Long-term jobless, like Madera man, face loss of unemployment payments

The Fresno BeeDecember 27, 2013 

Steven Swanson of Madera Ranchos lost his job as a beverage salesman about two years ago.

Now the 57-year-old is losing out on emergency long-term unemployment benefits -- just like almost 20,000 other residents of the central and southern San Joaquin Valley whose payments will be cut off today by the expiration of the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program.

A lifelong Republican, Swanson has also lost patience with his political party. He's changed his party registration from Republican to independent after GOP leaders in the House of Representatives this month rebuffed efforts to extend the benefits.

The EUC benefits were put in place in 2008 to help the Great Recession's long-term jobless after they exhausted state unemployment insurance benefits. California's unemployment program pays a maximum of $450 a week for up to six months. For Swanson and others, the federally funded extensions have been a much-needed lifeline as they look for work.

Swanson worked for 33 years in wholesale, mostly in beverage sales, before losing his job in 2011. Since then, he estimates that he's submitted résumés for more than 500 positions, and in the last six months filled out more than 200 job applications -- all to no avail.

"I want a job, I want to work," said Swanson, whose daughter and son-in-law live with him and pay rent to help him keep up the mortgage on the house he owns in the Madera Ranchos area. "The problem is, I'm a 57-year-old white guy trying to find another sales position, and I'm competing against people who are younger than I am."

Swanson moved from the Central Coast about 2 1/2 years ago to represent his company's beverage products to restaurants and other commercial food-service customers in the San Joaquin Valley. He bought his house, making mortgage payments that were about one-third of what he paid for rent on the coast. Six months later, he was laid off as his employer reacted to California's reeling economy. He had worked for the company for 14 years.

"I hadn't had to interview for a job for years, and everything is different now with the Internet and social media," Swanson said. "I found myself trying to reinvent the wheel against a lot of other people who are out of work. And a lot of companies are still trying to do with fewer people."

Swanson's two-year search for another job has been frustrating and humbling. "You send out so many applications, and companies don't even respond," he said. "I got a response last week from a company that I sent a résumé to six months ago. I had to go back to my records to even remember what it was I applied for there."

Emergency measure

The EUC program was an emergency unemployment measure signed into law in 2008 by President George W. Bush, with the national economy mired in recession. Its most recent one-year extension was as part of the American Taxpayer Relief Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in January -- after the previous extension had expired at the end of 2012.

At the depth of the recession, laid-off workers could qualify for up to 99 weeks of benefits, including the initial 26 weeks provided by states. The most recent extension allowed a total of up to 73 weeks, depending on the state. Restoring up to 47 extra weeks of benefits through 2014 would cost $19 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

On Dec. 12, the House of Representatives approved a two-year budget compromise hammered out by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. But Democrats and advocates for the unemployed were disappointed that the bill did not include money to extend the EUC.

That means that for Swanson and others -- about 920 Madera County residents, more than 19,570 in the Valley, almost 214,000 in California and about 1.3 million across the U.S. -- the unemployment payments they receive for the week ending today will be their last one.

That's in addition to almost 90,000 Valley residents and about 1.2 million Californians who, between 2010 and last month, had already run out of extended unemployment benefits.

The problem for Swanson and others is that even as the U.S. economy shows modest signs of recovery, the job market remains tight.

Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that there were 3.9 million unfilled jobs at the end of October. But there were about 10.9 million people unemployed last month -- or almost three workers for every available job in the U.S. Of those, almost 4 million were estimated to have been out of work for more than six months.

In the Valley, the situation is even more strained. There are 151,700 unemployed residents in the region, and the collective unemployment rate is 11.9% -- almost five percentage points higher than the U.S. rate of 7%, and more than 3 1/2 points above the statewide rate of 8.3%.

Growing disillusioned

Swanson is at the end of his third benefit extension, "and I had one more left," he said. "I'm getting nervous because when this extension is over, there's nothing left."

Beyond the limited job market and the abrupt benefits cutoff, Swanson said he's frustrated in his job search as he approaches 60 years old.

"When I fill out applications and they want to know your salary history, there's no doubt I've made good money in the past. ... I think some of these companies think, 'Maybe we can hire someone half his age at half the price.' "

But what incensed Swanson -- to the point of changing his political party registration -- were comments from House Republicans, including Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, whose district includes Mariposa County and the eastern portions of Madera and Fresno counties.

McClintock, who was among 62 Republicans who voted against the Ryan/Miller budget compromise, said he believed extending federal unemployment benefits "is counterproductive and hurts the unemployed" because it "reduces the incentive they have to get into the work force."

For those who are unemployed, McClintock said, "the only antidote for their nightmare is a job." He added that there were "myriad social programs to ensure basic sustenance" for the unemployed.

To Swanson, reading such remarks was the straw that broke the camel's back.

"As a taxpayer, I paid into the system for a lot of years," he said. "For them to just shut it off and say, 'These people need to get weaned off and get a job' -- well, yeah, I need to get a job, and I want to get a job. But for them to suggest that I just go get welfare or go get food stamps -- that's why I'm frustrated with the Republican Party. They just don't get it."

As much as Swanson said he's disillusioned by the politics, he's also grown weary of the job environment in the Valley.

"I'm getting to the point, since I'm not finding anything around here, that I'm looking at other states like North Dakota or Alaska," he said. "Those are two places, they're looking for people to work there."

The unemployment rate in North Dakota was 2.6% in November -- the lowest rate of any U.S. state -- while Alaska's unemployment rate was estimated at 6.5%.

And while he's been focused on jobs in sales, Swanson said he's considering other options for re-training as well. "I'm looking right now at learning to be a long-haul truck driver," he said. "That's an industry that needs warm bodies big time."


Effects in the Valley

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The Associated Press contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, tsheehan@fresnobee.com or @tsheehan on Twitter.

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