market with a degree and school experience. I don't actually have any physical on-the-job experience in the new programming area that I'm going for.

MARTIN: Sure. The unemployment report that was released late last week showed that there seems to be some new jobs being created and some economists are saying that the nation has turned a corner and a lot of economists are urging the president to say that, you know, to sort of what's the word I'm looking for?

KEITH: Cheerleader and chief.

MARTIN: Cheerleader and chief talk it up, you know. And I'm just wondering if you're feeling any of that optimism, Jack.

Mr. WARNER: Well, as far as finding work in Michigan, probably not. There's been very few emails coming through to me for positions here within the state. Most of the emails that I receive from agencies are for positions outside of the state. And if it comes down to the fact that I can find something somewhere else, then I guess my wife will stay here in Michigan in the house and I'll have to try and, you know, go somewhere else and hold a job and get a room to rent or something and stay there and get some money coming in.

MARTIN: Well, Tamara, what about a couple of things come to mind, number one is, tell us what the latest unemployment report said and does there seem to be any encouragement and are there specific areas of the economy where jobs are being created?

KEITH: Yes. So, there were 162,000 more jobs in March, more people employed in March. And that is the strongest employment report we've had in three years. So, this is good news, but why doesn't it feel good? Well, in part, it's because the unemployment rate stays at 9.7 percent, which is incredibly high. Part of the reason that it stayed at 9.7 percent and didn't go down is that people who had been discouraged actually reentered the workforce and thought, hey, I'll try again because it seems like things are getting a little better. And, in fact, there are more jobs out there. There are just so many people looking for work.

Another thing in this report, the number of people who have been long-term unemployed, out of work for more than six months, people like Jack, increased by another 400,000; 6.5 million people, 44 percent of those who are unemployed have been unemployed for six months or more. The longer you're unemployed, the harder it is to get back in. Job skills pass you by. Things change. It just gets harder to get back in and then you have to explain that resume gap.

MARTIN: Well, these days I'm sure a lot of people have the same story, so maybe it's a little less hard to explain now than it might be in other times. Tamara, what's the next marker we should be looking for in this story? Is Congress likely to act on unemployment when they return from their recess next week?

KEITH: Certainly that will be a big item on the agenda when they return. And they're actually, what they're debating is a yearlong extension, so that we don't have to have this conversation every month. And in theory, the politics will sort themselves out. It's not very politically popular to, in the middle of a grinding recession, tell unemployed people, well, you know, we've got to figure something out here.

MARTIN: All right. Tamara Keith is a business reporter for NPR. She joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Jack Warner is a computer programmer in Clinton Township, Michigan. He is looking for work, and he joined us by phone from his home there. Jack Warner, we wish you every good wish for you and your family. We are keeping a thought for you.

Mr. WARNER: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Tamara, thank you.

KEITH: Yeah, thank you.

MARTIN: Remember at TELL ME MORE, the conversation never ends and now we'd like to hear from you. If you've been collecting unemployment benefits, are you worried about what will happen without another extension? How are you coping financially and spiritually? And do you have any advice to share with others facing some of the same hurdles?

To tell us more and to read what other listeners are saying, check out our blog, just go to npr.org and select TELL ME MORE from the program page. You could also call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That number again is 202-842-3522.

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