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Unemployed Without Benefits: A Couple's Struggle

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Unemployed Without Benefits: A Couple's Struggle

Economy

Unemployed Without Benefits: A Couple's Struggle

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

People who are self-employed are falling through a hole in the system as more Americans lose their jobs. Almost two-thirds of all people who are out of work do not qualify for unemployment benefits and that includes the self-employed. NPR's Kathy Lohr has that story.

KATHY LOHR: Most people believe if they're laid off , downsized or simply out of a job, they will get unemployment insurance benefits. While each state has different guidelines on the amount paid and the length of time people can receive benefits, the federal system, created in 1935, simply does not cover the majority of today's workers.

Mr. Howard Rosen (Resident Visiting Fellow, Peterson Institute for International Economics expert): The largest group of people that do not qualify for unemployment insurance are the non-traditional employees.

LOHR: Howard Rosen is a labor market expert with the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He says millions who are not full-time, permanent employees are out of luck.

Mr. ROSEN: There has been a kind of a growing number of people who are either consultants, self-employed, temporary employees, part-time employees - a whole plethora of different kinds of arrangements, these people are not currently eligible for assistance.

LOHR: Among this group, Barbara and Gary Ratner. He just received a PhD in biochemistry from Emory University. Barbara has been a self-employed architectural illustrator since 1990, when she was laid off from a company here in Atlanta. ..TEXT: Ms. BARBARA RATNER: And I actually never had to worry about work - the phone just kept ringing. It was, it was like magic.

Mr. GARY RATNER: Not even during the very recession in which she was laid off did she suffer for lack of work.

LOHR: Ratner had so much work, she didn't apply for unemployment benefits back then. Now, because she's self-employed, she doesn't qualify for them. She says business began slowing down last spring, and by December, Ratner finished her last job.

Ms. RATNER: I'm beginning to identify with the frog in the pan of water where someone turned the heat up, and you know, it took me a while to realize that yes, this isn't like it has been before, and I don't know where it's going.

LOHR: We talked at the couple's cozy dining table in their Depression-era home where they have lived for more than 20 years. Barbara, who usually makes between $80,000 and a $100,000 a year, then showed me her office and her handmade drawings.

Ms. RATNER: These are the latest set of watercolors. I change my palette a lot. I'm constantly looking for new combinations.

LOHR: Barbara Ratner has created architectural drawings for some big projects, including Atlanta's Olympics, a financial center in Taiwan, retail shops in China, even the L.A. and Portland Zoos. Now that new construction has slowed dramatically, there is no demand for her drawings.

This couple has already pulled nearly $10,000 out of their retirement account. They're cutting back where they can, eliminating a phone line and canceling memberships to civic groups. Gary decided to retire late last year and because they're in their 60s and do not have a group health plan, the couple pays $1,500 a month for health insurance.

Ms. RATNER: I've actually been considering getting rid of the medical insurance. It's huge. And so, if we wanted to gamble, we could just drop the health insurance.

LOHR: The couple is using their retirement savings now and that worries them. As we talk about the future, the Ratner's giant red doberman, Rudy, gets restless, so Barbara feeds him.

Ms. RATNER: I guess you see who runs the house here.

LOHR: The couple is looking for creative ways to get by, and Barbara says she is seriously considering raising chickens in her backyard like her parents did way back when.

Ms. RATNER: They lived through the Depression, and my father always felt like his family basically did better than other families because they had a chicken coup, and they had a big garden and they, you know, they lasted it out.

LOHR: Gary Ratner is hoping to get a biochemistry fellowship. Barbara continues to look for work. Both hope that President-elect Barack Obama's economic plan will create new jobs and ultimately, turn the economy around. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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